Embracing The New World Of Digital Procurement Requires A New Mindset

Tiffany Rowe

There is little argument anymore that the future of procurement is digital. New technologies, ranging from the Internet of Things to 3D printing to artificial intelligence, are changing the way companies of all sizes approach procurement and therefore changing the role of chief procurement officers (CPOs) and how they work.

While CPOs have accepted the inevitability of digital procurement, in many cases they have not yet determined exactly what it will look like for them, or what they need to do in order to successfully transition into this new world. The technology itself is still in development and advancing every day, but to take advantage of it, CPOs and other procurement professionals need to develop a new mindset and approach to their work.

Shifting from savings to value

For decades, the chief responsibility of procurement teams has been to purchase necessary goods and services for the company, with a priority on getting the best possible price for them. Because of procurement’s involvement in every aspect of a business, though, their role has expanded into one that’s integral to containing and reducing costs and maintaining a healthy bottom line.

In that vein, procurement has become more focused on value than on savings. Procurement teams must leverage the company’s purchasing power into not only securing the best price for goods and services, but also securing those goods and services within the terms and timeframe required by the company. This often means finding efficiencies and ways to take advantage of technology to streamline – and potentially automate – cumbersome paper-based transactions and ordering processes.

One way that many companies are taking a more strategic approach to procurement and improving value is by making procurement a more visible part of the company and developing more cross-functional teams to ensure a broader understanding of the business as a whole. This has meant bringing in staff from other departments to work in procurement for a stint to better understand those processes. It’s also meant adding procurement personnel to different teams and projects to both provide a purchasing perspective and learn more about other areas of the business. With these arrangements, purchasing becomes a more strategic process in which procurement decisions are made with an eye toward the value they can bring to the organization.

A strategic function

Shifting procurement toward a focus on value requires thinking strategically, something that hasn’t always been a priority for CPOs. Companies are now looking for procurement teams to have a better overall understanding of business fundamentals – even going so far as to encourage employees to enroll in online MBA programs to effectively learn about business strategy development and implementation. One area in particular that’s seeing a great deal of change is technology strategy, thus requiring a new approach.

In short, CPOs must turn their focus toward developing a technology strategy to deliver procurement services. The strategy must not only include a plan for developing and implementing a data architecture for procurement services, but also be focused on measuring and analyzing performance in this area. This usually means working closely with IT to develop a long-term strategy and a roadmap and a business case for investing in procurement technology, including specific goals, KPIs, and conclusions about how the technology can help achieve not only the overall strategic objectives for procurement, but for the organization.

Accepting artificial intelligence

Finally, moving into the world of digital procurement also requires an acceptance of the role of machine learning and artificial intelligence in procurement processes and learning to embrace to potential of these tools. Some have decried the rise of AI as a worst-case scenario, claiming that “robots” will eventually take over procurement and all purchasing will be automated.

While AI and technology do have potential to streamline certain processes, the likelihood of machines entirely replacing humans in procurement is highly unlikely. AI is a tool, one that can handle some of the most rote processes in procurement and provide data and insights that allow you to create more value and achieve the ultimate goal of protecting the bottom line. AI frees humans from processes that take away from their ability to innovate and solve problems, and therefore CPOs and their teams are better served to embrace the technology that’s already here and put it to use.

The rapid expansion of technology is changing virtually everything about the way we do business. By changing how you see technology and its role in your work, you can more fully embrace the technology and become an even more important part of your organization.

For more on digital transformation in procurement, see Integration: The Key To Digitizing Procurement Processes.

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Tiffany Rowe

About Tiffany Rowe

Tiffany Rowe is a marketing administrator who assists in contributing resourceful content. Tiffany prides herself in her ability to provide high-quality content that readers will find valuable.

How Big Data Can Tell You Which Book To Read Next

JP George

If you enjoy reading, but still haven’t foundyour next book to cozy up with, your smartphone might be able to suggest one. Artificial intelligence (AI) is now able to rank literature to predict the next bestseller – a kind of recommendation system, not based on metadata, but on the patterns and themes found in books.

Publishers around the globe are mining all kinds of data, including what’s in the books themselves, in search of the magic formula for evaluating a book’s market potential. With more informed marketing, publishers hope to better target their customers.

Recommending the popular novel

So, how does AI determine what we want to read? It turns out that certain emotional patterns keep us engaged and interested while reading a novel. Kurt Vonnegut first described the curves of emotional plotlines in 1995. Now, with the help of AI sentiment and emotion analysis, such plotlines can be extracted quantitatively. By combining these plotline curves, researchers from the Stanford Literary Lab claim to be able to detect the next blockbuster novel.

Machines think from data

Under the hood of such an AI sits Big Data and machine learning (ML). The concept of Big Data doesn’t just mean lots of data, but also that the data comes from many different data sources and types (e.g., audio, video, images, text, etc.) that are often unstructured (unlike traditional databases with well-defined fields). ML involves statistical algorithms that utilize sets of multi-type, unstructured data to predict class membership. This is possible by either knowing ahead of time which classes exist and training the ML algorithm by example (supervised learning) or letting the algorithm discover the underlying patterns (unsupervised learning).

ML methods include embedded vector space techniques (principal component analysis, K-nearest neighbor, and support vector machine), decision-tree based techniques (classification and regression tree, random forest), gradient and Bayesian-based methods, artificial neural networks (ANN), and others. Many tutorials on machine learning methods can be found here.

ANNs were among the first algorithms to be applied to solve problems in AI, beginning as long ago as the 1940s. For many reasons, their use has waxed and waned over the years, yet interest has recently resurged along with the unprecedented advance of deep learning. This growth in deep learning has lead to what the New York Times calls the great awakening, given Google’s ability to translate text into more than 100 languages.

How AI uncovers sentiment and emotions from text

Imagine automatically extracting the sentiment or emotional impact of a literary work. For a computer to understand a text, what is called natural language processing (NLP), AI algorithms first find a mathematical representation that a machine can understand and that contains maximal information about the text. A simple representation called “bag-of-words” (as the name implies) is a collection of words that appear together, but with no other particular nexus, from which the frequency of word groups could be ascertained. This may provide enough information for classifying themes, but would fail miserably at understanding sentences if word order is important.

Two representations that can quantify information associated with sentence word order are Word2Vec and GloVe. More about NLP representations can be learned from this tutorial, while a tutorial from TensorFlow on Word2vec is found here.

Once sentences are converted to a meaningful representation, a language model is needed that discerns positive emotions from negative emotions. One method would be to use a supervised learning procedure with deep neural networks, as has been done to understand movie reviews. Another way is to allow the deep neural network to discover the emotional patterns by itself. This is the true power behind deep learning: its ability to teach itself, and with more Big Data, to learn more.

Through this process, the ML can understand at text’s major themes (from the word groupings) and emotion. These factors are the fundamental ingredients for an AI application that will recommend a novel.

From creating Animal Farm summaries to discovering who will be the next Danielle Steel, AI is revolutionizing what and how we will read in the future.

For more on using ML to upend the competition, see Why Machine Learning and Why Now?

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JP George

About JP George

JP George grew up in a small town in Washington. After receiving a Master's degree in Public Relations, JP has worked in a variety of positions, from agencies to corporations all across the globe. Experience has made JP an expert in topics relating to leadership, talent management, and organizational business.

Could Governments Run By Artificial Intelligence Be A Good Thing?

Glen Sawyer

Put Skynet from The Terminator movies to the back of your mind for a minute, and stay with me on this one.

Certain political leaders are reminding us of their fragile humanity with increasing frequency these days. Prone to wild acts of emotion and unable to resist the urge to push their personal agenda at the expense of the greater good, it’s enough to make the concept of an AI-controlled government sound utopian by comparison.

I’m not quite naïve enough to think we’re already at a point where our human leaders could be replaced by an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-doing machine, but artificial intelligence and machine learning are becoming ever more tantalizing in their potential to simplify, accelerate, and improve many aspects of society and our lives.

Keeping reality in check

Governments are beginning to realize this. We’re already seeing small crumbs of evidence that they understand how AI can make public services more efficient and citizen-friendly. But these are very early days in discussing and figuring out how such technology could help us enforce laws, organize labor and welfare, and so on, in ways most people would be comfortable with.

And if the Facebook AI story is anything to go by, we’re still pretty spooked by the idea of an intelligence that can “think,” communicate, and potentially make decisions using methods we might not always understand, so a future in which we’re willingly ruled by a digital overlord remains very distant.

What’s more likely – dare I say, inevitable – is that governments will find ways to take advantage of AI in smaller increments, and this will eventually compound to form a political system in which machines are doing most of the “thinking” work.

Keeping humanity in check

Unless you believe the singularity is possible, that “thinking” will remain under the control of a far more streamlined government made up of regular, everyday humans. Our greatest hope is that the AI-run aspects of governance are powerful and transparent enough that those humans can’t get away with the deceit, selfishness, and emotion-based political decisions that plague us today.

That said, it would likely be a very different group of people to today running an AI government. If governments do come to rely heavily on technology, it could be a few technologists at the top of the tree – the ones who understand how it all works – who find themselves wielding immense power. With the likes of Mark Zuckerberg already accruing vast political influence to do with as they please, that’s a worrying prospect.

Keeping AI programmers in check

Thankfully, it won’t happen in the way some are fearing it might. Government decision-making is so complex, with so many interlinked aspects, that no one or small group of technological minds could comprehend and control it entirely. I also don’t believe people generally hold the Silicon Valley view that technology alone can solve everything. What I’m saying is, let’s embrace AI safe in the knowledge that collectively we’ll be able to keep it and its programmers in check.

If we do, we’re opening a whole new world of possibilities in efficient, logical, and honest governance. It’s essential we don’t let the same thing happen with a tech-run government that we’re letting happen with the internet – where power is consolidating into too few hands. That will take a combination of remembering the democratic principles that got us to this point and educating enough people to understand the technology overseeing us. I, for one, am optimistic we can get there. Please tell me I’m not alone.

This story originally appeared on the SAP Community.

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Glen Sawyer

About Glen Sawyer

Glen Sawyer is National Director of IoT Digital Transformation at SAP. 

The Future Will Be Co-Created

Dan Wellers and Timo Elliott

 

Just 3% of companies have completed enterprise digital transformation projects.
92% of those companies have significantly improved or transformed customer engagement.
81% of business executives say platforms will reshape industries into interconnected ecosystems.
More than half of large enterprises (80% of the Global 500) will join industry platforms by 2018.

Link to Sources


Redefining Customer Experience

Many business leaders think of the customer journey or experience as the interaction an individual or business has with their firm.

But the business value of the future will exist in the much broader, end-to-end experiences of a customer—the experience of travel, for example, or healthcare management or mobility. Individual companies alone, even with their existing supplier networks, lack the capacity to transform these comprehensive experiences.


A Network Effect

Rather than go it alone, companies will develop deep collaborative relationships across industries—even with their customers—to create powerful ecosystems that multiply the breadth and depth of the products, services, and experiences they can deliver. Digital native companies like Baidu and Uber have embraced ecosystem thinking from their early days. But forward-looking legacy companies are beginning to take the approach.

Solutions could include:

  • Packaging provider Weig has integrated partners into production with customers co-inventing custom materials.
  • China’s Ping An insurance company is aggressively expanding beyond its sector with a digital platform to help customers manage their healthcare experience.
  • British roadside assistance provider RAC is delivering a predictive breakdown service for drivers by acquiring and partnering with high-tech companies.

What Color Is Your Ecosystem?

Abandoning long-held notions of business value creation in favor of an ecosystem approach requires new tactics and strategies. Companies can:

1.  Dispassionately map the end-to-end customer experience, including those pieces outside company control.

2.  Employ future planning tactics, such as scenario planning, to examine how that experience might evolve.

3.  Identify organizations in that experience ecosystem with whom you might co-innovate.

4.  Embrace technologies that foster secure collaboration and joint innovation around delivery of experiences, such as cloud computing, APIs, and micro-services.

5.  Hire, train for, and reward creativity, innovation, and customer-centricity.


Evolve or Be Commoditized

Some companies will remain in their traditional industry boxes, churning out products and services in isolation. But they will be commodity players reaping commensurate returns. Companies that want to remain competitive will seek out their new ecosystem or get left out in the cold.


Download the executive brief The Future Will be Co-Created.


Read the full article The Future Belongs to Industry-Busting Ecosystems.

Turn insight into action, make better decisions, and transform your business.  Learn how.

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Dan Wellers

About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

About Timo Elliott

Timo Elliott is an Innovation Evangelist for SAP and a passionate advocate of innovation, digital business, analytics, and artificial intelligence. He was the eighth employee of BusinessObjects and for the last 25 years he has worked closely with SAP customers around the world on new technology directions and their impact on real-world organizations. His articles have appeared in articles such as Harvard Business Review, Forbes, ZDNet, The Guardian, and Digitalist Magazine. He has worked in the UK, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Silicon Valley, and currently lives in Paris, France. He has a degree in Econometrics and a patent in mobile analytics. 

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Blockchain: Much Ado About Nothing? How Very Wrong!

Juergen Roehricht

Let me start with a quote from McKinsey, that in my view hits the nail right on the head:

“No matter what the context, there’s a strong possibility that blockchain will affect your business. The very big question is when.”

Now, in the industries that I cover in my role as general manager and innovation lead for travel and transportation/cargo, engineering, construction and operations, professional services, and media, I engage with many different digital leaders on a regular basis. We are having visionary conversations about the impact of digital technologies and digital transformation on business models and business processes and the way companies address them. Many topics are at different stages of the hype cycle, but the one that definitely stands out is blockchain as a new enabling technology in the enterprise space.

Just a few weeks ago, a customer said to me: “My board is all about blockchain, but I don’t get what the excitement is about – isn’t this just about Bitcoin and a cryptocurrency?”

I can totally understand his confusion. I’ve been talking to many blockchain experts who know that it will have a big impact on many industries and the related business communities. But even they are uncertain about the where, how, and when, and about the strategy on how to deal with it. The reason is that we often look at it from a technology point of view. This is a common mistake, as the starting point should be the business problem and the business issue or process that you want to solve or create.

In my many interactions with Torsten Zube, vice president and blockchain lead at the SAP Innovation Center Network (ICN) in Potsdam, Germany, he has made it very clear that it’s mandatory to “start by identifying the real business problem and then … figure out how blockchain can add value.” This is the right approach.

What we really need to do is provide guidance for our customers to enable them to bring this into the context of their business in order to understand and define valuable use cases for blockchain. We need to use design thinking or other creative strategies to identify the relevant fields for a particular company. We must work with our customers and review their processes and business models to determine which key blockchain aspects, such as provenance and trust, are crucial elements in their industry. This way, we can identify use cases in which blockchain will benefit their business and make their company more successful.

My highly regarded colleague Ulrich Scholl, who is responsible for externalizing the latest industry innovations, especially blockchain, in our SAP Industries organization, recently said: “These kinds of use cases are often not evident, as blockchain capabilities sometimes provide minor but crucial elements when used in combination with other enabling technologies such as IoT and machine learning.” In one recent and very interesting customer case from the autonomous province of South Tyrol, Italy, blockchain was one of various cloud platform services required to make this scenario happen.

How to identify “blockchainable” processes and business topics (value drivers)

To understand the true value and impact of blockchain, we need to keep in mind that a verified transaction can involve any kind of digital asset such as cryptocurrency, contracts, and records (for instance, assets can be tangible equipment or digital media). While blockchain can be used for many different scenarios, some don’t need blockchain technology because they could be handled by a simple ledger, managed and owned by the company, or have such a large volume of data that a distributed ledger cannot support it. Blockchain would not the right solution for these scenarios.

Here are some common factors that can help identify potential blockchain use cases:

  • Multiparty collaboration: Are many different parties, and not just one, involved in the process or scenario, but one party dominates everything? For example, a company with many parties in the ecosystem that are all connected to it but not in a network or more decentralized structure.
  • Process optimization: Will blockchain massively improve a process that today is performed manually, involves multiple parties, needs to be digitized, and is very cumbersome to manage or be part of?
  • Transparency and auditability: Is it important to offer each party transparency (e.g., on the origin, delivery, geolocation, and hand-overs) and auditable steps? (e.g., How can I be sure that the wine in my bottle really is from Bordeaux?)
  • Risk and fraud minimization: Does it help (or is there a need) to minimize risk and fraud for each party, or at least for most of them in the chain? (e.g., A company might want to know if its goods have suffered any shocks in transit or whether the predefined route was not followed.)

Connecting blockchain with the Internet of Things

This is where blockchain’s value can be increased and automated. Just think about a blockchain that is not just maintained or simply added by a human, but automatically acquires different signals from sensors, such as geolocation, temperature, shock, usage hours, alerts, etc. One that knows when a payment or any kind of money transfer has been made, a delivery has been received or arrived at its destination, or a digital asset has been downloaded from the Internet. The relevant automated actions or signals are then recorded in the distributed ledger/blockchain.

Of course, given the massive amount of data that is created by those sensors, automated signals, and data streams, it is imperative that only the very few pieces of data coming from a signal that are relevant for a specific business process or transaction be stored in a blockchain. By recording non-relevant data in a blockchain, we would soon hit data size and performance issues.

Ideas to ignite thinking in specific industries

  • The digital, “blockchained” physical asset (asset lifecycle management): No matter whether you build, use, or maintain an asset, such as a machine, a piece of equipment, a turbine, or a whole aircraft, a blockchain transaction (genesis block) can be created when the asset is created. The blockchain will contain all the contracts and information for the asset as a whole and its parts. In this scenario, an entry is made in the blockchain every time an asset is: sold; maintained by the producer or owner’s maintenance team; audited by a third-party auditor; has malfunctioning parts; sends or receives information from sensors; meets specific thresholds; has spare parts built in; requires a change to the purpose or the capability of the assets due to age or usage duration; receives (or doesn’t receive) payments; etc.
  • The delivery chain, bill of lading: In today’s world, shipping freight from A to B involves lots of manual steps. For example, a carrier receives a booking from a shipper or forwarder, confirms it, and, before the document cut-off time, receives the shipping instructions describing the content and how the master bill of lading should be created. The carrier creates the original bill of lading and hands it over to the ordering party (the current owner of the cargo). Today, that original paper-based bill of lading is required for the freight (the container) to be picked up at the destination (the port of discharge). Imagine if we could do this as a blockchain transaction and by forwarding a PDF by email. There would be one transaction at the beginning, when the shipping carrier creates the bill of lading. Then there would be look-ups, e.g., by the import and release processing clerk of the shipper at the port of discharge and the new owner of the cargo at the destination. Then another transaction could document that the container had been handed over.

The future

I personally believe in the massive transformative power of blockchain, even though we are just at the very beginning. This transformation will be achieved by looking at larger networks with many participants that all have a nearly equal part in a process. Today, many blockchain ideas still have a more centralistic approach, in which one company has a more prominent role than the (many) others and often is “managing” this blockchain/distributed ledger-supported process/approach.

But think about the delivery scenario today, where goods are shipped from one door or company to another door or company, across many parties in the delivery chain: from the shipper/producer via the third-party logistics service provider and/or freight forwarder; to the companies doing the actual transport, like vessels, trucks, aircraft, trains, cars, ferries, and so on; to the final destination/receiver. And all of this happens across many countries, many borders, many handovers, customs, etc., and involves a lot of paperwork, across all constituents.

“Blockchaining” this will be truly transformational. But it will need all constituents in the process or network to participate, even if they have different interests, and to agree on basic principles and an approach.

As Torsten Zube put it, I am not a “blockchain extremist” nor a denier that believes this is just a hype, but a realist open to embracing a new technology in order to change our processes for our collective benefit.

Turn insight into action, make better decisions, and transform your business. Learn how.

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Juergen Roehricht

About Juergen Roehricht

Juergen Roehricht is General Manager of Services Industries and Innovation Lead of the Middle and Eastern Europe region for SAP. The industries he covers include travel and transportation; professional services; media; and engineering, construction and operations. Besides managing the business in those segments, Juergen is focused on supporting innovation and digital transformation strategies of SAP customers. With more than 20 years of experience in IT, he stays up to date on the leading edge of innovation, pioneering and bringing new technologies to market and providing thought leadership. He has published several articles and books, including Collaborative Business and The Multi-Channel Company.