Q&A With Graham Wright, IBM’s VP of Global Procurement: It’s Not the 80s Anymore

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When the term “global” is in your title, chances are you’re going to be a jet-setter.

That’s indeed the case for IBM’s Vice President of Global Procurement and IBM Procurement Services Graham Wright, who is based in the U.K. and has been ping-ponging around the planet on behalf of the Global 100 giant for the last several years.

But it doesn’t come without some risks and associated costs.

A few weeks ago, he banged his elbow coming out of a hotel room and thought nothing of it. (“Typical, really,” Wright said.) Then two weeks after that, the bottom half of his arm puffed up with fluid.

“I've just come from hospital and all they gave me was headache tablets,” he said. “They said ‘Don't worry about it, it'll last another couple of weeks.’ That's quite bizarre really.”

No dull moments in this procurement practitioner’s world.

Between meeting with clients, presenting at conferences and convalescing, Wright made some time to catch up with Spend Matters about how he and IBM see the state of procurement technology within our increasingly digitalized business ecosystem.

As someone who’s been with the organization in one role or another for about 25 years, Wright has seen a fair amount of evolution in the industry. Here is the first part of our chat, edited and condensed.

Spend Matters: I don’t mean this to sound glib, but I’m interested, what’s made you stick around IBM this long?

Graham Wright: I've had a significant amount of opportunity to spend overseas with IBM. I was on assignment for five years in the U.S., as well, and I found that the continual opportunities for reinvention are such that you've got the ability to move into almost any area of expertise you want to continue to learn and grow. I found that appetite. I've also spent five or six years outside of IBM, as well.

SM: How did you get your start in the procurement world? What's Graham Wright’s origin story, so to speak?

GW: I was picked up and sponsored [by IBM] for my education as part of an early program in the late 80s. We were given rotational opportunities in a number of parts of the business. Some of that was in the early eminence of the combined analyzer/buyer roles and more in the material elements, so I started in that area then got hired into procurement permanently and worked on almost everything. In those days, of course, the production was much more significant than today. I started in one of the manufacturing locations here and did everything from services procurement to capital procurement through to production procurement as well. I was specializing in flexible circuits. So most of my origins center around hard drives.

SM: To what degree is your finger on the pulse of IBM’s internal procurement function today? How do you key into that?

GW: I still have responsibility internally for our travel, marketing communications and facilities management spending globally, and also the leverage of those from our external perspective, but on the procurement services side, the remit as we go to market for that domain is all categories, all clients.

SM: Gotcha. So back to “then vs. now” — how would you characterize the procurement challenges you faced in the late 80s, after you had just come into the profession, compared with the challenges you see today in your current role?

GW: I see a lot of parallels. Different degree, size and scale. I see the wealth of different opportunities, as well. So when you think back to that time when we were first getting the X86 architecture and getting the first PC that could run and integrate with your printer, it was phenomenal when you moved away from the mainframe era into the client-server era. From that perspective there was a significant amount of reinvention going on back in the late 80s as to how you worked, in my opinion; in addition, there were always the same challenges of data integration and optimizing into company activities and flows. Supplier relationship management was critical. Obviously in the late 80s the quality mantra was around much more than it needs to be today, necessarily — having market-driven quality, Six Sigma, kanban, all those good things that were around.

There are a lot of similar high-level themes that are parallels in some ways from then to now. Today, what is just phenomenally different in my view is the sheer rate and pace you need to [keep to] reinvent yourself from a talent perspective to remain relevant. The scale with which emerging technologies are coming through that can be applied, not just in terms of advanced analytics and cognition, which is very significant, but also in the way you can buy things, as well in the evolution of marketplaces and what they mean in terms of content — and how you can access that content.

Another side that is significantly different is the client experience, and what your clients expect from you today. Although to some degree the same types of requirements were around all those years ago, the depth to which clients want it, the speed with which clients want it, all of that is fundamentally different.

SM: With that in mind, from where you stand today, what in your view are the most important hallmarks of procurement transformation?

GW: From our perspective, we put it into three imperatives. Two are outcome-driven and one is an enabler. The first is really to drive insights and it's about enriching data for analytics and cognitive insights to make more informed decisions. At the same time, the second is to amplify the talent, which is to elevate the procurement capabilities and intelligence to “extraordinary,” and enabling people to drive the level of change and influence on the business that can come from those insights. The bedrock that underpins all of that (and, really, looking at data as a natural resource) is to, as best you can, cognify, automate and ultimately digitalize the processes that you're operating on. Then, trying to think about those processes differently as you uncouple them from the applications that sit on them today to truly move things from analog to digital in a seamless responsive procurement organization.

So as you take that one layer down, we are looking at a history of analog transactions. Linear, sequential ... you know, vulnerable to incorrect payments and rework in upstream or downstream activities. We’re trying to digitalize those [transactions] and drive collaborative processes to take out any inaccuracies, and more importantly, eliminate the rework and waste as best as we can through that intelligence.

We're shifting from manually managing catalogs, getting into collaborative self-served marketplaces as best as we can. And obviously [gain] data insights and continuous innovation through those activities, as well. We're trying to move from reacting to demand, and better understand spending habits and unrealized savings dictated by historic data [to shift] into predicting demand. Having effective outcomes driven by dynamic forecasting, market insights and industry expertise in a continually reinvented way.

Also looking at basics of negotiating terms. Supplier selection based on a variety of criteria that are historically largely common at times into designing better results. Getting into the innovation space. And obviously to extract as much as you can from that, you need partnerships based on expertise, deep insight, responsive and business outcomes, and flexible models to drive that as well. Equally at the same time, from a low-value-activity perspective, as I mentioned, amplifying talent to remove those inefficient analog processes through automation as best as we can within the teams, with new skills, methods and assets that enable them to drive a much higher value contribution.

Those would probably be the core areas that we see fundamental change moving from historical perspectives to the future.

So how does Wright see those areas reflected in what he’s doing within IBM to drive his own organization forward? What types of tools is he and his team personally using? To be continued in Part Two.

Wright will be delivering a keynote at Procurious’ upcoming Big Ideas Summit in Chicago.

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