How Technology Will Create More Jobs in the World of Procurement (Maybe …)

Today, we’ll look at one of the decidedly future-facing sessions from the recent SAP Ariba Procurement Summit in London.

Dr Marcell Vollmer was the CPO for SAP Ariba but has made an interesting and perhaps unusual transition to being Chief Digital Officer. He has a different and useful perspective therefore on how technology is changing the procurement world in particular as well as the wider business environment.

Disruptive innovations are changing our lives, said Vollmer, and he listed jobs that didn’t exist 12 years ago. Many innovations have quickly become part of our daily lives; technology is creating new jobs, and while we might be worried about the future, robots and AI will create more jobs. But we have to think about where we fit - “How can we Uber ourselves before we get Kodaked?” was his challenging question.

None of this is new really thinking, but it's not always easy to look 10 or 20 years forwards. Vollmer told us that “bodily organs will be printed by 3D on demand by 2030”.  And even more scarily, by 2020 “we will have more conversations with bots than with our spouse”.  (What do you mean, “by 2020”!?)

But, he says, people don’t really want “Apps”, they don’t even really want smart phones. They just “want things to get done”.  Ultimately, we don’t care how that happens, we just want it to be as quick and easy as possible.

And that means “voice” is going to be huge – as we said in the context of another session from the same event, this was my big personal realisation from the day. Vollmer played a Google video which was a live demo of a chatbot holding a phone conservation – to book a haircut – where the person taking the call clearly had no idea they were talking to a bot.  You can watch that here).

But, Vollmer said, AI is changing the world as much as the steam engine or electricity did in the past. How will humans interact and collaborate with machines, algorithms and systems in the future – that is a huge question.

Data is the other big opportunity. He showed the audience an example of a tool that could analyse how much TV airtime a sponsor got when they had their logo displayed at sports’ events. So, thanks to clever tech and ever-increasing processing power, we will be able to measure and analyse brand impact, for instance, in a way that has previously been impossible.

He touched on using SAP Leonardo for catalogue management – I didn’t fully understand that to be honest, so we might come back to that.  (“SAP Leonardo is an umbrella brand for SAP's collection of software and services that organizations can use to develop digital transformation projects”, the web tells me …)

But, he said there are limitations in terms of how we use data – for instance, we want catalogues to be clear and easy to use for our stakeholders, but this is not like a B2C business. We don’t want to “sell” products to our internal users or encourage them to spend more than they need to (a good point!)

However, there is a pressing need to innovate with suppliers and leverage the power of business networks for supplier discovery and innovation.  A focus on price does not help us to get access to innovation or improve how we work with suppliers.  In terms of SAP Ariba, “we want to be Apple easy, Google fast – and connect buyers and suppliers to collaborate.”

That’s fine – but, the big unanswered question for me is still around the future role of “procurement”. When Vollmer talks about “connecting buyers and suppliers”, we must remember that for most items, procurement is not the real buyer. We are helping our budget holders, who are. If voice, AI, machine learning can direct those people to the best suppliers, indicate fair pricing and contractual terms, make all the administration around the transaction invisible … then why do those people need “procurement”?

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