For Procurement, is it the Process or the Tool That’s Broken?

Spend Matters welcomes this guest article by Anu Gardiner, head of procurement at DocuSign.

I was in a meeting with one of our senior executives and we were discussing some recent complaints on the internal social site about our procurement process. Just like I had done in response to the complaints, I shared that we had recommended the right tool to solve the problem but that the initiative could not be prioritized at the time due to more pressing needs at the company. And then came the question: Is it the process or the tool that’s broken? This is a question I have been pondering for some time. Then, the very next week I was at Coupa’s INSPIRE conference and heard Coupa’s CEO Rob Bernshteyn address the same theme in his keynote.

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For the last 25 years, the mantra for implementing technology tools in business has been: Pay attention to all 3 legs of the stool – people, process and technology. Process is a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end. These actions frequently involved things like sending a fax, calling person-X to take action-Y, printing form-Z, signing it and mailing it. Tangibly, process took the form of a flow chart or a swim-lane chart and showed who was supposed to do what and when. The technology in this realm involved complex, on-premise software implementations where all the risk was borne by the business and the vendor pocketed a big sum of money up front, leaving the business to make the implementation a success. This generation of tools had poor user-interface, and therefore, people played a very important part in successful implementations. They had to be trained on what the interface meant, how to interact with it, what a particular instruction that was hard-coded into the implementation meant, etc.

Fast-forward to today, and the world looks a little bit different. Cloud computing has made the technology development cycles shorter and mobile devices are permeating everything we do in our personal lives and work. Social media has upended many world orders, whether in government (e.g., the “Arab Spring”) or in business where employees can freely complain about your sub-optimal process on Glassdoor). And the big data analytics sitting on top of these processes are shortening the “intelligence-to-action” cycle.

So where does the people, process and technology construct fit into this new world? Well, I have a bit of an interesting perspective on this as the head of procurement for my organization, and also as I try to help my firm better serve the numerous procurement organizations that I talk to. Process and technology (or “app” if you will) seem to be fusing into a common capability. The app triggers you to take action and provides status. It has reporting capabilities and it intuitively guides you from one step to the next. In this new world, user-experience is key and mobility is a must. You must be able to complete tasks on any device, from anywhere and at any time. So, maybe the future mantra is “people and tool.” Process doesn’t really go away, of course, but it becomes so intuitive, flexible and self-documenting that it becomes one with the person. The tool not only enables an old process, but delivers a new and better process and monitors it to help you attain better performance. It’s sort of like cloud-enabled fitness watches: they seem to be merely a tool, but they also can transform your personal processes and outcomes if you use them right.

One collateral benefit of this new world order is that training is dead. Lest I get pelted by my procurement colleagues (or HR colleagues for that matter) for being too provocative, a more reasonable statement may be that traditional training is thankfully fading away.

Let me illustrate with an example: My company recently changed how employees post on the company blog. Here is the training I received: link to access the app, an email with my login and password. I entered the app and was able to submit my post in a matter of minutes – no touch, no fuss, task accomplished while lounging on a sofa on a Saturday morning – my most creative window. Here’s another example: A friend of mine at a high-tech company in Silicon Valley has a great story on the future of training. Just before going live on a cloud solution, the company pulled the plug on the training that felt out-of-step with the application. Instead, the firm recorded a few YouTube videos focused on FAQ.

So, the answer to the question I asked in the title of this post: There is no modern business process that is really going to survive without a tool. If your process is broken, there are many things that can be wrong, but it is also nearly guaranteed that you do not have the right tool in place. If you’re not thinking about this question already, you will. Your workforce is changing and they want a well-designed (and increasingly intelligent) application to help them do their jobs. They are adept at social media and will not tolerate a bad user-experience. This seems to be become a fairly major driver behind switching out older enterprise applications from “fragile to agile.” Hmmm, that's catchy! Maybe that’ll be the topic for my next post…

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