BravoConnect Keynote: Smart 8-Year Olds, Smarter Machines

One of the highlights of the recent BravoConnect conference was the keynote from Mike Walsh, who was described as a “futurist”, which along with his unfeasible handsomeness was enough to make us a little cynical before he had even started.

But actually he led a very enjoyable and thought-provoking session. He actually trained in law and accountancy, so he has a conventional background, but he now spends his time thinking about technology and the future - a little more interesting than auditing we suspect.

He started by saying the disruption we have seen in recent years (cloud computing, Uber, etc) is “just the first act of 21st century business” which will be the age of transformation. The next generation – the kids of today – will shape business, so we have to look at 8-year olds if we want to see the future. They are having cloud-enabled, data-driven experiences every day – the “digital orchestration of daily life” as Walsh puts it.

These kids will grow up in a world of invisible transactions. They will user fewer apps to do more. They’ll expect to use chat-based conversational interfaces to do stuff – and note, China is ahead of the West in these areas, he says. The new Barbie doll can hold a pretty convincing conversation with its owner – these kids are “the first generation to be raised by AI”. A scary thought but he’s right.

One lightbulb moment for me was when he talked about the Apple “AirPods”. There's been some bad publicity for the firm, having made the new iPhone without a headphone socket, but as he said, “don't think of these as wireless headphones, they're implantables"!  Kids, and increasingly adults, will never remove them - we will get a constant flow of aural information fed to us through those devices. That might be giving us directions, telling us about local shops or restaurants, identifying likely Tinder candidates in the vicinity ... “Technology only really succeeds when it disappears” Walsh claims.

All this will shape the design of enterprise systems too.  So we will talk to those systems and they will talk back. That has major implications, even for procurement. Will users expect to requisition, buy or order goods and services simply by speaking their requirements to the "system"? Will procurement staff integrate, analyse and present the data we will no doubt have, simply by saying to the spend analytics platform "show me the ten biggest opportunities where contract compliance is lowest in a sub-category"?

Walsh also touched on how firms can be agile in this new world, and what that means for procurement. “How will social procurement change the way you collaborate with the partner ecosystem”, he asked. And what does this mean for how we design procurement teams and how we recruit staff? Is this person we are hiring going to be “energized by unknowns”, as one of the top people at Airbnb apparently said.

And one of his final remarks might just keep us awake at night. “How much smarter do we need to be to survive even smarter machines”?  Indeed. And as we move into a world of algorithms, of AI and automation, of apparently sentient robots, it seems unlikely that procurement is going to be immune from transformational change.


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