e-Invoicing – should governments lead or follow?

Following the recent e-Invoicing workshop we wrote about here, we're pleased to feature this guest post from Ian Burdon, Director of Strategic Business Development at Elcom International.

Some interesting questions were raised at the eInvoice roundtable event in London on 9 December. Peter has already commented on some of them.

One which interested me was the degree to which governments should be leading on policy and standards in this area. The tacit assumption on the day was that government (or the EU) should lead; I’m attracted by the idea that government should follow and that following can itself be a form of leadership.

The tenor of the meeting was that the UK government should be leading by mandating the use of eInvoices. Moreover those eInvoices should follow a standard “semantic data model” to be promulgated in due course by the EU.

As I sat and listened to Antonio Conte of the European Commission outline absurdly complex plans for UBL and UN/CEFACT schemas incorporating a standard “semantic data models” which try so hard to be all things to all men that they end up being useless to anyone, I wondered who was kidding whom.

My simple observation is that very few government officers in policy roles have any experience of the realities of transactional purchasing or of managing an accounts payables function. Neither have most of the IT “experts” pushing the same mandate/standards line.  If the resulting policies and standards bear no relation to what businesses are already doing then little or no activity will ensue (unless the government issues extensive grants and subsidies to enable it to happen).

So if a government wants to show leadership and actually implement something that works it needs to choose between, on the one hand, telling people to do something in a way they don’t want to and, on the other hand, looking at what they are already doing and encouraging them to do it some more.

It really does not matter that IT industry “experts” think it should be about systems talking to other systems; that approach has been available for decades and all but a minority of real businesses and real buyers have run a mile from it. There is no point in specifying a schema which isn’t used to any great extent in the public sector outside of Denmark or which requires government subsidies to put make work.

The task is really very simple – send a demand for payment to a buyer who matches it with the corresponding demand for goods or services and an acknowledgement of receipt of those goods or services. The focus must be the business process and not the IT process.

“Leadership”, in these circumstances, means looking at what is already working and championing that. If nothing else this makes it more likely that future roundtables can be drawn from a community of people who discuss the topic on the basis of having done it.

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  1. Ellen:

    I don’t think it’s just the IT experts who think it should be about systems talking to other systems. And it’s not really something that’s been available for decades – at least not in the same way it is (or could be) today. Of course, no-one really cares about the practicalities, it’s just the outcome that’s important. But if you have true interoperability between systems, then you have the capacity and opportunity to open the doors to the benefits of big data as well as making life easier and more efficient for the end user. But, you’re right, it’s the business process that matters ultimately. I don’t care how my kettle works for eg – I just want something that boils water. But you should still be able to understand the impact of choosing between putting a pan on the stove, and flicking a switch. Not that I think systems talking to other systems is the be-all and end-all in terms of advancing eInvoicing adoption however.

    And yes, you’re right about having the right people, or the right mixture of people at the discussion table. I never understand why there’s always the same gap – whether at the implementation or discussion stages. Where are the people who these decisions affect? I can only assume politics and ego come into it somewhere along the line. If we’re going to talk about einvoicing advancement in terms of “open” and “free” then that should include all the people involved in the process too. But all, all, all the time it’s the change management, or end user discussion piece that gets sidelined, forgotten or rushed.

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