Pub Debate Results: Robot Takeover Defeated – Well, Delayed Maybe!

So our pub debate last Thursday went very well, with around 45-50 people in our private room at The Clarence pub in Whitehall - enough to feel like a real event but not so crowded as to be uncomfortable.

And I know what you’re waiting to hear is that the motion “ This House Believes that Robots will Run (and Rule) Procurement by 2020” was DEFEATED really quite convincingly, with at least 75% of the audience voting against it, despite the absolutely brilliant speeches on behalf of the robots by James Marland of SAPAriba and me.

That’s the second debate in a row where my side has lost – not fair! But well done to Chicago-based Spend Matters founder Jason Busch, a late stand-in, and Mayank Chandla of IBM who somehow to my shock managed to fool  – sorry, I mean persuade  - the audience to vote their way.

James and I argued that automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning and so on are going to take away large elements of the current procurement role. Combine that with stakeholders being able to execute “procurement” tasks without our help once they have assistance from the “robots”, then the procurement role looks insecure at best. And while we both accepted that there may be higher-value activities and skills that procurement might be able to migrate into, we questioned whether the profession has the inclination, self-awareness or skills to make that move.  James pointed out with the help of the first procurement book ever written that we hadn’t really moved on much in 100 years or so!

Mayank and Jason broadly relied on two arguments. The one that I think (in all seriousness) won the debate for them was the timing. Jason explained that the technology itself was still some way off being able to do everything that one day it might well do successfully. And Mayank pointed out that in many parts of the world, procurement was still at an early stage of maturity, so full automation was a long way away. Their second argument was that aspects such as judgement, negotiation and similar aspects of procurement would remain “human” for a long time.

As I say, it felt from the audience questions that it probably was the timing that swung it. There didn’t seem too much argument against the proposition that a high percentage of current “procurement” work will one day disappear to the robots. But not by 2020. So of course I’m wishing we’d made it “by 2030” in the title of the debate; it certainly would have been a much closer vote, I’m sure.

Finally, thanks to everyone who came, to the speakers and to SAPAriba who sponsored the event. I was particularly impressed that James and Mayank were very good at not promoting their own firms in any sense, although of course both SAP and IBM are at the forefront of what is going on in this space. They were both excellent. And perhaps our biggest thanks to CIPS Past President David Smith, who stood in as chairman with literally five hours’ notice, and still managed to come up with the best jokes of the evening, as well as controlling matters expertly!

We’ll take a look in more detail at the arguments on both sides later this week as well, so look out for that. And in the meantime, this was my “theme music” played before I spoke – not that it did me much good …

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Voices (3)

  1. Dan:

    I pity the first procurement-bot that has to deal with your average internal stakeholder.

  2. David Atkinson:

    Sorry I missed the debate. I think I would have voted against the motion too. This little piece from Bloomberg on Wal-Mart ( demonstrates that fairly rudimentary practice (i.e. stuff people in manufacturing procurement were doing twenty years or more ago) seemingly takes an eternity to become mainstream.

    AI will impact procurement…..eventually….but I’m wondering how a computer is going to levy a fine for late delivery on a supplier that enjoys scarcity of its product/service, and has more power than the buying organisation. I suppose each party’s computers can argue with each other, until one takes the other out for a beer in an attempt to settle their differences.

  3. Ian R:

    Peter, I’d wager that the outcome would have been even more convincing if this had happened before the date:

    Robot ‘drowns’ in fountain mishap

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