Why Use Bots/Enterprise Assistants in Procurement?

Ian Anstey is Business Development Director, apsolut Group, which is a SAP and SAP Ariba partner for on-premise, cloud and hybrid procurement solutions. He gave a presentation at eWorld last week on the uses of digital assistants in procurement and began by asking the audience if they use them in their own lives: the larger proportion of the audience raised their hands, with Siri and Alexa being the most used. A software bot in the business instance he describes very simply as ‘an interface that connects users to services’ (Lebeuf, 2016). And quotes multiple analyst houses that are predicting a large rise in their use in the next two years.

But how will we use them he asks? Will we just talk to our systems in the future? And why do we need another interface? Don’t we already access services via their own UI? And aren’t chatbots more commonly used in other parts of the business anyway, why use a chatbot or equivalent in procurement?

The natural language of a chatbot or digital assistant is its biggest asset, he says. For humans it’s the most natural way to express wishes, wants, needs and basically communicate. And you require no training to use it: messenger apps like WhatsApp are becoming more and more popular and use the same interface; they are easy to understand and not complex to use like the UIs of the services they are connecting the user to. Having more and more business applications connected to a digital assistant creates a modern version of an Enterprise Portal – with no training. And, importantly, they are available just about everywhere once you connect your bot to multiple channels like Webchat, Teams, Alexa, Messenger and so on.

Bots in business can be very useful so long as they are kept simple and correspond to an employee’s non-core tasks, so that they can use it to be more efficient in their core job. Using machine learning, a bot can learn about a user’s preferences and the company’s policies and procedures, then use them to guide the user in line with them, ultimately reducing errors and speeding up processes.

So in procurement for example, good use cases might be:

  • FAQs - all kinds of system-relevant questions, like how to delete a shopping cart.
  • Reporting – extracting information from the back end, like ‘which of my orders aren’t delivered yet?’ or tell me the invoices that haven’t been paid.
  • Supplier onboarding – self service
  • Continuity of information – like when someone goes on holiday
  • Facilitator – guidance and moderation, like during a sourcing process
  • Employee self-service – in guided buying, or to get the information they need to solve their enquiry without phoning procurement for answers
  • Training – for specific software
  • Notifications – alerts
  • Support of repetitive tasks – like work item approval

And he thinks guided buying is a particularly strong candidate for a bot interface, offering:

  • A central entry point for all procurement-related questions: like when will my PO be delivered? or who needs to approve my purchase request?
  • Information on how to procure certain material groups or services and who are the responsible persons for example
  • Guiding buyers to the correct applications within your system
  • Saving time and even creating a support ticket if it cannot answer a question

But it’s not all that simple of course. You have to manage user expectations. People may well expect the bot to be able to do more, so it’s important to explain the full capability of the bot to the workforce, he says, or you may end up with a ‘Mr Clippy’ situation. The Microsoft Office Assistant was axed after Office 97 as his constant presence and unwanted interference (Oh, I see you are writing a letter …) really started to annoy people.

Some things to think about your bot:

  • Don’t let it detract from the day job – don’t introduce too much non-business chat
  • Tailor the conversational style to region, culture etc.
  • Check with IT how data security will be managed – there must be privacy and other technical impacts

It was an interesting presentation that explored the top-level thoughts on using bots in procurement. The audience wanted to know more about:

Q – What are the levels of adoption, especially outside of P2P and into Sourcing?

A – Mass adoption is only a few years away – people are just really testing it now, to see what the benefits are. SAP is releasing products quarterly to make this more usable, and more products are coming through than ever before.

Q - What is preventing greater take-up now?

A – We are still figuring out the real value, and justifying the investment. There are still challenges, a bot will only work in automating business processes if we have the APIs available at the back end to give an end-to-end process for users.

Q – What’s the ROI?

A - Look at the age of your workforce. For many of us, having a GUI that just works is enough. But younger generations want the same experience they get in their personal lives, or they may well go somewhere else that can offer it!

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