Saudi Arabia's private research university KAUST has embraced technology and automation to speed up its processes, head of procurement Christopher Harvey told the CIPS Middle East Conference.
Speaking to delegates in Dubai last week, Harvey said KAUST’s procurement team was under pressure to deliver a faster and more reliable supply chain, as well as reduce costs and improve data flows.
“Our researches are competing against other organisations where they can get materials in one day,” he said. “The supply chain is very important, as is reliability. Running out of a material can shut down the whole university.”
Harvey shared how KAUST was using technology to become more agile. Using online applications, for example, has reduced the time it takes to get import permits for products from 6-8 weeks to 20-30 minutes.
“Speed is very important to our stakeholders – knowing when their materials are going to arrive,” he said.
An online order tracking system allows the procurement team and researchers to know where materials are at any time, while a chemical tracking system shows stakeholders where chemicals are elsewhere in the university, enabling them to share resources.
As experiments typically only use a small proportion of an ordered batch, the chemical tracking innovation has been particularly effective, Harvey said.
“[Stakeholders] can see if [the chemical] is there or if it is on order for someone else,” he said. “It has shaved about 20% off our chemical spend.”
KAUST now has a paperless accounts payable department, Harvey said, and about 60% of all purchases are automated.
He added that he was looking at using chatbots to further increase efficiency. “Today buyers receive about 5,000 emails a day, so how do we reduce that down?” he said. “Chatbots could free up people’s time so that they can focus on major agreements.”
However, he added that selling the concept of chatbots to senior management would be “quite a challenge”.
Embracing such digital tools means procurement needs a new skillset, such as coding, he said, adding: “AI and chatbots are the new areas for procurement.”