Bring innovation to your business – employ a machine

Fabienne Lesbros
4 May 2018

Don’t be afraid of an AI invasion. Embrace advances in robotics and you will get the best out of automation

Digital, AI, robotics… most procurement professionals will have become used to hearing these buzzwords, but this cutting edge technology remains a difficult topic to navigate, and is full of misconceptions.

Take robots, for example. Think of a robot in the office, and you might picture R2-D2 rolling around your desk. While robots can be machines, such as those you often find working in manufacturing and warehousing, they are also applications. If a programmer creates an automated application to emulate a human task, this is also known as a robot. A robotic process doesn’t invade your desk; it is pretty much invisible. Such robotic processes can also ‘learn’. That means that the more data you feed into the automated process, the more output you get.

This might all sound complicated, but it actually doesn’t take long to create such a robot – I saw one being created in 10 minutes, and fully operational 10 minutes later. By 2021, it is estimated there will be 4m software robots working in offices. So what does this all mean for our jobs?

Looking back, we have been handling big transitions in the workplace for quite a while: the industrial revolution, mass production, computerisation and today’s digital transformation. Process automation has been around for decades in our plants and on our production lines – the difference now is that it is helping to establish the digital workforce.

The good news is that robots handle those repetitive boring tasks that grind you down every day, that deep down many of us dislike doing. They can ‘augment’ your role by freeing up your time for value-adding activities and providing fast analytical work on an unprecedented scale. The amount of data they can process, the speed and timing (they never sleep) is so valuable. It leaves professionals with more time for the strategic and complex topics we need to deal with, at pace. Imagine the speed at which you will be able to make decisions, being provided insights immediately, insights that will be right first time as there will be no human error to take into account.

While robots are not necessarily about cutting overheads, they can drive massive uplifts in efficiency. It’s also about increasing your current workforce capacity, so that you can do more with your back office, rather than having to throw more resources at it. Recent figures show that using robotics can increase capacity by up to 40%.

Rather than taking jobs, advances in robotics are creating new ones. Programmers are needed – and you don’t even have to be that technically savvy to become one. There are tools that allow you to build robots easily. All you need is a logical, curious, problem-solving mind. These are critical skills for future growth: by automating the routine, humans are freer to do intelligent, judgement-based tasks.

As for procurement, now is the time for us to really understand what is available in the marketplace and bring innovation into the business. And within our own function, there is much that could be automated. Ask your team how much activity and time they think could be freed up through automation. My own team said 30%.

Procurement tasks ripe for automating are those transaction-based ones such as PO processing (imagine, no more disputes over supplier invoicing), RFIs and RFQs, and contracts.

Doing this frees up your team to do the real value-adding activity, from market insight to developing commercial relationships with suppliers, especially in innovation. They will have more time to focus on deeper analytical understanding of supply market opportunities and risks, supported by better analytical and cognitive tools, and a greater understanding and control over spending patterns in the organisation and dynamics up the value chain.

This gives procurement professionals a greater ability to influence the costs of their organisation. And it should lead to procurement and supply chain being one of the most influential change agents in an organisation. We have a responsibility now to help our workers embed this revolution.

Fabienne Lesbros is chief procurement officer at Co-operative Group

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