The digitalising of procurement in 2023 – vital, growing and confusing

20 December 2022

If we analysed every word written about procurement in 2022, “digital” and “digitisation” might well come top of the frequency charts, vying perhaps with “sustainability” and “crisis”. 

That’s not surprising. Digitisation simply means using digital technology, and automation to improve procurement processes and performance. Clearly, procurement cannot succeed without that, and the Covid lockdowns merely accelerated already strong trends, as organisations had to adapt to home working.

Executing procurement tasks proved well-nigh impossible without technology to allow remote and physically dispersed accessing and sharing of data, collaboration with colleagues and suppliers, and management of complex processes such as sourcing exercises. 

But procurement now faces new digitisation challenges. Organisations and internal stakeholders expect procurement to embrace the best technology, and the cry, “why isn’t it as easy for me to buy stuff at work as it is at home” is regularly heard.

Another challenge is the extraordinary expansion of digital procurement tools over the last five years. Literally hundreds of new firms have sprung up, supplying products that address every conceivable aspect of the procurement and supply chain universe. Sometimes it is difficult to even understand the offering – how about “a predictive procurement orchestration platform that amplifies the impact of procurement’s influence”?

No, me neither. And it took a good ten minutes of digging around that firm’s website to get some idea of their actual use-case and possible benefits. That experience is not unusual today.

As we move into 2023, procurement digitisation – executed well – will create competitive advantage, and even to just keep pace, organisations will need to invest and implement the right tools and processes. However, the options will continue to appear complex.

How to navigate digitalisation:

1. Don't expect one platform to do everything 

The old argument about single platform or “best of breed” procurement tech has been won by the latter option. No-one really thinks today that a single mega-platform can do everything, when there are so many effective products addressing disparate but genuine needs. You might still use a multi-functional product to underpin the core source-to-pay process for example, but don’t limit your thinking and miss additional options that might generate value.

2. Linking your digital strategy with your procurement strategy

However, you do need an overarching digital strategy, linked to your wider procurement strategy (which is linked to your business strategy, of course). Innovative approaches and tools are great, but there is a danger of ending up with a plethora of different tools, platforms and apps, and an uncoordinated, unfocused and non-strategic approach.

3. Usability 

Consider issues such as interoperability, data governance, and user interfaces. If you are asking stakeholders, or procurement colleagues, to use different tools, it helps if they have at least a vaguely similar look and feel.

When marketing tell you they want to use this amazing marketplace portal to buy promotional items, that’s fine. But does it have controls that support your procurement policies, does it interface to other systems, and can spend data be extracted for analytics needed to develop category strategies? And ask: how much will the tool actually cost?

4. Sustainability 

In terms of specific 2023 trends, expect to see more tools focusing on assistance with ESG issues (not just Scope 3 emissions, but also bio-diversity, human rights, supply chain equality, diversity and inclusion, etc), risk, resilience and the move away from global low-cost country sourcing.

5. Tech will change the procurement function

As procurement delegates more activities to users, and automation reduces lower-level work, important new roles for procurement should emerge. That undoubtedly includes providing digital procurement strategy and governance, and leading on operational implementation and oversight of the procurement technology landscape. 

6. Apply the "common-sense approach"

Finally, if challenges around selecting digital tools look daunting, help is at hand. Just as there are more tools than ever, there are more people offering help. From huge generalist tech advisers to specialists procurement tech experts, there are analysts, advisers, writers and technologists offering support. 

There is even a considerable amount of worthwhile free material, always a plus for procurement professionals. But do apply your cynical procurement view, and check how any product recommendations are arrived at, in terms of rigour and potential conflicts of interest. But apply that common-sense approach, and there is plenty of good advice out there. 

So good luck – and here’s to successfully digitised procurement in 2023!

☛  Peter Smith is a CIPS past president, consultant and author.

Warwick, Warwickshire/Hybrid
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Warwick, Warwickshire/Hybrid
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National Grid
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