Reflections on data, intelligence and technology in procurement in 2020

Teams are only just starting to scratch the surface of the value of data, Geraldine Craven says

At the Data, Intelligence and Technology Forum in London, I had the pleasure of engaging with a selection of Procurement Leaders’ technology and data specialist partners to learn about the solutions that are emerging to support procurement teams as they look to digitalise their processes, clean their data sets and augment decision-making using data-driven insights to build more secure, sustainable and better-performing supply chains.


I’ve also been inspired by our members who’ve shared some of their success stories about how they are leveraging emerging technology such as robotic process automation and machine learning to accelerate and transform the function into a strategic and valued business partner.

Key takeaways

  • The jury is still out on whether procurement should be leading or supporting digital transformation. In reality, however, investing in digitalising back-end processes and interfaces is often secondary to front-end or customer-facing interfaces and activities. The chances are that if procurement teams don’t drive this to a certain degree, they risk missing the boat altogether.
  • The future opportunity for organisations will be empowered by ecosystems of data and connectivity – procurement teams need to connect to suppliers through platforms that enable sharing and transparency to gain maximum benefits from the networks.
  • With regards to defining the right level of categorisation and ensuring data quality, there is a natural conflict between rigidity and flexibility. Although teams need standardisation and consistency, they also need the flexibility to adapt to the natural evolution of categories. Functions should develop data strategies that allow for both.
  • A data-driven culture has to come not only top-down but also side to side – this means data management teams need the staff who input this information to recognise the importance and strategic value of both the data and their role in ensuring it is clean. The focus should be in developing the right set up and governance to avoid mistakes rather than focus only on data cleaning.
  • Technology needs to be considered as complementary to, not in competition with, human capability. We are still only scratching the surface of what that means and the reality is artificial intelligence (AI) can supplement the workforce by doing things that humans are incapable of, particularly processing vast amounts of data rapidly and detecting patterns to enable staff to make better decisions. We must, however, be wary not to place all our faith in and delegate all decisions to our machines because they still cannot grasp context or the ethical ramifications of their decisions in the same way as humans.
  • Our live session of the digital readiness assessment demonstrated the strength of leadership and strategic thinking in the community, although change management processes are still relatively poor. The next challenge for leaders is to successfully execute on their strategies and journey maps, in particular getting the processes systemised, the data cleaned and getting the right people on board with the right skills and appetite to disrupt themselves.

What are members and guests saying?

"There is a new startup every three seconds, everyone is thinking of a very narrow solution for our problems. We need to give them time and understand them."

Sam de Frates, senior director, commercial digitalisation, Mars


"It’s not about doing something again and again, we’ve spoken about what sparks the interest of the younger generations and it’s doing something new."

Joerg Steinhauser, VP sourcing, General Mills


"Never apologise for bringing a new solution... we’ve spoken for years about getting a seat at the table but, now we have it, what do we do with it? We build our internal partnerships by being challenging."

Ruth Bromley, director, procurement development and operations, Heineken


"The one thing that has stuck out for me the most is Moravec’s paradox – the idea that when it comes to AI everything is a little bit upside down – things that humans find difficult machines find really easy and vice versa. There’s an opportunity there for a complementary relationship between human and machine."

Hannah Fry, senior lecturer, Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, UCL


"Find something the business is keen to understand and build your business case around that. For us, it’s about reputational risk – it’s about managing risks in the company and recognising what’s important to the business. [The rest of the business] looks to us to make sure that we’re managing our supply chain in the right way and protecting the brand. We use data on a daily basis to do this better."

Rob Alexander, CPO EMEA, JLL


This article is a piece of independent writing by a member of Procurement Leaders’ content team.

Geraldine Craven
Posted by Geraldine Craven

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