Vodafone CPO on opportunities in the digital realm

Vodafone’s Ninian Wilson is thinking about removing the printers from his offices. Or maybe just half of the printers. He may not be the telecom giant’s digital evangelist – in fact he’s global supply chain director and CEO of Vodafone Procurement Company – but he is passionate about turning the business on to digital. If that means staff queue at their printers until they’re so fed up they go digital, so be it.


Within that idea is, you feel, a glimpse of the approach that is driving the procurement function forward: bold, slightly cheeky perhaps but, ultimately, one based on exasperation with the slow, inefficient way of doing things and excitement about the possibilities that come with automation and digitisation. It’s hard to tell whether that dissatisfaction manifests as bashfulness when he describes his function as having some catching up to do and needing to improve a lot of things quickly.


Of course, he’s not alone in seeing the possibility of applying digital tools to procurement and that impatience is not just aimed at his own group’s adoption of technology. Wilson is a Scot with a career in the function and he is of the generation of executives that saw the fanfare over e-procurement in the early 2000s and has been waiting for the reality to match the expectation.


“The e-procurement promise was ‘as easy as Amazon’, but the delivery is not really there. Some of the major suppliers in that space have maybe disappointed a bit,” he argues.


As he progressed from CPO roles at Cable & Wireless and Royal Mail, he oversaw the transformation and reinvention of functions, but always with digital as one in a list of components of change, rather than a true enabler.


Today, from his base in Luxembourg, things are different. Directing the efforts of Vodafone, both as a procurement operation itself to serve the Vodafone business and as a service to customers in the telecoms space, Wilson has a broad brief. But for him, progressing as a user of digital tools remains the one facet that can bring about change in all the others; keeping everybody on the same page at a company the size of Vodafone, where staff are meeting different suppliers all the time, is a huge part of his challenge.


“We needed a supplier briefing app to get all our key stakeholders aligned and make messaging simple,” relates Wilson by way of example.


“For the technology providers we approached, that capability was interpreted as a big, industrial-strength project, which would take literally years to deliver. We have an apps team in-house so we went to them and asked what they could do and 12 weeks later, our Supply Watch app was up and running. I think that’s the attractiveness of the digital era because you can move quickly. Suddenly you get this virtuous circle having short-sprint, agile tech projects in a matter of weeks.”


The accompanying grin gives the impression that this is a man who enjoys working with the kind of capabilities that Vodafone affords him.


Automatic for the people


Indeed, it is impossible to fault either Wilson or Vodafone for ambition: Wilson relates how the deployment of two robots, for example, has helped Vodafone speed up the request for quotation process.


“You would send in quotations to us, then we seek a formal quotation; it’s quite a manual process with people typing in things and converting free text orders. So we worked with software robotics guys to build a robot that could process these. That task used to take 20-plus minutes to do, and of course a team member’s time, but it now takes six and it’s always correct.”


He enthuses about the work his group has been doing with SirionLabs and, separately, Docusign to automate, smooth and accelerate every stage of the procurement workflow. These tools do no just make processes faster, easier and more visible, they also free up staff to focus on building relationships and delivering strategic goals, rather than chasing paperwork.


Unsurprisingly, speed and simplicity are the watchwords for Wilson and when challenged on what frustrates him, amid this wave of enthusiasm for technology, it turns out anything that cannot be done simply and quickly is likely to grate. He warns that meetings of more than half an hour are not so popular either.


That mentality is something that customers, stakeholders and increasingly the procurement team itself are becoming used to: being able to buy things quickly and losing interest if these criteria are not met. That motivation is not just borne out of mirroring the consumer experience, it is a genuine desire to transform the fabric of procurement.


A few years ago, there was a ranking of the internal processes within Vodafone and the requisition process was highlighted as one of the worst. “The funny thing was that we were proud of what we’d done, but for the end user it was held up as far too complex; we hadn’t simplified, it wasn’t intuitive. We’d overengineered it.”


What Wilson recognised and what has driven his thinking is the power of putting something in the hands of a stakeholder that gives them what they need in a simple fashion to which they can relate.


“If you always go round the business and keep asking for permission, you’ll never get anywhere,” he says.


“What you can create today is very visual. People get it, as it feels like a consumer app, once you have started and you can then build the capability out in short sprints.”


He is quick to produce his phone and show a Vodafone app that allows him to access an array of information on strategic suppliers and the contacts there. It is somewhat similar to a turbo-charged LinkedIn.


But it’s only a small part of the story, says Wilson. “We’ve been working on a new app so you can access all the supply chain metrics country by country and all of our CFOs will be able to see where their business is versus other businesses in the group: savings delivered to date, pipeline, what amount of spend is centralised, all relative to annual targets. Today we have country reviews, which involves pages and pages of slides and sitting down and going through – it’s slow. This will all change on 27 June when we launch the new MySupplyChain app. Paper no more.”


Five pillars of progress


Wilson’s strategy, although it leans heavily on digital capability, is described by five pillars, of which digital is one. Elsewhere, the team is working on pillar two, doing the right work in the right place. Across the 26 operating companies, assigning procurement activities to the procurement company, pushing offshore or performing within the operating company itself, means there needs to be an overarching methodology to get the most out of the set-up.


In a similar vein, the selling side of the procurement company is another strategic pillar. Vodafone has built deep competence in purchasing, with 250 staff with deep category expertise, which it sells to a number of other telecoms operators.


Beyond that, cost teardown is the fourth pillar: understanding cost gets you in the door, says Wilson. “We understand price well, but I’d like to understand cost better,” he notes, highlighting that sectors, such as the automotive industry, have already paved the way in this area.


The final pillar is innovation and Wilson lights up again, describing his decision to bring an entrepreneur into the business to change the way his company behaves towards innovative and entrepreneurial ideas from suppliers – something the company has been keen to try for several years.


It is tempting to draw a line between this attitude and Wilson’s own eagerness to be “not just on the bus but aspiring to drive it” when it comes to the future of digital capability in procurement. “We have to embrace the unknown, we have to try things. I think that’s where functions can lose out if
they don’t change their mindset,” he explains. It’s with that same wide-eyed admiration that he talks about visiting Facebook when they showed him their cycle time for updating software (“twice a day!”), and his enthusiasm over the possibilities of IBM’s Watson AI capability (“it really is the future, it’s going to change everything about how we interact with other businesses”).


Like so many Silicon Valley acolytes, Wilson is overwhelmingly positive about the change technology is bringing. Perhaps it is because of the willingness of the senior leadership at Vodafone to embrace this change, but he is excited where many of his contemporaries are perhaps weary with drawn-out implementation, integration and education processes.


“You have to be passionate about it,” says Wilson. “If you’re not, you’ll never get through all the corporate pieces. You have to have a clear vision of where you want to go with digital strategy. If you can do something in an agile way, you can see results quickly and then you can get people excited."


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