Automation is a popular topic within procurement because of how effective it is at allowing procurement to maximize the value of their time. In several instances, procurement employees are still needlessly devoting time and attention to the fulfillment of repetitive tasks. Many of these tasks include manual data-entry processes involving the duplication and reentry to data already in existence. Without the inclusion of a technological resource, these human efforts are unable to be scaled to achieve a more productive output.
By implementing a technological solution to automate these actions, low-value procurement activities are extracted from human hands while the consistency of those processes is magnified. Through these means, technology is able to accomplish what it was always intended to do; the responsibility to perform mindless labor is assumed by the machines, while human beings are free to engage in higher-level activities requiring thought and ingenuity. Therefore, while tedious procurement work becomes more efficient, procurement teams are able to explore creative solutions to improve the supply-chain outcomes that are within their control.
As promising as this sounds, implementing automation at scale is a tremendous challenge for procurement departments, and for a broad spectrum of reasons including inter- and intra-departmental challenges. In light of this, we are going to navigate the best practices for automating procurement functions at scale, while pinpointing frequent difficulties companies have faced when attempting to do so.
According to Gartner, the market for robotic process automation, or RPA, has recently grown 60 percent for software, 100 percent for consulting and 400 percent for managed services in record time since its introduction. As a concept, RPA was first introduced to the marketplace by HFS through a case study called “RPA is dead, long live integrated automation platforms.” The general premise of the article was that RPA was automating piecemeal tasks, but would be more effectively utilized as part of an integrated strategy. In short, the usefulness of automation is maximized when it fits into a working system.
It should go without saying that not every procurement process is a suitable candidate for automation. Generally speaking, the procurement processes that most lend themselves to automation are those that have a low level of complexity, are highly standardized, are high volume and have a high handle time. These activities, while still being essential, are also usually low in the level of value they provide to an organization.
From there, processes should be evaluated on a progressive scale that rates them in terms of the possibility that they can be automated, whether or not they can be adequately addressed, whether they are suitable candidates for automation, and then whether or not the automation is feasible and able to be managed conveniently.
Within the initialization phase for deploying RPA in procurement, there are six key considerations that ought to be examined. The first is the business case for change, which should align with the corporate strategy for moving forward, and should be based on risk levels, financial benefits, or both. The financial benefits, they should be evaluated in terms of both hard and soft savings.
To help support the business case, it is beneficial to establish a procurement services catalog, which allows you to calculate a unit cost for each service, and makes it easier to determine a benefit for the business case. It is also a good idea to implement a pilot process, because it will grant you the time to understand how the RPA works with the software. In addition, it is important to consider the licensing costs associated with whatever software you wish to utilize.
The second consideration is measurement and metrics. This answers the question of whether or not the proposed benefits of automation can be measurably realized. Determining the baseline of the current state of procurement processes can be challenging, but over the course of analyzing the existing procedures, a consensus usually forms around which processes are the most inefficient and in need of improvement, even if the average time it takes to perform these inefficient processes cannot be easily stated in a precise numeric form.
Organizational readiness is an effective way of making sure that the overall scope of the changes that are being sought are fully understood by the people in the organization that are most likely to be affected by them. It is unwise to wait until the changes are fully implemented to determine whether or not employees have the skills to maintain and scale the solutions that have been proposed.
Despite the fact that transitioning many tasks to an automated format represents an overhaul of the workplace infrastructure, many people will view it as another initiative or project without grasping how consequential the changes will be. In a business setting, projects are formally defined as processes that result in the creation or something new, whether it is a product, service, or some sort of systemic change. Once the project reaches its point of closure, there is an expectation that many elements within the workplace will go back to the way they were before. With RPA implementation, the organizational landscape is expected to shift to such a degree that workflow cannot resume along its prior path.
Because of the extent of the change RPA creates, it may be wise to have your staff undergo a skills assessment to determine post-transition competency for new roles. Also, it is common for high-ranking staff members to leave if they determine the changes to be too momentous for them to endure. People are often averse to change, so it is critical to be as transparent as possible throughout the transition to automation in order to develop trust, or to weed out those who will ultimately refuse to abide by the changes.
With this in mind, it is also advantageous to identify allies along the way to help reinforce why the changes will be beneficial to everyone within the procurement department. The success or failure of change implementation often rests with the buy-in of the individuals who are most likely to have their lives altered by the proposed changes. On the positive end of the spectrum, the shift to automation generates opportunities for employees to acquire new technical skills, or to transition to new career paths.
During an assessment for organizational readiness, it might be determined that some processes that are candidates for automation are more competently or cost-effectively remedied by making other improvements, as opposed to automating them. In some instances, individual tasks within a larger procurement process should be automated, but not the entire end-to-end process group that the task is a part of.
When you move to assess your operational environment, the aim should be to determine whether or not your procurement department is operationally ready for the changes, with stable processes in place to accommodate them. Further, due to the increasing reliance on cloud-based procurement systems, it is important to know whether or not your team has the knowhow to interact with the systems that will be implemented.
There are also many stakeholders outside of the procurement department that should be apprised of the automation process and granted a voice through the consideration of stakeholder alignment. This includes the finance team, along with IT, operations and corporate communications. Each of them should be made aware of the work that is being done, including the timing involved, and they should also be aligned with the objectives of the change. Otherwise, the likelihood for organization-wide adoption of the changes is low.
Project planning describes the process of preemptively identifying all of the factors that need to be taken into consideration before the implementation of automated procurement processes occurs. It helps to keep everyone on track, and prevents those involved with the change from missing key actions. The timeline of a project may shift if some affected departments are unaware of aspects of the change, and have their own regulations, restrictions and timetables for implementing the changes that are taking place.
These sorts of potential pitfalls can be remediated well before they become problems if they are identified ahead of time, and this requires interaction with all of the departments likely to have their lives altered by the change. With this in mind, it is undoubtedly important to have a thorough risk-mitigation plan, including considerations for what should be done if key staff opt to leave, and training protocols designed to ease the transition toward automation and factor in how different people learn new information in different ways, and at varied speeds.
When it comes to measurement and metrics for optimization, it is vital to capture the adoption rates of the changes. Remember, all automation efforts involve some level of interplay between humans and bots, and whatever units you were looking to improve upon at the outset should be evaluated and measured during the optimization phase.
When evaluating the operational environment for optimization, you should consider whether or not your automation system is physically located within your offices, or if it is cloud based. If your system is cloud based, updates to the system may interfere with the rollout phase of your transition to automation. Therefore, changes within the software should be anticipated and accounted for whenever possible. Ensuring the environment is favorable to the adoption of automation will improve scalability potential and end-user experience.
Those within the company who have been tasked with correcting problems—like a COE (center or excellence) or support center—must be capable of identifying issues with bots and how to quickly address them. Different operating systems have different access points, and support-center staff need to know how to solve problems within the software. Also, as part of a risk mitigation strategy, short-term workaround solutions should be delineated for every predictable problem.
In order for automation to truly be successful, those in leadership need to understand what the results of automation are likely to be, and they need to be supportive of those results. Frequently, delays in achieving goals or outright failures in the adoption of automation implementation are the direct result of leaders being unhappy with the aftermath of the transition to automation, because those results are not what they were expecting in the beginning.
Often, this is due to employees who dislike the changes that direct their complaints to senior leaders, and those leaders then grow to further distrust the changes despite their overall benefit to the organization. Those in leadership are also routinely reluctant to hire employees with the requisite skill sets to ensure successful implementation of an automated system, which then leads to the abandonment of automated changes.
Also during the automation rollout, it cannot be overstated that communication is key to ensuring that everyone is aware of the transition’s progress, along with the rate of adoption, and the common challenges that employees are having during the adoption process. This way, those facing difficulties from the changes feel as if their concerns have been heard and are being addressed, while other workers can gain confidence in the progress and reported benefits of the automated transformations.
Undeniably, implementing automation at scale for procurement is a challenging process for myriad reasons. In order to achieve successful implementation, the accepted formula is to predict difficulties as painstakingly as possible, evaluate both your procurement department and the larger organization to identify their capacity to tolerate the changes, and communicate the vision for the post-transformation workplace with anyone whose work might be shaped by them. From there, execute the changes incrementally—ideally in a pilot form—to unearth issues that were unforeseen during the planning stages.
Although the post-automation procurement department you have envisioned is likely to be superior to the present edition, it is unlikely that everyone within your workplace will share your enthusiasm. With this in mind, take careful steps at the outset to ensure that organizational receptiveness to implementing automation is high in order to guarantee maximum adoption of the new procedures once implementation reaches its conclusion.