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The future is already here – but don’t let it give you butterflies

Monday 6th March, 2017

The first eWorld of the year always marks the start of “time to get serious.” After the fog of early January and the planning and strategising of February, for many organisations, March is the time to ramp up a gear and put those plans into action. Still, I'm sure the event organisers have little time for any fog judging from the large number of attendees at the event last Wednesday. Held at the OEII Centre in Westminster, the venue was packed out with a wide array of professionals looking to find out and apply the latest in procurement and purchase to pay practice, as well as vendors including old friends like Basware, Tradeshift, SAP Ariba and Invu – to some others I don’t think I’d seen there before like Claritum and Baker Wanless.

Unusually for eWorld the day’s sessions kicked off with someone from outside the procurement world – a one-time professional poker player, Caspar Barry, and I heard one or two mutterings around how useful his insights would prove to be in enhancing procurement knowledge. It’s a sentiment that always makes me smile.

If procurement is going to thrive, and not become “extinct” as a later presentation put it, by the advancement in robotics and automation – then the idea that procurement is somehow a breed apart from the rest of the organisation has to die out. Yes, procurement may well be uniquely placed to have a helicopter view of the organisation and the professionals within it may possess a very useful blend of skills, but to be a proper partner to the business, there has to be enough agility to recognise that the ideas that shape and grow procurement may not come from within procurement at all.

In fact it might come from butterflies. Or the butterfly effect that is. As Caspar pointed out – the life we take for granted can change instantly just by changing one small element. That goes for phenomena like Trump and Brexit as it does for our supply chains, or sometimes the very nature of the business we’re in.

As Jon Vass from Tradeshift said – you’ve just got to look at Blockbuster to see what happens when certainty over your brand, its future and where its competition can come from, to know that fundamental change can hit instantly if you stop thinking innovatively. Blockbuster had the opportunity to buy Netflix for £50m, but turned them down because they just didn’t see the threat.

What Blockbuster hadn’t realised was that tech drives sharp polarisation and that its growth is exponential. In other words, you can’t use the rate of growth and change over the previous 10 years and equate it to the next ten. Change on that level has a huge impact on our daily lives of course,  but also in our working environments and processes too. Take the car industry for example, the whole supply chain will need a complete overhaul as we move towards driverless cars. Procurement need to be one step ahead and the ones who aren’t, will simply follow on the heels of Blockbuster.

Which is something that Jim Hemmington, Director of Procurement at the BBC referenced in his presentation, asking “Will technology kill the procurement star?” A sentiment which might not be as outlandish as it sounds… Jim asked us to imagine a world where automated inter-company ordering was linked to consumption and where machines are programmed to look and learn about global supply chain risk in real time and adapt accordingly and automatically. It’s a world that in some ways is already here. So does this mean that the PO will be consigned to history? Well, probably not was the conclusion, but only if procurement can adapt, can become more proactive and agile and not shy away from partnering with areas of the business not traditionally associated with the profession.

The idea, Jim argued, was to create excitement - find a way to attach what procurement can do for the core of the business – for example his team saved £76m last year, which for them means more money for programmes. Ultimately, the trick is to be savvy, look around and stay informed. And while it may often seem that fundamental change comes out of nowhere, in fact the indicators are often visible if we look hard enough. A quote from one of the presentations seems to sum it up perfectly:

“The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed” (William Gibson)