Intelligent Workflows 101: Graham Wright on the future of procurement

Think about the last time you purchased a work computer. The process probably involved research, verifying company-approved brands and models, comparing options online or via a physical catalog, and then patiently wading through multiple approvals.

That’s hardly the responsive, agile procurement approach needed to support today’s busy teams and demanding customer experiences. Graham Wright, IBM’s Vice President of Procurement Services, believes that intelligent workflows are changing the very nature of the corporate buying experience.

If you want to buy a laptop, why do you have to type anything? Why can’t you just take a photo of what you want and the ports on the side? Then let that image dynamically go into the system and make selections for you based on various scores, evaluations and business rules to automatically execute that purchase order through?” says Wright.

“For me, point number one is that the procurement and payables process will fundamentally change.”

Intelligent Workflows in Procurement

Emerging technologies are reshaping more than just the business buying experience. Automation, cognitive technologies, and analytics give procurement teams better back-end toolsets to manage their workloads.

Imagine this: What if an artificial intelligence tool could help you rate how likely a vendor was to default on a contract automatically, or identify opportunities for cost savings in a single click? That’s the power of an intelligent workflow, and organizations are just beginning to scratch the surface of what’s possible.

“Before we had GPS navigation getting from point A to point B was an arduous process. GPS comes along and all of a sudden, we’ve got an intelligent workflow for getting around town. Intelligent workflows operate the same way in various procurement and accounts payable processes. It’s not just about improving and automating — [intelligent workflows] actually reinforce or reinvent the process flow,” says Wright.

When core parts of the procurement process are automated and teams have access to deeper insights to identify risk and opportunity, there are numerous benefits. Companies save money, speed up procurement delivery, and offer better employee and vendor experiences along the way.

Managing Risk and Finding Cost Savings

Procurement teams operate at the nexus of two critical areas in business today: driving cost savings and managing organizational risk. The latest Deloitte research shows that controlling costs and mitigating risks are top strategies procurement leaders are using to generate results.

When done manually, the procurement process can be lengthy, weighed down by endless compliance checks and paperwork. That reality is at odds with today’s demand for agile, responsive procurement solutions. Intelligent workflows can help bridge the gap, keeping each step free of human error and speeding up delivery.

“It’s about improving user satisfaction and experience, it’s mitigated risk, and at the end of the day, it’s continuing to drive efficiency and speed within the process,” according to Wright.

Automation is shifting workloads away from buyers. AI tools help procurement teams find both opportunities and risks, whether it’s an alert reminding them about an upcoming contract-related deadline or highlighting flags that indicate a potential contract breach from a supplier.

More importantly, intelligent automated processes, such as onboarding new vendors, have the potential to self-learn, driving continuous improvement and freeing up teams to focus on strategic tasks. Instead of tracking deadlines, your team can focus on building stronger relationships with internal stakeholders and your supplier ecosystem.

Moving from Single Solutions to Integrated Intelligent Workflows

Traditionally, procurement teams have relied on technology that supports a single part of the process. For example, the processes for building category strategies, pricing negotiations, contracts management, and downstream service-level agreements are all often managed individually. The workflow for each area may be managed by a different person or centralized in its own software solution.

“Every aspect of procurement has application suites that solve them, but they are often independent of each other. With an intelligent workflow, those elements and those solutions work together in a way — across personas — to get you to the endpoint much quicker,” Wright explains.

That siloed approach can mean that individual processes are optimized, but that organizations miss critical insights across the entire workflow. Intelligent workflows use technology, redesigned workflows, and stronger insights working together to improve management procurement from the initial requisition to closing out a contract.

Optimizing Procurement Drives a Better Customer Experience

Ultimately, an intelligent procurement workflow lets you deliver a better experience — no matter what stakeholders you’re dealing with. The analytics and insights-driven tools help you understand what each audience wants, while automation eliminates some of the challenges of delivering.

“Let’s take a supplier in the field. They are doing a pricing negotiation with a prospective client. They can’t wait for a long time to turn around pricing within their proposals to close a deal. It needs to be fast. It needs to be dynamic. It needs to be innovative. Why can’t they have an integrated workflow that, within bounds of business laws, dynamically enables bid updates into pricing proposals real-time in their offices?” says Graham.

It can take sales teams days to put together complex quotes. Intelligent workflows can be built around the unique needs of a specific persona, such as a sales representative, to speed up the most critical aspects of their role.

“Within that persona and that workflow, a re-engineered process behind the scenes gets you to dynamic workflow for them that will enable them to close the deal without having to retrace their steps,” says Wright.

With intelligent workflows, buying that new laptop — or completing any other procurement task — could be as seamless as snapping a photo and uploading it to an AI tool to process the purchase. Cognitive capabilities, automation, and other emerging technologies are helping procurement teams develop future-focused processes that are agile and responsive. Make the investment in your technology, process, and people now to lay the foundation for long-term success and innovation.