AP Automation

On Monday morning I had what I thought was a slight cold. Sniffing, I headed to London. By late morning, it was a proper cold and by the time I arrived in Westminster for the second sitting of Stephen McPartland’s parliamentary inquiry into e-invoicing, I’d developed full blown man-flu. This was a session characterised by contrasts. Forthright opinions together with cautiously expressed views. Good news mixed with disappointing revelations. But overall a great second session.

When you read the news this week that the European Union has agreed a mandate for e-invoicing you could be forgiven for thinking that the policy makers in Europe have come to their senses. They estimate that a saving of €2.3 billion a year could be delivered by streamlining the back office processes in public sector by using a common electronic standard for transmitting invoice data. This all sounds very worthy - very 21st century, but as someone with a professional interest in this (as well as a personal stake in it as a European taxpayer), I’m less than impressed. Here’s why.

We all know the expression “There’s always someone worse off”. It’s a form of words aimed at reassuring someone who is perhaps feeling a little sorry for them self. It’s similar to “count your blessings”– it puts your troubles in perspective. But it’s a bit pot half empty isn’t it? Where's the ambition in “It could be worse”? Of course things could always be worse but whether things are going OK or not, shouldn’t we be saying “It could be better. It can be better. I will make it better”. Personally, I’m a big fan of the expression “there’s always someone better off”.

"As new Turkish e-Invoicing regulations come into force in January 2014, two leading service providers have partnered to bring world-class electronic invoicing to Turkey." So says the press release that many of you will have read over the past few days about OB10 and Digital Planet. But how big a deal is this? What is the significance of the Turkish regulation change? If you look into it, it seems only to effect a few corporations - those that trade in alcohol, tabacco and gasoline. Will it have a major impact or is this really just the Turkish Government piloting a concept or seeking to control industries within which tax evasion is common? As an outsider, it's easy to jump to these conclusions so rather than relying on my limited knowledge and intuition on this subject, I spoke to an insider, Adnan Vural, CEO of Digital Planet, who was able to demystify things for me. The new regime in Turkey I learned, is no pilot exercise.

In many organisations, purchase to pay is like a car crash. Like something dreadful – something that despite yourself, you can’t stop watching. Unbelievable. Horrific. Shocking even. Yet compelling. Alright, perhaps not quite that bad - but it can be pretty bad. I also mean it’s like a car crash in the sense that if you ask a few witnesses what they saw, they’ll all tell you something different. It's like they’re describing completely different events. It’s something I’ve written about before – the wide variety of views that people have of the same thing depending on their perspective. Finance people see P2P as an opportunity to account for things more accurately. Purchasing people see it as an opportunity to make savings through compliance and, indirectly, through better spend analysis to get better value for money. Ask a P2P operations person, they’ll tell you it’s about better process and straight through processing. They’re all valid perspectives and they are all correct but I have a question. Which perspective delivers the biggest benefit and more importantly, which is the one that will persuade a board to invest in P2P? In other words, what is the real business case for P2P? It's not what you might think.

The great American commentator and satirist Jim Boren (1925 – 2010) long ago coined the term ‘Dynamic Inactivity’ to describe a form of bureaucratic behaviour which we all recognise. Dynamic Inactivity is defined as the devitalisation of ideas by the promulgation of ‘viable concepts’ and ‘action plans’ which serve to mask the underlying formulation of ‘inaction concepts’. For Boren, Dynamic Inactivity means doing nothing, but doing it with consummate bureaucratic style. Perhaps the greatest disappointment in public sector eCommerce in the last decade and a half has been dynamic inactivity. Lots has happened: millions of Euros have been spent on policy development, technical studies, conferences and analysis, economic analysis, standards setting, monitoring, recommending and blah, blah, blah. In reality, f*** all has actually happened of any significance.

I attended the round table event on e-invoicing in London on the 9th December and I shared some thoughts on the event here. I want to share a few more thoughts, but this time I want to look at the way the debate is framed technically. I have previously criticised PEPPOL for being far too rooted in technology rather than business. I am not alone in making that comment although I seem to have my head above the parapet more often. A similar sense washed over me at the roundtable, partly from the contributions from the European Commission and Open PEPPOL but also from other industry insiders there. My feeling is that there is an industry agenda in play here, an agenda which ignores business realities. The impetus is to seek a ‘solution’ which ticks all the boxes of the industry ivory tower whereas if we really want eInvoicing to gain traction we need to look at what is already working in the market and at what participants actually want.