e-procurement – Does mobile approval undermine control?

e-procurement – Does mobile approval undermine control?

Many P2P solution vendors make a big play of their mobile offerings. Indeed, many of their customers and prospective customers similarly attach high importance to the ability to approve orders on the move. But does mobile approval deliver any business value – indeed does it not introduce risks that actually devalues the process?

The attraction of mobile approvals has been around for far longer than it has been practical. There are many circumstances where approving managers are required to approve a purchasing decision when they are away from a networked computer. A few years ago, appropriate handsets were seen as too expensive or not robust enough to work in the field but The Smart Phone changed that. It was omnipresent, it didn’t need a wifi network if there was a decent 3G signal and even if it didn’t pass the robustness test that used to be applied to handsets, if it’s in your pocket anyway, why not use it?

But there’s a problem. Approving a purchase, especially a high value purchase, may require some detailed checking. Is it being applied to the right cost centre? Is there sufficient budget? Is there an alternative source of goods from existing stock or is the most appropriate supplier being used? All of these kinds of questions are not typically answered even in a modern day mobile application and the temptation for the manger is to simply approve on trust.

Forrester pointed out this shortcoming in their 2017 Forrester Wave e-procurement report indeed, they claim that mobile approval apps actually undermine control frameworks.

“Almost all of the approval apps we saw failed to include the data that a manager would need in order to make an informed decision” they say. “Most of them make it too easy to click “approve” without really looking at the transaction. The better ones alert managers to issues that may warrant their consideration, such as a purchase that would put them close to or over budget, and then provide extra information that the manager will want to see before making his decision.”

And they go on to say that vendors should: “accept that manual mobile approvals are of questionable control value and instead change validation processes to include more automated checks and post hoc exception reports.” They should also “continually monitor approval processes to identify opportunities to refine them. For instance, if a manager gets five or more exceptions a day to approve and approves 80% of them, then they aren’t really exceptions.”

Forrester makes a point worth raising but I don’t agree with their conclusions which I suspect come from a confusion between technology and policy. We should always remember that the technology doesn’t deliver best practice, it merely enables it. Given a mobile tool that allows a manager to approve on trust does not mean that he or she no longer needs to follow policy and make the appropriate checks before approving. They may have to make a phone call to seek clarification, they may have been alerted to the purchase request earlier and performed checks already or they may defer approval until they return to the office.

The important point about mobile approval is that it can fulfil a very important business requirement to be able to approve purchase requests quickly. Important project or customer milestones can be met that would otherwise have been missed because an approving manager has been away from their desk. I have seen real life examples of the day being saved because the manager is still able to work remotely, at the weekend, when they are on holiday – in one case when they were in hospital waiting to go in for an operation.

Is it true to say that mobile approval apps “undermine control frameworks”? No it is not – however poor practice does. It is perfectly possible for approval managers to ignore some controls and approve purchases on trust even when in the office. Mobile apps don’t make that more likely or easier. It is of course more difficult to make a fully informed decision using a mobile app but no more difficult than not having one.

e-procurement tools – like all enterprise software – are not a panacea. They should make compliance to policy easier for users but they are not tools that in any way remove responsibility for following policy.

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