There are only two things wrong with e-procurement – the first is the “e”. The second is the “procurement”

e-procurement suffers from two problems: the first is the “e” and the second is “procurement”.  Both “e” and “procurement” immediately put people on the wrong mental track.  “e” leads people to think that it is all about IT. “Procurement” is now so diffuse in meaning that people think it is about buying things and it is not.

Purchasing Insight logoI have had an enjoyable couple of weeks talking with some of our customers about where they are and their prospective directions of travel.  It has been interesting to contrast what real customers tell me with what I see in the “trade press”.  Depressingly, the bulk of what I see in the latter boils down to a single, unsophisticated message: “buy our software”.

“Buy our software” is, of course, the lifeblood of business activity and it would be unreasonable to be surprised at reading it. What niggles at me is when that core sales message is tarted up as a faux analysis which peddles surface froth as though it were deeply meaningful. It is like watching a Circus clown pretending critically to assess the pros and cons of quantum physics while pulling white rabbits out of his outsized bloomers.

A little exuberant exaggeration is expected – or at least not surprising – as long as the line isn’t crossed. One of the most difficult unwritten rules for vendors to abide by when responding to a tender is this one: it is wholly unacceptable to lie in a response. But you get no thanks for telling the truth either.

All of us who have been “on the inside” of eProcurement for a while know that anyone who believes the reductionist message which the industry pushes is either deluded or mendacious or both. But it keeps happening because there are always potential customers who lap it up.  In the immortal words of WC Fields – the patron saint of sections of the IT industry – “Never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump”.

So let’s get back to basics.

My discussions with our customers were tremendously encouraging and exciting because they are looking to move on to the next level.

Some of this moving on is expressed in terms that are familiar from the general debate. So, for example, having put in place a firm base of purchase order automation they are now properly positioned to draw the Finance community into e-invoicing and automatching.

But the more exciting discussions are with customers who feel that, having put in place organisation-wide purchase order coverage and reaped the rewards which goes with that, they are now looking at how to integrate the purchasing/procurement function properly within their business based on a mature view of what introducing e-procurement tools has delivered for them.  Overwhelmingly, mature customers do not talk in terms of savings – although they are happy to take them – but talk about strategic and organisational benefits.

For these customers the next chapter in their growth is still lacking on detail but the outlines are emerging like sunrise through early morning mist.  As we used to say when we started eProcurement Scotland in 2001, the most exciting deliverable of e-procurement is what comes after it.

Ian Burdon can be found on twitter @IanBurdon

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