Take a look around a business that has implemented a new Procure-to-Pay system in the last few years and you will likely come across some user adoption challenges. Perhaps requisitioners have stopped using catalogues because they can’t find the items they are looking for, or don’t trust the pricing. Maybe line managers have overdue approvals in their queue because they are unsure of the company policy or their budget. Whatever the issue, challenges with user adoption often persist long after the systems integrator has departed.
An exciting recent addition to many Procure-to-Pay platforms is the virtual assistant. They are effectively the equivalent of Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa for business to business commerce, with the potential to alleviate problems with user adoption. Virtual assistants use natural language processing to respond to user queries: presented with questions or commands, they can retrieve information, execute actions, and offer intelligent recommendations for you. Leveraging machine learning, virtual assistants also become more adept at these tasks the more they are used. In procurement terms, they could clarify policy, check your budget, find a supplier, or even place an order for you.
One of the more mature offerings on the market is Tradeshift’s Ada, which as well as retrieving information can integrate with Slack, the team collaboration platform, to forward approval requests and place orders. Other Procure-to-Pay platforms are not far behind. Basware, for example, released the first version of their virtual assistant in May. In their 2018 magic quadrant for Procure-to-Pay suites, Gartner claimed that “by 2022, all major Procure-to-Pay software vendors will embed virtual assistants and chatbots for guided buying and self-service requests”.
The benefits of virtual assistants are clear. They make using Procure-to-Pay systems simpler and faster, providing immediate answers to queries that would otherwise be directed at already overloaded Shared Service Centres. As virtual assistants become more advanced, they may be able to guide users towards preferred suppliers in line with procurement policy. There is also potential for virtual assistants to be deployed on the supplier side of Procure-to-Pay systems, to facilitate invoice queries and improve supplier adoption of electronic invoicing.
However, while virtual assistants can certainly facilitate user adoption, businesses will only be able to use them effectively on the back of rigorous data management and absolute clarity over procurement process and policy. If this is not the case, you may end up with some problematic scenarios: virtual assistants confirming payment terms based on inaccurate vendor master data, reinforcing a travel policy that is out of date, or recommending suppliers that haven’t been qualified. In short, businesses need the Procure-to-Pay fundamentals in place before they can start leveraging the benefits from this technology.
In the longer term, virtual assistants may evolve to incorporate voice recognition technology. Gartner claim that “By 2020, 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen” and this shift in user behavior may take place in a business to business context as much as business to consumer. Voice technology in the office may make it easier for employees to access sensitive data, or in the reverse scenario to record or communicate sensitive data inadvertently. Virtual assistants and voice technology will make accessing information easier, but businesses will need to ensure that this does not come at the expense of security.
Virtual assistants, then, are an exciting recent addition to Procure-to-Pay systems that will continue to mature as a technology over the coming years. Clearly, they can facilitate user adoption, but businesses must first ensure they have a solid foundation in the way of good data management, a clear Procure-to-Pay process, and procurement strategy. As with many aspects of emerging technology in the Procure-to-Pay landscape, they are a complement to, not a substitute for, good procurement practice.
Contact Joe Temple at 4C Associates if you’d like to discuss your digital procurement strategy.