Is UNSPSC Really the Best Route? 3 Reasons … ‘Against’


Today’s guest post is from Brian Seipel, Spend Analysis lead at Source One Management Services focused on helping corporations gain a clear view of their spend data to derive actionable budget optimization strategies.

In Part I, we discussed three reasons for the standardized taxonomy of UNSPSC. But it’s not always all sunshine and roses. Today we will discuss three reasons against.


The Downsides of a Standardizes Taxonomy

Recall I mentioned that standard taxonomies are a great start. However, we will want to move beyond the confines of these models to compensate for a few critical problems you’re likely to face.

  • Alignment to organizational needs and strategic sourcing goals may be lacking
  • Structural rigidity may not align with organizational profile
  • Contain a good degree of built-in granularity (yes, this is both a strength and a weakness)

All three problems above come down to a lack of proper fit – both in terms of organizational usage and an action-oriented focus.

First, let’s return to our overarching goal: to make sense of spend and identify areas of focus for future savings initiatives. Looking at UNSPSC through this lens, you may find that it difficult to source strictly according to this taxonomy. I’ll give an easy example – when organizations bring in commercial printers for promotional materials, they tend to also buy branded tchotchkes from these same vendors. It makes sense; both items are planned for and purchased at the same time to be used at the same events. Suppliers often work in both of these spaces for this reason, but you wouldn’t know it following UNSPSC strictly. We’re in two separate areas of the code. As a harder example, think about your trusted, value-added IT vendor. This supplier may provide hardware and software across a range of departments, integration and engineering support, and handle your maintenance contract after installation. Draft up a list of products and services, and pull a UNSPSC code to cover all aspects of this supplier relationship – go ahead, I’ll wait. If I had to guess, you likely quit halfway through writing up a pretty long list.

Second, these are rigid structures are inherently one-size-fits-most in nature. UNSPSC can be great for some industries, but may not align well to others. I mention earlier that UNSPSC did tend to get detailed in a number of areas and, if you’re primary focus leans toward the machinery or MRO side of procurement, you may never need to venture beyond UNSPSC. However, any company with a more specialty focus may not get the coverage they need. The purchase of specialty chemicals may have a head start by using UNSPSC as a baseline, but the taxonomy won’t have the granularity to truly understand purchases as-is. One way to solve this issue is to blend additional supplementary detail where needed to make up the difference.

I will close this section with a word of caution. Twice now I’ve talked about the power of granularity, either already found in UNSPSC or added as a supplement afterwards. As such, it may seem odd that I’m considering categorical granularity as both a strength and a weakness – which case ends up being true for you will largely depend on what you’re doing with this level of detail. If you can use this granularity for better isolating and targeting savings opportunities, then throw this under the strength column. However, “paralysis by analysis” is a very real threat to a timely spend analysis project. Consider office supply purchases. One could easily adopt a taxonomy to drill down to a very granular level, separating black ink, felt tip pens from blue ink, ball points – but, would you ever really want to? Always ask yourself, “is more granularity truly necessary to get at the heart of this spend? Will this place of lesser detail hinder this project?” If you don’t need more detail, don’t invest the time. In this case, both pens would be purchased by the same internal groups and from the same suppliers. Spending time classifying to this level, or holding meetings on the best way to characterize paperclip groupings, is a waste.

Never Forget your Ultimate Purpose

It can be tempting to opt for a standard taxonomy, as is offered by UNSPSC. The value they provide is especially obvious early in the process when faced with dirty data, particularly if this is your organization’s first foray into spend analysis.

This temptation, however, will always be short-sighted. It is critical to wrangle spend and develop a clear picture of where your organization’s cash is going, true, but doing so without a clear path forward (one that leads to cost savings) is only going to stagnate strategic sourcing initiatives, leading to lost opportunity costs.

Always stay focused on answering this key question, “what is my best path forward to identifying savings opportunities?” and develop a taxonomy that will lead you there. Starting with UNSPSC can be a great foundation, but always consider where the taxonomy falls short for achieving your goals, and fold in more customized categories of spend where appropriate.

Thanks, Brian!

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