Recently on LinkedIn, someone asked the trick question of which came first: process or technology. The answer, of course, was people since, when Procurement, the world’s second oldest profession, started, it was just a buyer haggling with the seller for their wares. and this is how it was for a long (long) time (and in some societies was as far as “procurement” progressed), until shortly after a culture advanced to the point where people could form private businesses that were entities unto themselves. Once these entities started to grow, and multiple people were needed to do the same job, they realized they needed rules of operation to function, and these became the foundations for processes.
But when business buying began, there was typically no technology beyond the chair the employee sat in, the table they used to support the paper they wrote their processes and records on (and the drawers they stored the paper in), the quill and ink they used to write with, and the container that held the ink. And in many civilizations, it was like this for hundreds of (and sometimes over a thousand) years. The first real technological revolution that affected the back office was the telephone (invented in 1876, the first exchange came online in 1878, and it took almost 30 years for the number of telephones to top 1,000,000 (600K after 24 years, 2.2 million after 29 years). [And it took 59 years before the first transatlantic call took place.] The next invention to have a real impact on the back office was the modern fax machine and the ability to send accurate document copies over the telephone. Even though the history of the fax machine dates back to a 1843 patent, the modern fax machine, that used LDX [Long Distance Xerography], was invented in 1964, with the first commercial product that could transmit a letter sized document appearing on the market in 1966. Usage and availability was limited at first (as the receiver need to have a fax machine compatible with the sender), but with the 1980 ITU G3 Facsimile standard, fax quickly became as common as the telephone. But neither of these inventions are what we consider modern technology.
When we talk about “technology” in modern procurement, or modern business in general, we are usually talking about software or software-enabled technology. This, for some businesses, only became common place about 30 years ago (since most businesses could only afford PCs, and even though they were invented in the 1970s, it was the 80s before they were generally available commercially, and the 90s before most smaller businesses could afford them [for the average employee]), and only commonplace in the largest of businesses 50 years ago. Once has to also remember that the first general purpose automatic digital computer built by IBM (in conjunction with Harvard) only appeared in 1944, and that IBMs first fully electronic data processing system didn’t appear until 1952, and, as a result, back office technology really only began in the fifties, and was only affordable by the largest of corporations. (Furthermore, even though he first MRPs were developed in the 1950s, the first general commercial MRP release wasn’t until 1964, and it took over a decade until the number of installations topped 1,000. [And MRP came before ERP.]) In other words, technology, beyond the telephone [and fax] did not really exist in the business back office until the MRP. And it wasn’t common until the introduction, and adoption, of the spreadsheet. The first spreadsheet was VisiCalc, on the Apple II, on 1979. This was followed by SuperCalc and Microsoft’s Multiplan on the CP/M platform in 1982 and then by Lotus 1-2-3 in 1983, which really brought spreadsheets to the masses (and then Excel was introduced in 1985 for the Mac and 1987 for Windows 2X). (And 36 years later Excel is still every buyer’s favourite application. Think about this the next time you proclaim the rapid advance in modern technology for the back office.)
In other words, we know the order in which people, process, and technology came into play in Procurement, and the order in which we need to address, and solve, any problems to be effective. However, what we may not fully realize, and definitely don’t want to admit, is the degree to which this cycle causes us pain as it loops back in on itself like the Ouroboros that we referenced in our recent piece on how reporting is not analysis — and neither are spreadsheets, databases, OLAP solutions, or “Business Intelligence” solutions as every piece of technology we introduce to implement a process that is supposed to help us as people introduces a new set of problems for us to solve.
Let’s take the viscous cycle created by incomplete, or inappropriate, applications for analysis, which we summarized as follows:
|Tool||Issue||Resolution||Loss of Function|
|Spreadsheet||Data limit; lack of controls/auditability||Database||No dependency maintenance; no hope of building responsive models|
|Database||performance on transactional data (even with expert optimization)||OLAP Database||Data changes are offline only & tedious, what-if analysis is non-viable|
|OLAP Database||Interfaces, like SQL, are inadequate||BI Application||Schema freezes to support existing dashboards; database read only|
|BI Application||Read only data and limited interface functionality||Spreadsheets||Loss of friendly user interfaces and data controls/auditability|
This necessitated a repeat of the PPT cycle to solve the pain introduced by the tool:
|Spreadsheet||Data Limitations||Figure out how to break the problem down, do multiple analysis, and summarize them||Define the process to do this within the limitations of existing technology|
|Database||Performance Issues||Define a lesser analysis that will be “sufficient” and then figure out a sequence of steps that can be performed efficiently in the technology||Codify each of those steps that the database was supposed to do|
|OLAP||Stale Data||Define a minimal set of updates that will satisfy the current analysis||Create a process to do those updates and then re-run the exact same analysis that led to the identification of stale data|
|BI Tool||inability to change underlying rollups / packaged views||define a minimal set of additional rollups / views to address the current insight needs, as mandated by the C-suite||create a process to take the system offline, encode them, put the system back online, and then do the necessary analysis|
In other words, while every piece of technology you implement should solve a set of problems you currently have, it will fail to address others, introduce more, and sometimes bring to light problems you never knew you had. Although technology was supposed to end the pain cycle, the reality is that all it has ever done is set it anew.
So does that mean we should abandon technology? Not in the least. We wouldn’t survive in the modern business world anymore without it. What it means is that a technology offering is only a solution if it
- solves one or more of the most significant problems we are having now
- without introducing problems that are as significant as the problems we are solving
In other words, technology should be approached like optimization (which, in our world is typically strategic sourcing decision optimization or network optimization). Just like each potential solution returned by a proper mathematical optimization engine should provide a result better than the previous, each successive technology implementation or upgrade should improve the overall business scenario by both solving the worst problems and minimizing the overall severity of the problems not yet addressed by technology.
This is why it’s really important to understand what your most significant business problems are, and what processes would best solve them, before looking for a technology solution as that will help you narrow in on the right type of solution and then the right capabilities to look for when trying to select the best particular implementation of that type of technology for you.