Category Archives: Sourcing Innovation

Supply Management Technical Difficulty … Part I

A lot of vendors will tell you a lot of what they do is so hard and took thousands of hours of development and that no one else could do it as good or as fast or as flexible when the reality is that much of what they do is easy, mostly available in open source, and can be replicated in modern Business Process Management (BPM) configuration toolkits in a matter of weeks.

So, to help you understand what’s truly hard and, in the spend master‘s words, so easy a high school student with an Access database could do it, the doctor is going to bust out his technical chops that include a PhD in computer science (with deep expertise in algorithms, data structures, databases, big data, computational geometry, and optimization), experience in research / architect / technology officer industry roles, and cross-platform experience across pretty much all of the major OSs and implementation languages of choice. We’ll take it area by area in this series.


Technical Challenge: NOTHING!

I’m going to burst a lot of bubbles here, but there’s nothing technically sophisticated about the development and implementation of an RFX solution by any stretch of the imagination. In this day of age, one could pretty much implement a basic RFX application in HTML5, javascript, and MySQL with a bunch of open source libraries in a couple of days. Form elements, templates, basic branching workflow, weighting, etc. … you even see most of this in free survey tools. Even bulk file upload is just naming conventions. ( But it’s amazing how many vendors haven’t even figured this out. :-( )

E-SOURCING – e-Auction

Technical Challenge: NOTHING!

Again, more bubbles bursting by the dozens. Twenty years ago, implementing an e-Auction was a real challenge with relatively simple web technology, slow internet speeds, and lack of graphical frameworks that could be updated in real time. But today, there’s a host of cheap / freemium solutions that implement basic e-Auction functionality. Unless the vendor is tying in with an optimization solution in real time to create a optimization-backed auction solution, no reason you should pay much for these dime-a-dozen solutions.

E-SOURCING: Optimization

Technical Challenge 1: MODELLING

This comes in two forms.

1. Structured for “Easy” Definition

Creating one or more templates that allow a user to quickly define the entities of interest — suppliers, products, services, locations, lanes, etc., collect the bids, define the constraints, and solve unconstrained, and maybe default constrained scenarios (3 suppliers, geographic split, etc.). Making what’s hard easy is no easy task.

2. Free-Form for Custom Models

Not every model the organization will need to create will fit in a template — especially if the organization wants to optimize working capital, minimize risk, cross-optimize related categories, etc. This requires the ability to allow end users to define the models they want using a modelling interface, which will not be easy to build because how do you hand over all the power but still make it understandable by a non-programmer / non-mathematician.

Technical Challenge 2: SOLVING

It’s hard to build these models, but it’s much harder to solve them. First of all, you have to map them to a system of equations that can be solved by your, hopefully, mixed integer linear programming solver (as you want to use a solver that is mathematically sound and complete), optimize them, optimize the solver settings, and hope that everything was translated consistently and there are no conflicting or unsatisfiable constraints and the model can be solved in a reasonable amount of time. Given that solution time grows exponentially with model size, this can be quite a challenge even for moderate sized models.

E-SOURCING – Contract Management

Technical Challenge 1: Contract Analytics

A simple contract management application, which is nothing more than meta-data based contract indexing and tracking, can literally be built by a high-school student with an Access database and go head-to-head with most of the basic contract management modules out there today! In fact, most of the capabilities of most contract management modules are pretty simplistic and can be built in a matter of days with a good BPM configurator (and companies like Agiloft have done it). The exception is contract analytics (like that provided by the likes of Seal Software).

Using semantic analysis to figure out what contracts contain clauses of a certain type, what contracts are missing clauses that pertain to a certain regulation, and whether a certain clause is close enough to a required / suggested clause is not easy. Not easy at all! Semantic technology is still emerging, and trying to capture a user’s wants, even given a set of sample clauses, is quite computationally difficult!


With the exception of decision optimization and contract analytics, baseline e-Sourcing is pretty much common fare today that can be bought off the shelf from dozens (and dozens) of providers, but, as you can see, it’s not all equal — any provider with true decision optimization or true contract analytics is leagues ahead of anyone else.

And, of course, in this series, we’re not discussing the User Experience, and in some cases, a good User Experience, while not always challenging to code, can be
very challenging to define.

Next up, baseline e-Procurement!

What Makes a Sourcing Suite?

Good question, and one both customers and vendors must answer in the days ahead. Last decade, it was pretty simple. You could claim a sourcing suite if you had decent e-Negotiation support with some document management and reporting. And if, instead of document management, you had contract management and if, instead of reporting you had real spend analysis, then you were best of breed. And if, on top of all of this, you had some basic project management or category guidance, you were awesome.

But that was then, this is now. These days, if you don’t have basic S2C (Analysis, e-Negotiation, Contract Management) with decent Supplier Information Management, you’re not even a contender. Plus, given that many providers are offering some project / workflow management, expert driven category guidance, bill of materials support for direct sourcing, contract analytics (not the same as contract management), deep SRM (Supplier Relationship Management, Performance Management, Compliance Management, Risk Management, Optimization and other unique offerings that they expect to gain them market-share.

So what do you need? Hard to say because the real answer is whatever you need to successfully conduct and monitor a sourcing event that doesn’t belong in the complementary P2P suite. That varies based on the category and the industry you’re in, but there is some commonality. Specifically, while still not a mainstay of sourcing suites, every suite needs project/workflow management, every suite needs some performance tracking and management (as that should influence not only current, but future, events), a minimum of SPM (supplier performance management) and not SIM, some compliance requirement and documentation management, and better than average analytics. And any organization that does a lot of direct sourcing needs Bill of Materials Management, and while most organizations don’t know it, you’ll always find a lower-cost allocation with an optimization-backed sourcing solution. (And going back to Wednesday’s post, this isn’t savings, this is avoidance of unnecessary costs.)

In other words, you need a lot. But, fortunately, you don’t need best of breed for most of this. The only solutions that continually provide year-over-year value of 10% or more (through avoidance of unnecessary costs) are advanced analytics solutions and true optimization solutions. So you need best of breed here.

But not for most of the other components, although certain components should be better than average. The RFX in particular. It should not only be ridiculously easy to create and modify RFXs (which are typically the beginning of every sourcing event) but also to bulk upload attachments (as this can kill days in large projects when you have ten bill of materials with a dozen to a hundred items each and each component needs its own spec document), define a team for collaborative and distributed creation and scoring, and one-click integration into the analytics and optimization modules for detailed analysis.

Another component that needs to be better than average is the Supplier Portal — you need to make it as easy as possible for suppliers to provide information, response to events, create collaborative corrective action plans, offer innovation ideas, and so on. You want your suppliers to work with you and find it at least a reasonable, if not an enjoyable, experience. If the portal, and integration options, are sub-par and painful to use, and leave a bad taste in their mouth, this will eventually sour the relationship.

In other words, while the exact definition of a Sourcing Suite can be a bit nebulous, the requirements it has to fulfill, especially for your organization, are not. And a key requirement is usability and a good user experience for buyers and suppliers alike. Keep this in mind when selecting your new sourcing solution.

Are We About to Enter the Age of Permissive Analytics?

Right now most of the leading analytics vendors are rolling out or considering the roll out of prescriptive analytics, which goes one step beyond predictive analytics and assigns meaning to those analytics in the form of actionable insights the organization could take in order to take advantage of the likely situation suggested by the predictive analytics.

But this won’t be the end. Once a few vendors have decent predictive analytics solutions, one vendor is going to try and get an edge and start rolling out the next generation analytics, and, in particular, permissive analytics. What are permissive analytics, you ask? Before we define them, let’s take a step back.

In the beginning, there were descriptive analytics. Solutions analyzed your spend and / or metrics and gave you clear insight into your performance.

Then there are predictive analytics. Solutions analyzed your spend and / or metrics and used time-period, statistical, or other algorithms to predict likely future spend and / or metrics based on current and historical spend / metrics and present the likely outcomes to you in order to help you make better decisions.

Predictive analytics was great as long as you knew how to interpret the data, what the available actions were, and which actions were most likely to achieve the best business outcomes given the likely future trend on the spend and / or metrics. But if you didn’t know how to interpret the data, what your options were, or how to choose the best one that was most in line with the business objectives.

The answer was, of course, prescriptive analytics, which combined the predictive analytics with expert knowledge that not only prescribed a course of action but indicated why the course of action was prescribed. For example, if the system detected rising demand within the organization and predicted rising cost due to increasing market demand, the recommendation would be to negotiate for, and lock-in supply as soon as possible using either an (optimization-backed) RFX, auction, or negotiation with incumbents, depending upon which option was best suited to the current situation.

But what if the system detected that organizational demand was falling, but market demand was falling faster, there would be a surplus of supply, and the best course of action was an immediate auction with pre-approved suppliers (which were more than sufficient to create competition and satisfy demand)? And what if the auction could be automatically configured, suppliers automatically invited, ceilings automatically set, and the auction automatically launched? What if nothing needed to be done except approve, sit back, watch, and auto-award to the lowest bidder? Why would the buyer need to do anything at all? Why shouldn’t the system just go?

If the system was set up with rules that defined behaviours that the buyer allowed the system to take automatically, then the system could auto-source on behalf of the buyer and the buying organization. The permissive analytics would not only allow the system to automate non strategic sourcing and procurement activities, but do so using leading prescriptive analytics combined with rules defined by the buying organization and the buyer. And if prescriptive analytics included a machine learning engine at the core, the system could learn buyer preferences for automated vs. manual vs. semi-automated and even suggest permissive rules (that could, for example, allow the category to be resourced annually as long as the right conditions held).

In other words, the next generation of analytics vendors are going to add machine learning, flexible and dynamic rule definition, and automation to their prescriptive analytics and the integrated sourcing platforms and take automated buying and supply chain management to the next level.

But will it be the right level? Hard to say. The odds are they’ll make significantly fewer bad choices than the average sourcing professional (as the odds will increase to 98% over time), but, unlike experienced and wise sourcing professionals, won’t detect when an event happens in left-field that totally changes the dynamics and makes a former best-practice sourcing strategy mute. They’ll detect and navigate individual black swan attacks but will have no hope of detecting a coordinated black swan volley. However, if the organization also employs risk management solutions with real time event monitoring and alerts, ties the risk management system to the automation, and forces user review of higher spend / higher risk categories put through automation, it might just work.

Time will tell.

Is Category Management a Prism? Or a Telescope?

Over on Procurement.World, the procurement dynamo tells us that category management is a prism. More specifically, the procurement dynamo tells us category management is about looking at spend through the prism of

  • company strategy
  • internal customers’ needs
  • supplier/supply market

Through these lenses, procurement will determine if it should be focussing on categories, value drivers, required supplier capabilities, and supply assurance. How?

According to the procurement dynamo, by going through the key components of the category management checklist and seeing where they lead.

So what are the components? You can download the checklist [registration required] and review them yourself, but, needless to say, they revolve around:

  • taxonification
  • supplier classification
  • category strategy from an organizational, stakeholder, and procurement perspective
  • sourcing strategy
  • ROI calculations
  • action plans
  • governance
  • measurement

But is it a prism, or a telescope — a linear sequence of lenses that serves to sequentially focus in on a particular category definition, strategy, execution plan, and return. By the time you go through the incremental category evaluation and strategy and execution, you typically have one view, one color on the problem — not a rainbow. Traditional category management typically ends up with one way to look at the category, not multiple.

It probably should be a prism — as the strategy should change with the market conditions, the customer needs, innovation capability, and so on — all features not considered in a fixed plan and linear workflow. But will it be? And how do we make it one? Thoughts?

the public defender’s five principles of sourcing … (Part II)

… and why you need to understand them if you want to source better.

Over on Spend Matters UK, the public defender recently gave us the fifth in his Five Principles of Sourcing. Designed to mimic the philosophies that underpin many of the biggest and best firms in the world, the public defender‘s five principles were designed to inform good practice that is fundamental to procurement success, regardless of vertical, region, or category.

Yesterday, we discussed the first three principles: Coherence, Openness, Rigour. Today we continue where we left off.


Alignment covers both alignment to stakeholders and to the market. Sounds obvious, and there will be few procurement professionals (we hope) who don’t understand the need for stakeholders to be signed up to and involved in critical sourcing and procurement activities. But on the market side, how often do we try and source something that isn’t really what the market can best supply?

True success is not saving money, consolidating SKUS, consolidating the supply base, or increasing supplier performance measures — true success is meeting the needs of the stakeholders *while* doing all of the above. Remember, Supply Management’s job is to support the organizational goals, not it’s own … and true success is satisfying stakeholders (and helping them satisfy end customers).


Everything we do must come back to being “commercial” — looking to achieve benefits and competitive advantage for our organisations through putting in place and managing effective “commercial” deals.

Even non-profit organizations are in business to generate “profit”. The only difference is “profit” is defined as excess revenue (beyond what is needed to cover expenses) that can be put towards the intended purpose of the noon-profit (such as researching a cure, sheltering the homeless, or spreading the word). Thus, the end goal of the event is to minimize the cost necessary to achieve the stakeholder goals and have money left at the end of the day to do “more”, whatever “more” may be. That’s how competitive advantage is achieved, more value for less outlay.

In other words, if you fail to embed one of these principles in your sourcing event, you are not going to extract the value you should … and may even do worse than just spot buying on the open market or leaving every organizational user to fend for herself. For example:

If the process is not coherent, you might get the best possible deal on ink cartridges, but not realize that IT has included free replacements of all the inkjet printers with laser printers as part of their big server buy that they did internally because your team just didn’t have the technical chops to digest the overly convoluted specs provided by the potential vendors.

If the process is not open, you might save 2% on the same old, same old steel parts buy, but not realize that 40% of the cost is in the overhead because the supplier is still using bending and punching and not new laser cutting techniques that the supplier down the street is using to reduce overhead to 20%, which means that 1/5 of the cost is up for negotiation!

If the process is not rigourous, incumbents can be allowed to negotiate away awards that were fairly awarded to new suppliers in return for shady promises of cost reductions on future events, free trips to vendor learning days, and so on. This takes you down a slippery slope that not only puts your ethics in questions, but the value you delivered, as maybe the incumbent lost because they were charging more for what has become an inferior product or service (as competitor offerings improved since you first picked the incumbent).

If the process is not aligned, then you’ll get a great deal on a great product and deliver a huge value … no one wants. As a result, the stakeholders will just buy off contract at higher market prices because there will be inflated demand (as a result of contracts not being adhered to which reserve inventory). Without alignment, no one wins. Ever.

If the process is not commercial, you’re missing the point. Supply Management is about more stakeholder value for less outlay than would otherwise be made without Supply Management. (Not necessarily less than last time. If market prices increased 10% but Supply Management kept increases to 5%, that’s less outlay than the org. unit would have done without Supply Management’s involvement if it was historically buying at market.)

In other words, heed the five principles well. And download the public defender‘s white papers (registration required) for more insight.