As AI continues to emerge in a big way, Vicky Kavan, Vin Kumar and Nicolas Walden explores what the AI opportunity is in procurement?

Procurement is a hard function to impress. Other parts of the business can afford to get carried away now and then, but not procurement. Everything in procurement comes down to finding value and then making sure you don’t overpay for it.

Artificial intelligence (AI) might seem like just the kind of emerging new technology that procurement would shy away from. But, as many procurement leaders already understand, this would be a big mistake. In our work with the world’s largest companies, we see two kinds of major emerging AI opportunities you won’t want to miss. The first group – how we execute our procurement using, for example, new autonomous sourcing systems – can save millions today. While the second – the advent of AI-driven automation and enhancements across almost every industry and areas of spend – will help save you even more tomorrow.

Savings today

In terms of the impact of AI, procurement executives predict that supply market intelligence (50% of respondents), contract management (43%) and bid optimization (37%) will be some of the greatest opportunity areas for AI technology.

Despite this, and even as most AI and generative AI systems remain pilot projects, autonomous sourcing systems are already transforming how procurement functions operate at large multinationals. Many procurement executives have told us that they find these systems, which can automate execution in either tactical or strategic areas and provide enhanced decision support, extremely valuable:

  • Clients tell us these systems are helping them reduce cycle times dramatically – from months to weeks or weeks to days – and cut costs by 10% or more. Supplier discovery?  Shorter. E-sourcing? Shorter. Contract development? Shorter. While it is in the early days, time savings of 30% or more can be possible.
  • When MTN Group, an African multinational telecommunications giant, installed its Procurement Cockpit platform, the system paid for itself in four weeks because the AI-enabled software quickly identified new opportunities, consolidated pricing insights from around the sprawling corporation and accelerated negotiation preparation.
  • These systems are now making themselves useful across a range of sectors. Procurement executives at a major U.S. retailer, major European telecom and major European energy company all told us that these systems have saved time and money. Use cases include replacing the need to write detailed requirements, sourcing questions and even contracts through the use of modified templates through to tactical price negotiations.

Strategic drive

From strategy to insights, sourcing and negotiating ­– to contract drafting and supply risk management – AI-enhanced systems will make procurement faster and simpler. Although feature sets and value propositions vary from vendor to vendor, promising  autonomous sourcing systems fundamentally change how technology engages with stakeholders using chatbot-style interfaces to summarise requirements as an output of discussions; search and identify providers of products based on a variety of market, process and business considerations; prepare request for proposals and contracts; and maintain a higher degree of compliance with regulations. Some of these systems can even execute simple one-round negotiations. At the moment, Globality, Fairmarkit and Pactum (for negotiations) are three of the biggest names in this space.

Savings tomorrow

Eventually, we expect that AI-enhanced functionality is likely to yield major cost savings in almost every spend area, business function and industry sector.

Contact centres or marketing services, for example, could already send out automated posts and even voice responses that mimic the voice of your choice. A travel agency might be able to supplement human customer service with a robot concierge, making it possible to achieve a much greater level of service than ever before. Such changes won’t happen immediately – implementing them is not a quick win – but AI enhancements will be a huge source of value and service improvements down the line.

Category managers, be advised: the general consensus among purchasing executives we polled recently is that fleet, digital tech, advertising and general equipment are the categories that will benefit most from AI-enabled technology.

Of course, as with most powerful tools, AI-powered services also create new sets of potentially considerable risks. For example, you will need to make sure that your contracts are clear about what your vendor can do with your data – can it be aggregated in a large language training model? If that model leads the company to develop a more advanced service, do you want to be compensated for your contribution? Are you covered for potential liabilities if you transfer customer data to your AI vendor and your customer’s information is somehow revealed? If you work with an AI vendor and create intellectual property on its platform, who owns that new product? There are many new angles and issues that you will need to consider.

Looking ahead

Over the next five to 10 years, AI is likely to transform many aspects of business, including procurement. Based on The Hackett Group’s analysis of 44 Level 2 processes across the source-to-pay, end-to-end process – for a company performing at the median of our database – there is a potential to reduce staff by up to 46% over the next five to seven years.

Clients have told us they see digital technology (including AI) as the most transformative trend facing procurement in the next few years (71%) – more important than data (51%) or environmental, social and governance, and sustainability (47%). For procurement professionals, how the work is done and where they will find value are both likely to change dramatically. Given the speed with which we expect these opportunities and their attendant risks to develop, now is a good time to start thinking about the opportunities AI can create for your team.

By Vicky Kavan, Vin Kumar and Nicolas Walden

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