September 17, 2021

About the Digital Transformation of Procurement – interview with Sylvain Féraud

By Patrick Chabannes

“Digital transformation consists of offering an evolution of our relationship with IT, data and information every day.”

Patrick Chabannes : What does the question of the Digital Transformation of Procurement arouse in you? 

Sylvain Féraud : Considering Procurement and the digital tools used by the Purchasing function, I would say that the Digital Transformation already took place a few years ago. For my part, I would talk about evolution, about the evolution of our relationship with IT tools.

Let’s look at the changes in 20 or 30 years, this digit that can be described as the 1 and 0 of IT can also be seen as the finger that handles data, this mysterious digit brings information closer to the person, to the user. For this development to which I refer is the realisation in the real world of concepts born after the war. Wasn’t the term artificial intelligence coined in 1956? The Internet was theorised in the 1960s and Arpanet was born in the early 1970s. And since then, technology, and more importantly, our relationship with technology and its uses, have been changing, evolving ever faster, echoing the words of Charles-Édouard Bouée’s Robot-IA in his book “The End of the Human Empire”: “In my world, ten years is a century.

Patrick Chabannes : Thank you, Sylvain, for this vigorous introduction. What are these new technologies that optimise the digital transformation of procurement?

Sylvain Féraud : The major IS Procurement vendors today have built software suites that provide a unified data repository (catalogue, contract, prices, supplier base, etc.) that serves transactions well in the context of an ‘end-to-end’ process. But the more these suites expand, the more difficult they become to maintain and configure, losing agility, while specialists are regularly emerging, driven by usage. 

For several years now, software vendors have been catching up with the history written by specialists by facing three requirements: the functional deepening of their modules, an increase in regulations, and a demand for simplification in the use of their tools. To meet these challenges, robotisation or digital assistants offer a range of tools available, solid “craftsman” tools; they are now easy to access, inexpensive, fairly quick to implement, but still need to mature in terms of their maintenance according to traditional infrastructure channels.

These tools, self-service APIs, Digital Assistants, Mobile Business Intelligence, AI (ML and NPL) and RPA facilitate the ‘close’ dematerialisation of processes, making them accessible to casual users. 

“By evolving the relationship between humans and tools, robots, RPA, are participating in the digital transformation with undeniable power.”

Patrick Chabannes : What is the impact of the new regulations for the Enterprise and for Procurement software vendors? Can you highlight the importance of APIs?

Sylvain Féraud : The regular and continuous arrival of new regulations or procurement practices is unfortunately going faster than our ability to operate them in our systems; they sometimes create new disciplines, new uses. For example, transparency and precautions in supplier relations have created a new discipline of systematic supplier risk assessment. New software vendors are proposing appropriate solutions and the large vendors know that they cannot run all the hares at once. And it’s good to see that many software vendors, both large and small, have realised that they need to interoperate, erasing technology disparities for the benefit of usage, through self-service APIs that allow their customer to build their Platform. 

These are still projects that take several months to materialise, but by internalising these API usage skills, we become autonomous in deploying them, agile and ready to adapt to the continuous change in the business world, new modes of consumption that are more transparent, responsible and compliant.

Patrick Chabannes : Could you elaborate on your interest in the Digital Assistant? What is its benefit? Who should be in control? 

Sylvain Féraud : You will have understood that the Digital Assistant participates in the digital transformation by changing the relationship with information. You can use it, for example, to facilitate access to your knowledge bases or to up-to-date information by asking a question in natural language. We all know that information is becoming overloaded, and that it is difficult to remember where to find what. The digital assistant is aptly named to assist you in these searches.

The other use case is an integration by the procurement software vendor of an assistant to perform the most common actions; this reduces the need for training, makes it easier for occasional users: For example, the Digital Assistant of our eProcurement sends approval requests with their context into Teams. This is a valuable change in the way a ‘layman’ relates to software tools, we’re getting close to Jarvis! 

“For example, the Digital Assistant in our eProcurement sends approval requests with context into Teams. This is a valuable change in the relationship that a ‘layman’ has with software tools, we are getting close to Jarvis!”

Patrick Chabannes : Hasn’t the consumption of reports evolved considerably, participating in the digital transformation?

Sylvain Féraud : Remember 10 or 15 years ago, to get a report, you had to have fallen into Excel when you were a child or ask the IT department for a cube and wait several weeks to get it. 

Today this same request takes less than 10 days and the reports are consumable on the smartphone! Better still, the latest BI solutions include predictive algorithms, so the more you ask, the more BI learns and pushes the questions of the moment. 

Patrick Chabannes : We sometimes hear that robots and RPA are not digital but rather automated. What do you think about this?

Sylvain Féraud : Forgive me for saying it like that, but it’s nonsense. By changing the relationship between humans and tools, robots and RPA are participating in the digital transformation with undeniable power. It is very common to see one or more people having to connect to one or more systems to carry out tedious tasks that are far removed from their core business but made necessary by the complexity of regulations. For example, if the arrival of an invoice reveals that an order has not been received: yesterday, a sub-process had to be launched from the invoice management system to the reception management system and a human being would connect, take note and act. Today we have implemented an RPA that automatically performs these operations, and only pushes to the user the one that deserves their decision, providing them with the context and offering to update the different systems for them. This ‘digitalisation’ puts our users back where they need to act with value, allowing them to focus more and more on our vocation to serve our patients. This is the progress it offers.

“Old Process + New Digital Technologies = Very expensive Old Process.

Patrick Chabannes : Too many people are doing the software’s job for the software. Let’s put people in their place. But aren’t these projects complicated? Do you have any idea of ROI?

Sylvain Féraud : But think again! These are not 9-month V-method projects. Not at all. They are really projects carried out using an agile method. This makes it possible to obtain the first benefits quickly: even with a 20% error rate, you have to go into production and refine during other sprints. This changes the relationship of business teams with an IT project, as the benefits are quickly visible and the implementation is surprisingly easy, even if, at the beginning, the support of a specialist remains necessary. 

Add to this the fact that the succession of tasks performed has been mimicked from the work of an expert, and will always be performed with the same level of competence, a homogeneity of quality, 24*365. Well, let’s face it, mistakes are also repeated with the same level of rigour (DLR: shared laughter)

We have set a threshold for return on investment measured in terms of human time that can be automated – and therefore tedious and worthless – which allows us to prioritise requests, as we have so many candidates to process. 

This is why our Digital, Data and Information Systems Department has created an RPA Factory, the aim of which is to become autonomous with regard to these technologies, in order to offer ‘off-the-shelf’ easy access to RPA to the company’s business lines.

Patrick Chabannes : Thank you for this fascinating interview with concrete examples. A final word? 

Sylvain Féraud : The digital transformation consists of offering every day an easier evolution of our relationship with IT, data and information. 

This is why, at Servier, we have decided to bring together all the technological skills in a single “Digital, Data & Information Systems” division in order to foster all the potential for cooperation and to give coherence to all their initiatives.

“The digital transformation always reduces the schism between technology and their use for and by the business, aligns B2B uses with those of B2C, offers access to information at the fingertips with ever greater fluidity and simplicity.”

– Sylvain Féraud is Director Group Purchasing Services, Servier

– The comments were collected by Patrick Chabannes, Cyrenac Conseil, as part of the Barometer on the Success of the Digital Transformation of Procurement