Emerging Technologies: The Evolution of the Smart Assistant
Everywhere we turn, there is a constant buzz around new technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cognitive intelligence. These emerging trends are expected to revolutionize procurement. According to Supply Management, “Cognitive procurement will drive the procurement profession forward” and early adopters may certainly gain a competitive advantage. Industry experts appear concerned primarily with how these new technologies can increase agility within the procurement function. According to Chris Sawchuk, a key global procurement consultative practice leader at The Hackett Group, 74% of procurement professionals believe agility is vitally important, yet only 36% say they know how to improve it.
So which technologies are going to make the biggest difference, and which can your organization start using in 2019?
Perhaps the quickest return on investment will be in smart assistants. Smart assistants enable procurement teams to adapt to more proactive management, speak and understand a more regular language and provide answers to frequently asked questions, all while increasing the usability for end users. The most common form of smart assistant is a chatbot enhanced with AI. Chatbots, short for chat robot, are computer programs that mimic conversations with people using artificial intelligence. They can transform the way you interact with the internet from a series of self-initiated tasks to a quasi-conversation. Think of Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, or Amazon’s Alexa, but specifically programmed to assist with procurement.
Before diving too deep into smart assistants, it’s important to understand what smart assistants can and can’t do. To do this, we need to examine the differences between computer intelligence and computer cognition. Intelligence is the ability to learn, understand and deal with situations effectively while applying reason. In other words, intelligence is the ability to apply knowledge and understanding to navigate situations while also reasoning abstractly. Cognition, however, is the psychological process of gaining knowledge and understanding via experience, ideas, senses and visions, then basing future decisions on those experiences. We’re talking about cognitive procurement, not full-on artificial intelligence, which means a chatbot can’t truly think for itself, but can learn from each interaction to develop smarter responses. Chatbots are smart enough to comprehend what is being said and reply with significant bits of knowledge and accurately programmed information.
So how are smart assistants going to help your procurement team?
A smart assistant could examine past user behavior to anticipate future requests. For instance, if a user commonly downloads all the files connected to a contract once it’s executed, the smart assistant will learn that habit and begin doing it in the background without requiring a request. When it’s complete, the smart assistant will simply say, “Hello! I have downloaded all your new contract files for you.”
Smart Assistants also minimize waste and redundancy. For example, an assistant will be able to reply to a user’s redundant requests, recognize that the work has already been done, and point to the results or reports according to their permission level. This spares everyone time and money, drives better coordinated effort, and increases value by moving towards a conversational platform. Procurement teams can invest their energy in negotiating with suppliers, optimizing their sourcing networks, and having conversations with their users, rather than generating reports and handling manual tasks, allowing them to examine more information rapidly and uncover more opportunities.
This is only the beginning of what smart assistants are capable of, and as researchers continue to develop the technology, we’ll see more and more use cases for procurement teams. No one can be sure of where procurement innovation will ultimately go, but we can be sure that the evolution of Smart Assistants will play a significant part along the way.