By Andy Beth Miller

It all began with a most fortuitous fall. As I sit down to interview procurement expert Christopher Robert, Director of Procurement at Comcast NBC Universal, he shared with me how he inadvertently stumbled into the world of procurement. “I somewhat fell into it. I did not realize that I was going to be in the procurement world at first,” Robert recalled. “I went down the business track, and the University that I went to had a great opportunity in this new field that had a major called business logistics, which had logistics and procurement, and was an area that I had never heard anything about.”

His curiosity sparked, Robert then described how he excitedly rocketed down that proverbial procurement rabbit hole, soon discovering that he had quite an affinity—and penchant— for it. Robert described how, after falling into this business logistics course of study, he also fell head over heels for the procurement niche in particular. “I really started to enjoy [procurement]. I found myself working, even as an intern, with colleagues from around the world, identifying and qualifying new suppliers, and I said, ‘this is the field I want to be in,’ because I had an opportunity to really understand the business, received global exposure, and I was able to go out and really make a difference.”

In the past, contracts often sat on someone’s desk, and you would have to go and manually root through them to find the expiration date and the anticipated spend. Trying to figure out who had approved them was a challenge, and even if you had that digitized, many organizations had multiple databases.

Christopher Robert

Once Robert knew that he had found his preferred profession, and what some may even call his calling, he wasted no time in doing just that —making a difference. Specifically, he set his mind and efforts to achieving the most optimum procurement results possible, every day. In order to achieve this lofty goal, Robert has found —and still finds— technology to be an invaluable tool.

“Technology in procurement has been huge. For a long time, procurement and supplier negotiations have taken place with face-to-face contact between buyers and suppliers. Purchase orders were written on carbon paper and there were three or four copies based on who approved it, and each person retained a copy in their respective organization,” Robert recalled the now seemingly archaic practice with a slight chuckle. “Now, many items have already been digitized, but I think we are still early on in that stage.”

It is clear by Robert’s tone and words that he sees that there is much work to be done when it comes to convincing the current procurement world to embrace technology and the near limit-less possibilities it offers. Of these almost infinite possibilities, Robert shared just a few that he has personally incorporated into his procurement practices, finding them to be highly beneficial, the first one being streamlining data. “In the past, contracts often sat on someone’s desk, and you would have to go and manually root through them to find the expiration date and the anticipated spend. Trying to figure out who had approved them was a challenge, and even if you had that digitized, many organizations had multiple databases,” Robert shared. “The ability to go in and use one electronic contract database with reportable fields for all data, including commitments made to suppliers, anticipated total spend, spend type, spend location, termination terms, and a host of other fields was revolutionary. Digitizing this data enabled senior management to clearly see the obligations they had made to suppliers. It also helped the organization from a buying standpoint to better understand past relationships, including spend history, and use that [data] in spend category management.”

Unsurprisingly, according to Robert, such centralized contract databases enabled by technology are now one of the primary drivers of world-class procurement practices, and with such impressive results clearly shown in hard data, it is a wonder that everyone has not already jumped to adopt every technological tool that they can in order to streamline their operations and achieve optimum efficiency. “I have seen some resistance in folks to completely adopt full digitization,” Robert admitted, his voice revealing his own surprise by the seeming no-brainer of adopting the wonders of technology.

Luckily, Robert has found a way to introduce these tools to the somewhat reluctant recipients by utilizing a creative holistic approach, assuring the oldschool clientele that they do not necessarily have to relinquish their cherished, tried and true practices, such as the personal touch details that have been their bread and butter since day one.

“The best way to address that is by understanding what their real pain point is, and how to over-come that,” he explained. “For example, I know a lot of folks that have made a strong push toward pursuing almost all of their negotiations electronically. For smaller items and routine items, a lot of that works well, but I do think occasionally, there’s an opportunity to add in a little face-to-face interaction [a nod to the old school mentality of personalizing business] in order to really get the value out of it for the supplier and yourself, but within that context, basically taking that agreement, and then digitizing all other aspects.”

How is this possible, you might be wondering, as was I? Robert is glad we asked: “The best way to address that is to mix styles a bit, and if you do it right, you can have an optimal outcome. You give them one small piece of the sourcing process, then they are able to say, as long as I get that little face-to-face piece in there, I will agree to all the other digitization initiatives.” Quick and easy translation: Everyone will buy in. Everyone will be satisfied with the outcome. And the baby will NOT have to be thrown out with the bathwater.

...I know a lot of folks that have made a strong push toward pursuing almost all of their negotiations electronically.

Christopher Robert

It’s this kind of ability to achieve creative compromises, while adapting and growing with evolving technology, that has made Robert such a success. Having been fully convinced that technology really is the face of procurement’s future, as well as being a lead contender for the role of “change partner,” as Robert termed it, I had to ask him about simple, proactive steps that we can all take to try to stay aware of — and in step with — the ever-changing technological tools and advances in procurement. He provided these helpful tips and suggestions:

~ Avail Yourself of Publicly Accessible Resources, Such as ThomasNet®

Allows you to go online and find specific suppliers for category spend that you may not already know, giving you access to a plethora of other products

~ Utilize Tools Like Google Earth, Dun & Bradstreet, and Institute for Supply  Management (ISM)’s Purchasing and Supply Guide

Allows you to identify, qualify, and validate information provided by suppliers when you are sourcing

~ Stay Abreast of Information Provided by ISM, an Organization of Which Robert is in Charge of Programs at the Philadelphia Chapter

Allows you to stay abreast of latest information, including details about Blockchain, Bitcoin, economic forecasts as they relate to technology, and much more

According to Robert, it’s not rocket science, and it certainly does not have to be scary. Instead, i’s all about achieving “operational excellence and technology implementation.” And if there is ever any doubt about technology being the means to reach this ideal, the data results of technology-driven operations speak for themselves. Simply put: The proof is in the (procurement) pudding.