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e-Procurement: From Buy-in to Buying

The right strategies help ensure institutions—and employees with purchasing power—realize all the benefits of e-procurement solutions.
University Business, April 2012

As the benefits of e-procurement become more widely known, institutions are moving to incorporate these systems into their operations. And why not? As Sabrina Stover, CEO of BidSync, a provider of e-procurement systems, says, e-procurement saves time, keeps departments on budget, increases efficiencies, makes the procurement process more transparent, and encourages a more competitive bidding environment, among other advantages (including being greener). Stover has seen how institutions are increasingly forced to accomplish more with less and, consequently, must hold folks accountable for their spending. From where she sits, the transition from paper to electronic purchasing is only going to accelerate.

However, cautions James Thomas, strategic marketing manager at Zycus, another provider in this space, technology alone isn’t enough to ensure institutions achieve their objectives. The human factor exerts a huge influence, either carrying the effort to success or sapping its momentum.

“Once the technology is implemented, reality sets in and many are faced with poor adoption levels and negligible ROI,” Thomas says. “This is a typical occurrence that tends to happen when management fails to make it a requirement for business users to leverage the solution, and worse, neglects to teach the business benefits involved.”

Poor compliance is a concern that every institution has had to—or will have to—wrestle with to some extent or another. Procurement specialists from a variety of campuses were asked how they approached the rollout and training of their e-procurement systems. Although each experience was different, important commonalities drove success. Here are some simple rules for others to follow.

Lay a Foundation

Because these systems represent such a huge change, it’s necessary to whip up enthusiasm ahead of time. Janet K. Fix, purchasing manager at the College of DuPage (Ill.) says they kicked things off through an official “we’re excited” email communication listing the benefits of the Mercury Commerce e-procurement system from ESM Solutions and how these would make peoples’ jobs easier and more efficient.

At the College of DuPage, after pilot users got trained on the new e-procurement system, they became the “go-to” people for their departments.

Upper-level support is essential, says Tom Kaloupek, director of materials and management for Virginia Tech. Before implementing the SciQuest system, his team involved senior management, enlisting the executive vice president to send a letter announcing the impending transition. “We also met with the college deans and VPs and provided a briefing on the system,” Kaloupek recalls. “This helped garner leadership support.”

Communicating with suppliers is key, as well. “Electronic purchasing requires a lot of coordination,” Kaloupek points out. “We were in the ‘design, build it, and test it’ mode for about nine months, and part of this effort was to build a marketplace, because a lot of suppliers weren’t familiar with this kind of process.”

Bringing suppliers into the loop was important for Gettysburg College (Pa.), currently in the pilot stages of implementing a Unimarket e-procurement system. The division of finance and administration is serving as the “proving ground,” says Patricia Verderosa, assistant director of procurement services. About a dozen users are involved in the testing phase; several external campus suppliers have also been involved.

She explains supplier acceptance is a “key concern,” inasmuch as the small college, whose purchasing environment is “highly decentralized,” is anxious to retain relationships that have been established with their preferred local vendors.

“Decisions regarding approaching the vendor pool were data driven, but also heavily influenced by user recommendation, asking specifically which suppliers they need in the portal to improve its utility,” she says.

“In hindsight, it would have been helpful to have solicited your preferred provider base to gauge their enthusiasm for your initiative,” she adds. “This may have been helpful when prioritizing our vendor enrollment activities.”

Take it Slowly

That is, give users time to absorb what’s coming and work out potential system bugs before full implementation of the e-procurement system. Wellington O. de Souza, vice president for High Point University (N.C.), says the business and IT offices were the first to use e-procurement.

“We had to live through all the implementation issues before the general release and knew exactly what we were doing and how to take the project to a successful close,” he explains, mentioning that they kept it within these confines for about three months. The institution signed a contract with Unimarket in 2009 and launched the solution in 2010.

Carroll Community College (Md.) took its system live in December 2010, explains Stan Behnken, purchasing manager—but training of heavy and “unique” users began that September. To start, he created a focus group of about 15 staff. This group
attended a 90-minute training session and worked with the demo for a few weeks before going live. Full system implementation took about three months.

“The smaller group allowed me to work out any idiosyncrasies that were unique to the college or individual department culture,” Behnken says.

Fix says the gap between loading the College of DuPage’s system and going live was about six months, with the purchasing staff trained first. This consisted of two eight-hour sessions a week for four weeks. Then, pilot users—consisting of one individual, typically an administrative assistant, doing data entry from each area—were identified and trained by the solutions provider in half-day sessions lasting a week. The pilot users then became the “go-to” people for their departments.

At Virginia Tech, Kaloupek opted for a phased approach as opposed to a “big bang” where everyone takes the leap together. “Our first rollout involved a test group of solid citizen departments that used the system for several months,” he explains. “Based upon their experiences, we were able to learn and smooth out trouble spots.”

Then, each college was scheduled for training, with a two-month implementation period. A lead fiscal person in each was identified and tasked with acting first to resolve any issues within the college. These folks, and department heads,
received a pre-training briefing. Training was held in person and supplemented with online guides and help-desk services. After their formal training, they returned to their departments to assist in the implementation and dissemination effort. Periodic “town hall” meetings were held so people could voice questions and concerns.

Train and Train Again

Since infrequent usage can make recall rusty, light users in particular will likely need refresher training (or at least should have a handy way to get questions answered). Power users may well need reminding also. Fix says his IT department asked purchasing to provide a script so they could develop video training. Purchasing now uses this to train new employees and to serve as a refresher. Appropriate for both heavy and light users, the video training is in segments so people can watch as many or as few as they need.
Behnken holds periodic, one-on-one refresher training for those with questions, sitting down at their computers with them, showing them where in their manuals (provided at the initial training) to find the answers.

At High Point, de Souza initially held directed training sessions for groups whose feedback was wanted. Then came training sessions for those he described as process advocates. “Putting these folks together in a room will tell you how to sell your proposition,” he explains.

His team then had some open training sessions before and after system release. This approach provides an understanding of how “usage patterns are flowing between departments,” de Souza says. Currently, new employees receive video training first.

Kaloupek reports that help-desk support proved the best option for those at Virginia Tech who were struggling with the system. “We had online tutorials available. But I’m not sure this group of people used the online materials to a great extent.” (Both options are still available.)

Set Limits

Encouraging platform usage starts by teaching and enforcing compliance, says Thomas. It may not be easy for procurement leaders, he says. “Winning genuine adoption and support from spend stakeholders is by far and away their greatest challenge,” he explains.

The administrators sharing their stories here say compliance issues have been minor, thanks to preparation, rollout and training strategies, and provider support. But they’ve also implemented additional strategies to encourage adoption. For example, Fix says electronic requisitions have been made “mandatory” for amounts over $100. Currently, there are 385 active users at College of DuPage; of these, 75 are approvers.

Behnken says everyone at Carroll, where there are 50 purchase initiators and 41 approvers, understood that, by the month the new system was to go live, no more ordering designed to go through the process would be done by hand. There are exceptions to this, based on category rather than on dollar amount, such as check requests for dues or subscriptions.

de Souza ensured compliance by turning High Point’s old system off. The team also began auditing compliance and is starting to measure noncompliance (Thomas says best-in-class companies, those with compliance rates at 70 percent or above, believe monitoring and reporting appear the most effective in terms of “fostering a culture of compliance”).

“We communicate issues to department heads and employees in a very respectful manner. Most of your noncompliance issues will come from genuine needs,” de Souza says, explaining that the entire university purchasing base and all purchasing approvers use the system daily (the last time he measured, the grounds and maintenance team originated the highest volume of requisitions).
Kaloupek says that although some department heads initially worried their requisitions would end up in an electronic black hole, once they experienced the next-day arrival of their computers, lab supplies, etc., they began to relax. Based on user feedback, the
system was designed to accommodate various transaction types, and it built in some different tolerances so people could order up to higher dollar amounts. Currently, the limit is $2,000 on the p-cards, and card users have been told they can use it for things such as local pickup, airline tickets, or where the local vendor won’t accept a purchase order.

Inspiring compliance and buy-in requires understanding your users and their requirements; so do the necessary preliminary research, Behnken advises. “Don’t just select a system because it works for purchasing but doesn’t handle the users’ concerns and needs,” he cautions. “Sit down with department heads and people who will be initiators to get a feel for what they do and how they do it.”

Be respectful of this user base, says de Souza. “Always remember you have been empowered to make decisions that will affect a large group of people, and that those people, who are used to making decisions for themselves on a daily basis, will naturally question your intelligence over theirs. If you honestly consider their concerns, they will openly consider your challenges.”

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance journalist based in Long Beach, Calif.