The workforces of the future: Human-Machine convergences

Digital workforces are already here. Matthew Rose, Procurement Transformation Practice Lead at KPMG UK paints his vision of its future

The evolution of the digital workforce

In a recent CEO study conducted by KPMG, over 70% of CEOs surveyed agreed that retaining talent is a key priority for long-term success. 

Matthew Rose, Procurement Transformation Practice Lead and Partner at KPMG UK, says that the digital workforce was born out of a desire to get more from the available talent. “Businesses sought to run leaner headcounts and focus the available talent on higher value tasks,” he says. “Using machines to automate transactional activity in, for example, the purchase-to-pay process and pivoting available procurement resources to spend more time on strategic and higher value category management activity.” Rose says that this first wave of machines, focused on repeatable high volume tasks and lent heavily on robotic process automation and simple bots.

“With a talent crisis at the forefront of workforce planning, and the in-demand skills for new and emerging technologies, automation and artificial intelligence is increasingly being used for higher value-added tasks – illustrated by the explosion of available solutions on the market," says Rose. “Collaboration, supply market research, sourcing and data analytics have all been targeted by new wave intelligence-enabling procurement technology.

“Rather than replacing humans in these roles, the machines often seek to augment human capability – enabling the procurement resources to do more with less or uncover insights that would not readily be available to humans.”

According to Rose, the digital workforce is now a blend of human and machine resources woven together in a mutually dependent process. “And,” he says, “like finding the right procurement staff, the challenge is often uncovering the right technology to join the digital workforce.”

Examples of successful implementation

Recognising the challenge in identifying the right technology solutions, KPMG undertook a market scan across hundreds of providers. “The aim was to identify leading technologies to automate and augment procurement functions,” says Rose. “We use those insights to help clients deploy the right intelligent solutions in their business, to think ahead and build the right platform for a successful digital workforce. For example:

“One of our global retail clients had a high volume of low value purchases. Those purchases in the tail spend offered little payback on time invested by procurement team members. The retailer chose to deploy automated intelligent negotiation technology to rapidly engage with vendors, negotiate terms and place orders. The technology enabled the retailer to address third party spend that wasn’t being touched by procurement and unlock millions in untapped savings.

“At another client in the oil and gas sector, KPMG helped the procurement team to deploy advanced AI-based decision making tools to help prioritise procurement projects and allocate resources effectively. The solution helped to assess the business requirement, determine where existing supply solutions might exist, allocate the activity to the appropriate team and prioritise it in the work stack – delivering high single-digit improvements in efficiency.”

Will the rise of AI and automation replace human workforces?

The extension of these and other technologies into every aspect of procurement inevitably leads to the question as to whether, one day, automation and AI will replace humans entirely. KPMG’s paper ‘Future Proof Procurement’, contemplates a scenario in which algorithms replace humans leading to the demise of the procurement function. It concludes that, in order to survive, the procurement function will need to continually reinvent itself, finding new ways to deliver business value.

“The good news is,” says Rose, “that there are many opportunities for procurement to deliver more – be that driving more innovation from the supply base, orchestrating ESG in the supply chain, or reducing risk back to source.

“Whatever form that value takes, procurement will need to harness digitalisation, be a catalyst for change, continuously learn, innovate and transform. That has fundamental implications for the skills required in the future digital procurement workforce.”

Requirements of a successful digital workforce, and how KPMG empowers its employees

When asked what kind of skill sets are required for a successful digital workforce, and how KPMG ensures that its employees are properly trained and equipped for this new way of working, Rose points out that with the rapidly evolving role of procurement, the traditional approach of matching people to jobs and role-based training will no longer suffice.

“Instead,” he says, “businesses need to move to a skills-based approach. Procurement professionals will need skills to help them embrace new technologies, collaborate across functions, experiment, and adapt to the changing role of procurement. 

“With the rapid pace of change, upskilling and reskilling employees to exploit and accelerate the digitisation of operations can only be a reality through greater emphasis on continuous learning. For example, at KPMG, employees are aligned with this skills-based approach to learning and development – providing key transferable skills and helping them to be more agile to adapt and to embrace change.

“Increasingly, the learning and development opportunities KPMG provides has a greater emphasis on areas such as design thinking and emotional intelligence – both key skills to leverage within the digital workforce.”

The future of workforces: Human-Machine convergence

Rose thinks that the role of machines within the digital workforce will undoubtedly, only increase. “The relentless pressure on business to do more with less, the hunger for ever more data to drive better decision making and the need to operate at increasing pace supports a greater demand for machines,” he says.

“We can expect to see machines take on more high value add activity, increasingly advising on, and taking critical business decisions. For example, we can expect this when making sourcing decisions in real-time based on huge and complex data sets (market, political, economic, weather, supplier, etc.), that would ordinarily take humans weeks to analyse. 

“The lines between human and machine-led tasks will become increasingly blurred such that the experience will be seamless. For example, with machines, procurement professionals, and business stakeholders working collaboratively and seamlessly to build and manage supply strategies.”

As opposed to a threat, Rose sees major opportunities in the emerging world before us. He says: “All this sums up to an exciting opportunity for procurement to add more business value. Procurement functions that embrace this new digital workforce will thrive – those that don’t, will struggle to survive.”

Matthew Rose leads the Procurement Transformation practice at KPMG in the UK. He has worked extensively with Fortune 500 businesses to transform procurement capability through people, process and technology. A recurring theme across these transformation programmes has been the importance of a workforce equipped to harness the opportunity that digital presents.

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