In a year defined by the disruption of the biggest global health crisis in living memory, the focus for Vanitha Prabu, Global Procurement Manager, IT and IT Services at BT Global Services India, remains relatively unchanged. Based in India, Prabhu oversees IT indirect sourcing for Asia Pacific and globally, as a captive unit of the telecoms giant. The company offers managed telecom and IT services for a broad range of customers across the healthcare, finance and contact centre sectors. At a time when communicating remotely is at the heart of both professional and personal life, the company’s services are arguably more vital than ever.
Prabhu’s teams have been forced to overcome the same challenges all companies have faced during the past 12 or so months. But the fundamentals of her job, she says, remain the same: delivering value to stakeholders and suppliers inline with the group business objectives of BT. Creating stability and minimising disruption has been key to business continuity, and is built upon the core tenets of strategic sourcing, a critical process which Prabhu defines as the application of group-wide data, paired with consolidated purchasing power to find the best possible value in the marketplace.
Value, in this instance, does not necessarily mean most cost-efficient upfront; value can be measured by many metrics, and for Prabhu that means delivering a “win-win proposition” to BT, stakeholders and suppliers alike. Alongside cost, procurement leaders are now tasked with combatting the most pressing issues threatening supply chains, namely risk-mitigation, agility and resilience.
“Our goals are to achieve lowest cost of ownership along with minimal supply chain risk,” Prabhu says. “To do this we spend a lot of time speaking with stakeholders to understand what their strategy is and what their expectations are. Then we spend time with our suppliers, to understand how they're going to fit into our ecosystems, deliver the services, come up with new plans and ideas, and how they are going to improve efficiencies. That's where we try to evaluate our supply base and our business stakeholders, and we try to collaborate with all of them to ensure we provide the best possible services.”
So how does one successfully deliver on these objectives? The answer in Prabhu’s experience is leading with a collaborative mindset, and spending the time to explore how each and every business within the ecosystem can improve and grow.
“We always believe in a win-win position for both suppliers and BT,” Prabhu says. “When we onboard a new third-party supplier, we work with them in collaboration, because ultimately we are reselling the supplier’s products to our end customers. That means suppliers have to be very collaborative, they need to understand the BT ecosystem and the customer so that they can deliver upon our expectations, as well as our customers’ expectations.”
Keeping lines of communication open and maintaining these relationships is an ongoing process that goes far beyond onboarding, Prabhu explains: “It’s also how you manage the relationship throughout the lifetime of that contract.” BT conduct quarterly reviews to understand how all parties are delivering on the contract, and hold meetings with suppliers to discuss how and where improvements can be made. Auditors, meanwhile, investigate security and data handling compliance; it’s a process of continued orientation. “We identify whether any mitigation plan is required, and if so collaborative work towards that,” Prabhu says. “We also work on amendments and contract variations as and when required, so that they meet up to our expectations, as well as minimise and mitigate the risk to BT and our customers.”
In many ways the direction of Prabhu’s attention remains unchanged by the pandemic. The means the organisation uses to navigate the increasingly choppy waters of global procurement, however, are undergoing a dramatic digital transformation journey, equipping BT’s procurement professionals with the modern tools and resources to react to the ever shifting landscape.
"We believe in new ways of working,” Prabhu says. “We have been focusing more on artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and many more emerging technologies. The focus is on simplifying the actual process and minimising the time we are investing in these tasks. We have introduced many tools within procurement to ensure the life of our procurement personnel is simple but brilliant. We now have all the information, data, and everything else we require available in one click. We have also started a digital garage, which will help us to please an order and get what we want in one click. That is a power of digitisation.”
The result is a virtuous circle: greater levels of digitisation place more power in the hands of Prabhu and her teams to focus on meeting customer expectations and adding value. “We are driving new projects and implementing strategic tools like designed-to-cost, design-to-value, and teardown analysis. And the more we invest in digital, the more time we can dedicate to strategic sourcing, meeting with our suppliers, understanding new techniques and innovations,” she says. “We spend more time on the value-add jobs rather than just a mechanical task. It is really helping us to leverage our expertise to commit to the things that matter, rather than wasting our time on those unproductive jobs.”
Though COVID-19 placed further pressures on even the most basic procurement functions, Prabhu believes the outbreak was an energising testing ground for the unit’s new capabilities, and how procurement organisations can lead from the front in risk-mitigation. “We took a very proactive approach and we never waited long to act,” she says. “We started monitoring the performance of our suppliers, how they're doing, what the impact might be, and then ensuring there is business continuity so there is no impact to the supply chain.”
As the pandemic took hold of countries around the world, Prabhu’s teams were forced to wrestle not only with how quickly they reacted, but “how swiftly you are able to make decisions”. She uses the example of a supplier in China, which was unable to fulfil its obligations due to restrictions imposed in response to the virus. “Now you see the supply chain is getting impacted, so you have to ask what are the other sources of suppliers? Do you have in-country sourcing, or are there local country sourcing where you can quickly procure the services so that your supply chain is not disrupted? I don't want that experience again in future,” she jokes. “But we are prepared for those now.”
For Prabhu, the future holds vast opportunity. As a leader in India, she is something of an outlier: a woman in a senior leadership role in a country she says is more broadly prone to rewarding braggadocio above merit and experience.
“Procurement is a very male dominated area; there are very few women employees in the sector,” she says. “Oftentimes you find many capable women will think they are not ready for a promotion when an opportunity comes up. Men are more likely to think they can take on the role, even if they are not yet ready. But BT does a lot to support women in the workplace. The BT TechWomen programme, which I joined about two years ago, really helped me to develop my professional self, build my brand and develop my career.”
Prabhu hopes to extend that professional develop to the rest of her team, regardless of gender. Using the new digital tools at their fingertips, she believes in empowering employees. “Once the job is given to them, they need to own it end to end. I trust them, and I ensure that they get all the trainings, support and motivation they need from me so that they can deliver up to that expectation,” she says.
“They always come up with new ideas, challenges, and I always entertain people who want to come and challenge me, too. That helps me to understand what my team expects from me, and help me to learn and grow along with my team.”