5 Minutes With: The Smart Cube's co-founder, Omer Abdullah
1. Please could you start by introducing yourself and your role?
I am a co-founder of The Smart Cube, alongside my colleague Gautam Singh, and I lead the firm’s procurement and supply chain business globally as well as our operations across The Americas. I work with procurement and strategy leaders at global organisations on a daily basis, helping them to transform their teams to become value-driven and insight-led. I also lead our firm’s thought leadership activities in the procurement space – including hosting our Inside Procurement video series as well as global webinars in conjunction with partners such as CASME. I’ve also published “Risk And Your Supply Chain: Preparing For The Next Global Crisis” – a book focused on helping procurement professionals better understand and tackle risk within their businesses.
My previous experience includes more than 30 years of management consulting, global corporate and industry participation across North America, Europe and Asia. Prior to founding The Smart Cube, I worked at companies such as Kearney (North America), Warner Lambert (USA) and The Perrier Group (Asia-Pacific). I have an MBA from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, USA, as well as a BBA from the University of East Asia.
2. What is The Smart Cube?
For leading businesses around the world, The Smart Cube is a trusted partner in providing intelligence that enables their teams to become more insight-led and value driven. We work with our clients to help them tackle their most complex issues so that they can determine the right strategies and generate the answers, faster.
Through custom research, advanced analytics and best of breed technology, we transform data into insights – enabling smart decision-making to improve business performance across both the top and bottom line. We call it: Intelligence. Accelerated.
Within the procurement space, specifically, our goal is to enable procurement teams to become the number one value creators in their organisations. We firmly believe the function has the potential to not only drive better unit cost, but higher quality, accelerated innovation and improved sustainability. It’s our job to help CPOs and their teams realise this ambition.
Our clients include a third of the companies in the FTSE and Fortune 100, primarily in the CPG, Life Sciences, Energy, Chemicals, Industrials, Financial Services, Professional Services and Retail sectors.
We serve our global client base from our offices in the UK, the USA, Switzerland, Romania and India.
3. How did you find yourself to be in the procurement industry?
I’ve been involved in the procurement industry since the early nineties when among my other responsibilities, I was tasked with sourcing laptops for the small firm I worked for. It was an eye-opening experience, and not as simple as just figuring out specs and purchasing the machines. I realised that in addition to the quantifiable criteria, one had to take into account ideas such as Total Cost as well as the “human” implications of the buy.
When I moved into Management Consulting, I dove into procurement in earnest, leading sourcing engagements for clients globally. I realised the sheer opportunity and scope of what procurement had to offer, as well as the work that needed to be done to take it to that level.
I took this knowledge and experience with me as we launched The Smart Cube, where we became one of the first players in the outsourced procurement intelligence space – a capability that has now been fully developed to integrate analytics, intelligence and technology, to enable procurement teams to become more insight-led.
4. What is your favourite part of the industry you work in?
I’d have to say the sheer dynamism of the industry is what is very exciting right now. That dynamism manifests itself in three forms.
The function itself is seeing a greater level of importance and credibility given its role in helping organisations react to and navigate the pandemic. Procurement has shown itself to be a real value creator and a team that can make things happen, from helping to manage and get ahead of risk, right the way through to ensuring the wheels of the supply chain remain adequately greased, so to speak.
We’re also seeing a real upskilling in the calibre of the procurement professional. They’re moving well beyond traditional roles to become advisors to key business units. This requires them to think and act differently, as well as to learn new skills. I find that very exciting.
Last but not least, the dynamism in terms of the supply market is incredible. We’ve seen more investment in the supply market than ever before and there are all sorts of companies popping up to solve all sorts of problems across the procurement space. The level and pace of innovation is amazing.
It is, without exception, the most exciting time to be in procurement.
5. What are the current trends in the industry?
The last two years certainly haven’t been short on challenges. For organisations of all sizes and in all industries, the last 24 months have provided a valuable lesson in crisis management, demanding new ways of working and new levels of agility.
As much as the vaccine rollout has seen us turn a corner with COVID-19, there is still tremendous uncertainty in the world from a procurement perspective. This can be seen from a pandemic point of view, with city-wide lockdowns still being implemented by countries, as well as the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. As such, I expect risk management to remain a primary consideration for procurement practitioners throughout 2022.
We’ve seen this all before, of course. In the recession of 2008, risk was a major focus, but back then there were no structured risk management solutions that could be quickly implemented to help mitigate threats, and so once economies started to see an uptick, issues of risk were deprioritised (if not forgotten).
Today, though, organisations have plenty of options in this regard, from basic one-size-fits-all software solutions to more sophisticated solutions that integrate technology, analytics and human expertise to provide custom insights into categories, suppliers and markets.
Risk management tools aside, the fact of the matter is that one cannot forecast everything and, as such, there will always be uncertainty. Without a doubt, the best way to battle uncertainty is with organisational agility. And over the last two years, many procurement organisations have proven beyond doubt that they have what it takes to be agile. When everything changed in March 2020, we saw procurement practitioners band together, support broader task forces within their companies, and provide the intelligence and actionable insights that allowed important decisions to be made more quickly. In doing so, they helped their organisations tackle numerous unexpected challenges, like lockdowns causing logistics bottlenecks and suppliers disappearing from their ecosystems.
True agility in this sense requires a complete change of mindset. Practitioners have to think in terms of multiple scenarios and outcomes (and their related probabilities), while they must also incorporate highly flexible processes. They need to maintain close alignment with internal stakeholders to ensure a clear understanding of their ongoing needs.
Finally, in recent years, we’ve seen a foundational shift in the practitioner’s mindset, becoming more insight-led, both at an overall function level, but more critically at an individual level. One of the few positives of the pandemic is that a lot of organisations have started to see the greater strategic value procurement can deliver as a function – especially in terms of responding to change and managing risk in uncertain environments. Without exception, this was always the result of the practitioner’s ability to understand the business, assess the implications of external and internal intelligence, and apply the implications as actionable insights, to the advantage of the internal customer.
Essentially, procurement teams are no longer there to process contracts and POs. Their job now is to understand dynamic markets and proactively identify the best responses to change. This requires timely access to external and internal data. But it also requires a different skillset than the one procurement organisations have traditionally focused on. The technical skills we’ve always focused on are now hygiene factors. Soft skills, like the ability to communicate, negotiate, and understand and translate issues (exactly as a consultant would), will be of huge importance.
For many, this may sound revolutionary – the brave new world of procurement. However, progressive organisations are already moving in this direction, and have been for some time.
6. What does the next 12-18 months look like for you?
The next 12-18 months will see a continued acceleration along all of the fronts that we’ve discussed so far – greater sophistication of the function, deeper development of the CPO remit, as well as a more advisory partnership between procurement and other key business areas.
In parallel, I also see the need for procurement to focus strongly on three key issues that will affect global corporations:
- Inflation – Whether inflation is transitory or here to stay can be debated endlessly, but the fact that it is here now and for the foreseeable future is without a doubt. Procurement leaders will need to grapple with this across direct and indirect categories. Dealing with cost pressures and higher prices (across the spectrum – from suppliers and how that is managed, through to customers) will continue to test teams globally
- Supply chain continuity – The pandemic is far from over and will continue on in one form or another for some time. Add to that supply imbalances and allocation issues, this means procurement has its work cut out to help manage, mitigate and ensure supply assurance for their stakeholders
- Sustainability – As more and more organisations embrace sustainability as a foundational requirement for success, CPOs and their teams will begin to factor this into their normal evaluative criteria when making buying decisions
At The Smart Cube, we regularly share insights into how procurement teams can leverage intelligence and analytics to add even greater value for the business – take a look here.
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