Taking stock: Addressing the fragmented Purchase Order Process
A new survey of finance personnel from public and private sector SMBs reveals that, even when purchase order processing systems are in place, often the rigour they are designed to enforce is not followed through. Ian Smith, Finance Director and General Manager at Invu, which commissioned the research, believes this means businesses could be missing out on all sorts of efficiency savings as well as everyday spending intelligence.
Our recent survey of financial controllers in small and mid-sized businesses, turned up some surprise findings, one being how many organisations had formal purchasing departments and structures in place. This was true for 80 percent of mid-sized companies (those with 50-250 staff). Although the trigger for having a formal purchasing department was often to handle goods for resale, where such departments existed they were also being used for internal purchasing by 93 percent of survey participants.
However, it is the gulf between where these organisations could be and where most of them are in reality that has proved most significant. The majority of businesses taking part in the survey applied rigour to purchase order processing (POP) only partially – controls which were undermined by more haphazard processes at other points in the purchase order management cycle. Typically this has resulted in unnecessary additional layers of manual administration and a lack of visibility across spending. It has also created bottlenecks in Finance departments, where all of the information has been centralised. This has left budget-holders and functional decision-makers overly dependent on Finance teams and disempowered from making informed decisions about new purchasing.
Attempts at formal POP appear relatively advanced from the research - presumably because of the need to be seen to perform due diligence processes in line with Government targets on securing the best value for money. By comparison, small private companies were the least likely to have a formal purchasing function for internally-consumed goods and services – by extension probably because they are not bound by the same external requirements.
Where a hybrid approach was allowed for purchase requisitions, 43 percent of organisations recognised immediate inadequacies in their PO practices and almost two-thirds (64 percent) indicated ‘urgent’ plans to address purchase order management inefficiencies in the future.
Even where businesses do have formal systems in place for purchase order processing, too often the loop isn’t closed – in that purchase requisitioning is inconsistent, even chaotic, and receipts of goods and services are not being tallied with POs until the invoice comes in, by which time the spend has been committed.
As well as rendering the business vulnerable to the cost of human error, late-stage PO/receipt matching fails to prompt budget-holders to think about the purchases they are sanctioning and how this will affect their remaining resources for the period. It also makes a mockery of the approvals process.
All too often, there is a lack of uniformity in the way that requests are submitted – it is common to see a mixture of paper-based forms, intranet-based forms, email requests as well as those made in person or by phone. How POs are raised gave rise to the widest range of responses. Only 9 percent of respondents said they were systematically raising purchase orders using their ERP system; 23 percent used a separate PO system, 20 percent used a Microsoft Office-based system, 15 percent managed everything manually, and 20 percent didn’t use POs at all.
Few organisations participating in the survey had a joined-up purchase requisition-to-order system and it is this missing element that is restricting their ability to streamline processes, and introduce greater intelligence and discernment into the purchasing process.
Staff should be weaned off old habits of estimating budgets based on “last year’s plus 5 percent”, and give more consideration to what they need to be spending and where better deals can be found. Once able to break things down, purchasers will find they start to perform spend analysis as an ongoing discipline rather than a one-off project.
Whether the ‘business’ is a public sector organisation needing to provide evidence that it has shopped around for the best quote, or a private company needing to look more professional to its suppliers, ‘make do’ solutions from spreadsheets and other cobbled-together manual processes no longer cut it. They don’t look good and they don’t support data mining or the level of governance that growing companies aspire to. The goal should be to move controls up to the front of the process and to encapsulate the PO lifecycle in a fit-for-purpose system which is reliable and can be interrogated, audited and measured.
To view the related infographic, please visit: http://www.invu.net/pop-infographic
Will Public Procurement Budgets Increase in 2021?
Procurement is more than just a private enterprise. COVID-19 reminded us that sourcing materials is an essential part of the government’s role. Throughout 2022, tiny departments sourced massive amounts of personal protective equipment (PPE), medical supplies, and emergency vaccines and testing kits. Even non-procurement professionals were pulled into the fray, as frantic timelines demanded nothing less.
According to Celeste Frye, co-founder and CEO of Public Works Partners, the crisis brought procurement to the attention of skilled employees who had never considered it. As non-procurement personnel stepped up to help their coworkers, many found that they’d stumbled upon a critical and rewarding job. “Existing public employees have seen the essential nature of the work”, Frye said. “[They’ve] gained some critical skills and possibly [grown] interested in pursuing procurement as a longer-term career”.
Small, Local Suppliers Take Charge
Frye, whose firm helps organisations engage stakeholders and develop long-term procurement strategies, thinks it well worth the effort to open one’s mind to new opportunities. Cooperative contracts, for instance, can help public departments and municipalities save money, time, and effort. By joining together with other towns or cities in the region, public procurement teams aggregate their purchasing power and can drive better deals.
These cooperative contracts have the added benefit of advancing equity. Smaller suppliers that struggle to compete with established firms for government contracts can act as subcontractors, helping big suppliers fulfil bits of the project. Once they get their foot in the door, small, local, and disadvantaged suppliers can then leverage that government relationship to take on additional projects.
Especially as governments start to pay attention to procurement resilience, public procurement departments must expand their requests for proposals (RFPs) to take into account innovative solutions and diverse suppliers. According to Frye, Public Works Partners—a certified female-owned firm—has benefitted from local and state requirements that specify diversity.
Post-Pandemic Funding Swells Procurement Budgets
And the pandemic won’t be the end of it. City governments need to build sustainable energy infrastructure such as solar panels, charging stations, and recycling plants, ensure that masks and medicines are never in short supply, and source new technologies to keep up with cloud and cybersecurity concerns.
Public procurement budgets will likely increase to match demand. As Peter Ware, Partner and Head of Government at Browne Jacobson, explained, “in a non-pandemic world, the [U.K.] government spends on average around £290 billion on outsourced services, goods, and works...anywhere between 10% and 14% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Post-pandemic, city procurement will only increase as national governments provide local divisions with emergency funding.
And in truth, government employees might jump at the opportunity. Frye noted that public procurement could give immediate feedback on new programmes: “[Procurement] is where new laws and policies ‘hit the road’ and are implemented”, she said. “Professionals in these fields get the satisfaction of creating real change and seeing quantifiable outcomes of their work”.