We’re all participants in a global economy that’s not only interconnected, but increasingly intelligent as well. Cross-border commerce, logistics and finance — all previously discrete functions — often now take place through seamless digital networks. Their convergence has ushered in an intelligent economy, where cloud-based cognitive technologies shed light on opportunities to unlock value that never would have been possible, let alone perceptible, even a few short years ago.
Back in 2005 perhaps you read Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat — and if you reflect upon it now, it presents a remarkably accurate forecast of how technology and commercial businesses would evolve. Friedman’s insights on platforms that rely on digitised information to simplify communication and commerce anticipate where we are today: the intelligent enterprise.
Everyone, it seems — from schoolteachers, shepherds and songwriters to microbiologists, monks and even meter enforcement officers — is embracing predictive analytics to extend their capabilities. Industry, of course, is no exception. To draw insights from the vast troves of data they accumulate, businesses are turning to artificial intelligence and other cloud-based technologies and unleashing tremendous value in the process. As the intelligent economy takes shape around us, the intelligent enterprise has emerged as its engine — turbocharging growth, fueling collaboration and accelerating innovation.
The internet illustrates a perfect example. Even after twenty years in the software business, I still marvel every time a web browser completes my thought before I do. Or when I pull up a shopping site, and its suggestions get slightly less creepy as the systems improve. Or when a streaming platform suggests new music or movies, and I end up liking them! By remembering previous activity — searches that led to purchase as well as those that didn’t — these sites tailor algorithms to anticipate what we want. It happens before we know it. In return for this convenience, we reward them with purchases and loyalty.
What if business-to-business commerce were just as convenient?
For years, business-to-business platforms have lagged behind their business-to-consumer counterparts in their ease of use and predictive capabilities. But with the advent of cloud-based technologies, they’re rapidly catching up. Aided by cognitive technologies, digital networks are giving rise to the intelligent enterprise, where data-driven insights equip businesses to predict not only what their customers want, but also how they want it delivered and when they need it to arrive.
In procurement, for example, digital networks can anticipate bottlenecks in the supply chain and work around them long before they impede operations. These networks provide newfound visibility into data that was previously siloed, shedding light on unseen patterns. In addition, digital networks enable trading partners, whether located on opposite sides of a street or an ocean, to collaborate in real time on product design, operational alignment or joint marketing efforts. Moreover, by opening transparency into the operations of millions of buyers and suppliers, digital networks can recommend trading partners with compatible brand values. Does a potential supplier have the necessary governance structures in place to root out forced labor from its sources of raw materials? Does it boast a track record of responsible stewardship of natural resources? Does it award contracts to businesses owned by historically underrepresented groups? Digital networks cast a laser-like focus onto these and hundreds of other compliance-related and values-based criteria. In understanding them, businesses can act in ways that positively influence not only their own operations, but those of the world around them.
Yet as the intelligent enterprise takes root, businesses benefit from much more than efficient and ethical decision-making. They also profit from its transformative effect on their workforce. We all know that a company’s people propel its success. So when technology arrives that can liberate employees to perform at their highest level — relieving them of the mundane, tactical tasks that quite frankly bore them — organisations are wise to adopt it. In procurement, digital networks are increasingly taking on many of the manual activities previously involved with sourcing, purchasing, contracting and payments. As a result, more professionals can now focus on strategic priorities such as strengthening relationships with suppliers, pursuing innovation alongside them, and managing risk affecting mutual operations.
At a time when business has never run faster and our global economy is increasingly dynamic, diverse and interdependent, the intelligent enterprise provides the much-needed promise of a simpler, smarter way to grow and thrive. The most intelligent enterprises rely on connected partners and supply chains. Thanks to digital networks and the cloud-based applications connecting them, business leaders are creating immense opportunity for their organisations — and enabling them to spend better.
The author is senior vice president and general manager of SAP Ariba, the world’s largest business network, linking together buyers and suppliers from 3.8 million companies in 190 countries.