Procurement en Regalia: What Can Progressive Rock Teach Us about Digital Networks?

Sean Thompson
Mar 21 · 3 min read
Frank Zappa in Paris, 1970 (Philippe Gras/Alamy Stock Photo)

In the 1970s, the composer Frank Zappa pioneered a technique called xenochrony, through which he superimposed an element from an original recording, such as a guitar solo, onto that from another, such as a drum track, typically of a different time signature. To Zappa’s legion fans, the convergence of rhythm and tonality brought out unexpected — and often pleasing — musical patterns.

He understood that in music, innovation can arise through the detection of latent patterns in sources of disparate origin. Yet, though a shrewd entrepreneur himself, Zappa might never have imagined the same principle would hold true in business decades later. Today, businesses capture vast reservoirs of data on a regular basis — about their customers, their trading partners, and their own operations. But these data often reside on information systems that don’t “talk” to each other. As a result, many businesses fail to extract the insights hidden away in them.

What could businesses learn — about themselves, their suppliers, their stakeholders — if, not unlike Zappa, they cross-referenced the source material already in their possession? Thanks to cloud-based digital networks, many enterprises are gleaning new insights on a massive scale, reaping value from them, and extending their competitive advantage in the process.

Through digital networks, business leaders gain visibility into the interconnected operations of buyers and suppliers, shedding light not only onto traditional business metrics such as inventory turns, cycle times and utilization rates, but also onto socially relevant questions such as: Does a potential trading partner have in place the governance structures necessary to root out forced labor from its supply chain? Has it established a track record of responsible stewardship of natural resources? What is its history of awarding contracts to firms owned by historically underrepresented groups of people?

Armed with this newfound transparency, businesses can size up their potential partners on these and dozens of other criteria. The result is a supply chain where not only do operations align, but brand values do too. When businesses, across their commercial relationships, live true to the causes held dear by customers, they earn the greatest asset available to any firm: enduring loyalty.

As businesses embrace digital networks, they also realize opportunities to collaborate with their trading partners. Working together in real time, buyers and suppliers can spur innovation, optimize operational processes, and procure with purpose. Connecting legacy systems to the cloud is like flipping on a light switch, illuminating the supply chain in all directions. Meanwhile, the advent of cognitive technologies lends cloud-based networks greater insight than ever. Applying machine learning and other forms of artificial intelligence, a digital network can augment an organization’s operations with sophisticated predictive analytics to anticipate bottlenecks, shortfalls or other disruptions and remedy them before they become issues.

“The computer can’t tell you the emotional story. It can give you the exact mathematical design, but what’s missing is the eyebrows.” — Frank Zappa

Yet for all their transformative effects on the supply chain, digital networks’ most sweeping benefit may accrue to procurement professionals themselves by taking on many of the tactical, paper-based tasks traditionally associated with sourcing, contracting, purchasing and payments. Relieved of these mundane activities, procurement teams can refocus their talents on more strategic objectives such as shoring up the supply chain, collaborating to create mutual value, and fostering an ecosystem where innovation thrives.

For businesses, where does technology’s role end and human ingenuity begin? As it turns out, here too Zappa proves prophetic. The guitar virtuoso (and early adopter of the synthesizer) once said: “The computer can’t tell you the emotional story. It can give you the exact mathematical design, but what’s missing is the eyebrows.”

In other words, the human element is irreplaceable in music and business alike. Technology fuels both pursuits by detecting underlying patterns — and then leaving the orchestration to the professionals.

SAP Innovation Spotlight

Brand journalists cover tech and IT trends like Digital Transformation, Future of Work, Purpose, Customer Experience, and more. VISIT OUR ARCHIVES HERE: https://medium.com/sap-innovation-spotlight/archive.

Sean Thompson

Written by

Senior Vice President of Business Network and Ecosystem at SAP Ariba and SAP Fieldglass. Follow @seantho or visit www.ariba.com and www.fieldglass.com.

SAP Innovation Spotlight

Brand journalists cover tech and IT trends like Digital Transformation, Future of Work, Purpose, Customer Experience, and more. VISIT OUR ARCHIVES HERE: https://medium.com/sap-innovation-spotlight/archive.

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