Why you need a digital champion to score AI wins

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Making artificial intelligence (AI) work with humans requires having an internal data champion to help overcome fears and create a safe environment. That was the advice offered at Digital Procurement World in Amsterdam today in a session focused on combining humans and AI to help procurement become a top value driver in modern business. The biggest pain points for panelists? Working through overwhelming amounts of data and dealing with employee concerns that AI will take their jobs.

“I need to be a champion for the digital journey,’’ said Ralf Peters, vice president of procurement, Europacific partners, at Coca-Cola. “Once you have that established, everything else will fall into place, because then you can figure out how many resources to have dedicated.” Having a digital champion allows you to build an AI strategy, Peters added.

It’s also important for leadership to show how people and AI can align. Then they can help employees overcome the fear of new technologies that will change the way they work, the panelists said.

How to take advantage of a data-challenged world

In a procurement context, the trick to dealing effectively with data is creating an environment that allows every procurement category manager and team to move from, “I need to use that to I want to use that” and see the benefits of that approach, Peters said. 


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Creating a safe, consistent environment will help category managers feel confident about using AI-driven data insights from their systems and providing feedback. “Every insight created by a category manager matters,’’ Peters said. “There’s a value for me and I can choose over time to use it and trust the tool because it helps me fulfill an overarching task.”

A safe environment means you don’t have to present feedback as the answer to a problem but, rather, as a potential solution, added moderator Omer Abdullah, cofounder of The Smart Cube, and author of “Risk & Your Supply Chain: Preparing For The Next Global Crisis.”

This gives people the opportunity to “play with tools and present something, and when a situation happens, you’re much more confident in how to solve it,’’ Abdullah said.  

Jurriaan Lombaers, senior vice president and chief procurement officer of Air France-KLM said that leaders must make changing their organization and growing their employees’ skills a priority. 

By default, Lombaers said, every buyer needs to be data-driven and focused on sustainability, since that is a key change occurring. This takes time, but he advised the audience to “find the people who love it” and “nurture them,’’ because part of having a safe environment is focusing on the champions and then the vast majority will follow.

Organizations also need to have data scientists, analysts and people who understand digital procurement build new services into the organization — something Air France-KLM is currently doing “as we speak,’’ Lombaers said.

How to transform people

Transforming people to be more data- and analytically driven also needs to be top of mind. 

A safe environment plays a key role here, too, but there’s also the challenge of transitioning from creating reports to creating reports with insights, said panelist Paula Martinez, chief procurement officer at Novartis. This requires figuring out the right questions to ask the data and knowing the business insights you want to achieve. She advised the audience to interact with stakeholders and find out what they want to solve. 

“Data can be cleaned. It’s coming up with questions that is the biggest struggle for organizations,’’ Martinez said. When analytic capabilities are built, the procurement organization should “continue using that new muscle,’’ she said, adding that this is a learning curve everyone has to go through. It’s good to do a lot of experimentation around what is working and what isn’t, she noted.

Abdullah called this an “interesting foundational point,’’ saying that it‘s one thing to understand the potential of what technology can unleash, “but it’s a little scary because it exposes how people need to change their thinking and be more strategic and less tactical.” Internal stakeholders need to know how to translate that, he said.

In response to a question about how organizations should inventory people’s skill sets to determine who is ready for transformation, Lombaers said, “you learn by doing. Get on with it and allow for failures.”

Peters recalled years ago being part of the team responsible for implementing handheld devices for drivers. “I had to put technology into the hands of guys who carry pallets of beverages from forklifts to trucks,” he said. But the process proved quite simple. Peters asked the drivers if they are able to use a mobile phone in their private life. Demystifying it took the bias out, he said. 

Evolving your organization with digital champions

Becoming attuned to the digital world doesn’t require anyone to learn to code, Martinez stressed. What is required is developing a digital mindset and understanding and owning your data, she said. That means partnering with a data analytics team to clean it and make it work for you by thinking of value cases and questions. 

“Data is an asset, that’s the fuel you have to thrive in your job,’’ Martinez said. “Understand the basics and own it and understand … what is the data subset being used” as well as the timeframe. “All those things are enabling you to have a digital mindset, which will enable you to change your attitude and behaviors.”

She added that people must be open to change. “Every industry, every function, every role is affected by digital. If you don’t have a basic understanding around what is an algorithm and new solutions and the intelligence embedded there … then you won’t be able to thrive.”

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