As research expenditures and student enrollments increase, associated procurement activities also increase. To address increased workloads, efforts are underway to minimize time spent on routine, repetitive tasks so procurement specialists can focus on more complex, value added activities. As part of this effort, Eva Nodine, Vice President, Deputy CFO and Assistant Treasurer, and Kristi Mickle, Executive Director of Finance and Business Operations, turned to a newly created Purdue team – the Robotic Process Automation (RPA) Center for assistance. According to Will Oprisko, interim manager of the center, the primary goal of the RPA Center is to “maximize the human element across the university and streamline business efficiency, by identifying standardized and routine processes that can be offloaded to a machine and completed automatically. We want to increase the feeling of meaningful work with all our campus partners by automating the monotony, so individuals can focus their time and energy solving more dynamic problems.”

These objectives aligned perfectly with what Nodine and Mickle were looking to achieve and a partnership was formed. Using tools developed through this partnership and in collaboration with outside vendors, the procurement operations group is realizing significant efficiencies with the assistance of customized "bots." Read on for more information about these bots and how they are creating efficiencies in Procurement Centers across the organization.

What is a bot?
Bots are computer programs that can be configured to complete repetitive, routine tasks and since August 29, an Invoice Reconciliation (IR) Bot has been in place as a new Finance Team tool. Short for robot, the bot has been tackling some of the more simplistic tasks associated with the procurement related Goods Receipt/Invoice Receipt (GR/IR) process.

How does it know what to do?
Tammy Haddock, PARI Operations Coordinator Lead, assisted with the initial programming of the IR Bot. Working with potential bot vendors, Haddock demonstrated the steps taken by reconcilers when determining if an invoice is needed and also documented the amount of time this process typically takes for a reconciler. A bot was then programmed to complete these same steps.

What is it doing?
The IR Bot works an overnight schedule identifying orders where goods have been received and an invoice is needed from the vendor. The IR Bot logs into a SharePoint site where a weekly Procure-to-Pay report is maintained. The IR Bot reviews the spreadsheet and identifies line items marked "goods have been received" and then sends an email to the vendor asking for an invoice.

How do we know what the bot is doing?
The bot doesn't work in a totally independent fashion. The appropriate procurement center is copied on the vendor communication and center staff will follow up as needed. Additionally, a weekly report of IR Bot activity is provided to Whitney Beutel, Director of Business Operations and Administration; Julie Smith, Procurement Serves Lead Business Analyst; and the IT support team.

Is the bot helping?
The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Since launch, the IR Bot has sent 11,349 emails and saved an estimated 473 hours of staff time. Since implementation, the number of items on the list for greater than 60 days has dropped 18% and procurement staff are getting vendor responses on a timelier basis, often within 24 hours. This results in GR/IR report items being cleared more quickly with minimal staff intervention and netting improved communication with vendors. Haddock reports that "we have been able to resolve more line items than before as the bot can send emails more quickly and regularly than our manual efforts. An added benefit is that we are receiving information from vendors beyond the actual invoices including Ariba adjustments that actually remove an item from the GR/IR report."

What has surprised you about the impact of the bot?
Miranda Parsons, Business Assistant in the Purdue Veterinary Medicine Purchasing Service Center, finds that she now has more time to work on items that are more complex or need a personal touch. GR/IR report maintenance is one of her primary duties and until the bot started working, she didn’t realize how much of her time was consumed with “Invoice Needed” tasks. For example, a recent GR/IR report had 481 items and 436 were Invoice Needed items. “Knowing that the bot is going to take care of communications on all of those items means I have a much more manageable number of items to clear. It really ‘takes a weight off’ from a stress perspective.”

What is next?
A Goods Receipt Bot was launched on February 6. The GR Bot contacts requestors (using the Ariba on behalf of field, as applicable) when it finds that an invoice has been received but the item has not been marked received in Ariba. Marking an item received is a critical step in the Procure-to-Pay process but is often overlooked. In these instances, the GR Bot can speed up the resolution of GR report issues.
As items continue to be cleared from the GR/IR through the work of the bots, the university should begin seeing quicker turnaround times in the invoicing process. This quicker turnaround will allow the time saved to be redirected to more complex, value added activities, reaping additional administrative savings to the university. It should also help to improve vendor relations which could have benefits beyond the initial scope. The procurement operations team will continue monitoring the work of both bots, refining their processes to take advantage of these new tools.

As published in the February 10, 2023 edition of the Finance newsletter: The Bottom Line