Emory University: Saving Millions with Electronic Procurement

Until 1998, Emory University purchased all supplies and equipment the old-fashioned way: with paper-based requisitions routed through a central purchasing office. That year, officials switched to an electronic procurement system called Procure+ that puts Web-based requisitioning tools on the desktops of employees throughout all university facilities. The system has not only produced the anticipated efficiencies and decentralized decision-making, but also has cut procurement costs significantly.

With Procure+ from Virginia-based ePlus Inc., Emory has expedited purchases of both catalog and non-catalog items, ensuring that unusual requests by the school's researchers and medical centers can be addressed as easily as standard orders. As an unexpected but welcome byproduct, the system's ability to automate all sourcing, approval and ordering processes also has saved thousands of man-hours and an estimated $10 million in purchasing and personnel costs since implementation.

In addition, Emory's eProcurement initiative has enabled the purchasing department to handle a doubling in procurement volume over the past five years without adding staff. Today, roughly $500 million in spending passes through the Procure+ system annually, eliminating virtually all paperwork and substantially reducing the time between requisition and fulfillment.

Point-and-Click Approvals
From its sprawling campus in Atlanta, the school's procurement needs range from computer equipment, paper, and cleaning supplies to radioactive isotopes, microscopes, and CAT scanners.

Traditionally, every requisition had to be routed by hand or by fax to every entity with approval authority, from academic department heads to the university's Environmental Health and Safety Office. Each request was routed consecutively to each individual in the approval chain, and at each step the paper requisition forms could easily be misplaced on a desk or in a file folder. With as many as 44 different signatures required to green-light a particular transaction, approvals were sometimes delayed for weeks.

Since implementing Procure+, the requisition process has changed dramatically. Now purchase requests are routed electronically—and simultaneously—to all necessary reviewers. This allows requests to be approved in as little as an hour. Purchase orders are generated and delivered to suppliers electronically as well.

The system has been customized so that it automatically adapts to each department's approval hierarchy, budgetary limits and commodity restrictions, even when multiple departments and fund sources are involved. Beyond the basic workflow built in to all eProcurement solutions, Emory's has the ability to recognize when a particular request must be reviewed by additional entities such as the university's Office of Grants and Contracts, which manages federal dollars. This is vital not only to keep the approval process running smoothly but also to accommodate the thousands of ad hoc purchase requests flowing from Emory's research community and other sources.

As an important fringe benefit, the 1,500 Emory employees who use the system can track their requisitions and orders online. All parties involved are immediately notified of approved requests via e-mail, and users can also search the system's database to determine the status of any pending request or order. This makes it possible to quickly identify breakdowns in the approval process. It also relieves purchasing staff of large volumes of requisition-related phone inquiries.

Easy Online Sourcing
At the heart of the success of Emory's eProcurement system is the time-saving online shopping experience that is part and parcel of the whole package. All stock products can be researched from users' desktops, eliminating tedious searches and comparisons of traditional business directories or paper catalogs. Approved vendors are listed in pull-down menus for faster sourcing. All items are at users' fingertips.

For computer hardware and peripherals, the online listings include consortium pricing from organizations such as the Western States Contracting Alliance (WSCA), the Educational and Institutional Cooperative (E&I), and the Atlanta Regional Consortium of Higher Education (ARCHE), as well as special pricing negotiated for Emory by ePlus Technology, an ePlus subsidiary and national IT reseller.

For the non-stock items frequently desired by Emory's research facilities and medical centers, users can submit requisitions listing product descriptions rather than catalog numbers and then check an option titled "Other Source" that flags the request for special attention. Once the order has been vetted by all reviewers, it enters a queue for handling by one of Emory's buyers. The buyer in turn searches for the item or initiates a Request for Quotation to complete the purchase.

In this way, purchasers of non-standard items still reap the benefits of automated approval, including eliminating the risk that out-of-the-ordinary requests will slip through the cracks. This system also enables Emory's purchasing department to keep all requisitions and purchases in a central database for easy access and analysis.

Paving the Way
Emory selected Procure+ because of its flexibility to adapt to the imperatives of university purchasing without modifying existing processes or ignoring the huge volume of exceptions inherent in a university environment. By working with ePlus on customizations, Emory has essentially paved the way for other universities interested in transitioning to paperless procurement.

Rex Hardaway (purrdh@pur.emory.edu), is director of Procurement and Material Services, Emory University.

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