On any given day, a research university like William & Mary has a shopping list that reads like a cross between an office supply catalog and a science fiction novel.
“It completely runs the gamut,” said Jackie Ferree, the university’s associate vice president for Business Services & Organizational Excellence. “For labs, we purchase pipettes, all kinds of gases, various hazardous materials, but we also pay for services like elevator maintenance and capital construction. It’s everything from a fish tag to a cupcake to a new building.”
Procurement, the part of an institution responsible for purchasing goods and services, is not typically the public face of a university, but it touches every aspect of it. Once goods or services have been purchased, the university’s accounts payable office oversees the invoicing and payment process. The more streamlined and efficient those functions operate, the better a university can do what it does – generate new knowledge.
Throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, the implementation team, W&M IT and staff from across the university joined forces to implement a new procure-to-pay system for the university, branded as buyW&M. The system, which has been in development for 14 months, will officially "go live" this summer.
The new buyW&M system will be a one-stop shop experience, explained Ferree. Much like Amazon, the system allows users to find vendors, create shopping carts of goods and services and obtain required approvals for purchases -- all on one site. The site comes equipped with browsable catalogs that have been configured for over a dozen major vendors to provide users with negotiated university pricing from suppliers.
Innovating the approval process
Marra Austin, the director of procurement services, and one of the implementation leads, says the new system will replace a complex paper-based purchase approval process. The prior system, at times, literally required walking (or driving) forms around campus for signatures. She explained that the new system will automatically generate the approval workflow that is tailored to whatever item is being procured.
“There was so much collaboration involved in ensuring that we were capturing the vast majority of transactions that need approvals,” she said. “We did all of this on the front end, pulling in teams of people from across the university to run exercises with hypothetical examples. We’ve done a lot of fine tuning to get it to this point.”
Austin explained that buyW&M is designed for adaptation as needs evolve. She said the implementation team is eager to collect feedback and determine how best to incorporate it into the new system. In fact, this work has already been underway for the better part of the past year. A functional user group of about 30 people representing all of the schools and major operational areas was created to test specific procurement scenarios and provide feedback to ensure usability and efficiency, she explained.
Additionally, Austin and other team members have been hosting virtual town halls and open labs for the W&M and VIMS campuses to prepare the community for the transition. She plans to continue the town halls to collect feedback, even after the system goes live.
“The whole purchasing process is just complex in nature, because you're purchasing on behalf of the university and not your personal life,” Austin said. “There are restrictions for what funds can be used for certain purchases, so there have to be approvals along the way, but those are all hard-coded into the system. We have this already set up, so that people can focus on what they need to purchase, not all the other idiosyncrasies that may come about based on what they're trying to buy.”
Innovating the vendor process
Ferree explained that one of the key goals in developing buyW&M was to align what the university buys with what it values. The new system allows for data tracking to determine whether the university is meeting sustainability goals – as well as provide catalog updates to offer more sustainable alternatives to items like single-use plastics. buyW&M also offers vendor profiles, which will allow those making purchases to choose to buy from minority-owned or woman-owned businesses.
“It’s clear that there are huge operational efficiencies that are being generated by the new system, but we have a real opportunity to increase supplier diversity and sustainability as well,” Ferree said. “I think about it as we are putting into place a system that can continue to grow and evolve as William & Mary continues to set its goals for the future.”
Ferree added that part of shaping that future starts with including students in the process. Her team has hired a group of students who are currently working with vendors to get them into the system. They also brought on paid interns throughout the past year to help imagine and implement a better procurement process.
One such student was Justin Maynard ’23, who served as a sustainability ambassador with W&M’s Office of Sustainability and worked with Austin and the implementation team to develop ways of integrating sustainability into William & Mary’s procurement policy and strategy. For a research project, he analyzed the university’s procurement process and compared it to sustainability guidelines published by the International Organization for Standardization.
“I believe that for true sustainable change to be created, organizations must adopt sustainable practices, and that this project with William & Mary Procurement Services would help William & Mary adopt such practices,” Maynard wrote in a blog outlining his findings. “This experience introduced me to the various ways that sustainability can be adopted by organizations.”
Maynard found that one area in which W&M has excelled is in social sustainability, through its Small, Women, and Minority-Owned (SWaM) initiative. William & Mary has set a goal of having 42% of discretionary purchases come from SWaM vendors. Maynard found that last year 40% of discretionary spending was from SWaM vendors.
Additionally, he found that 90% of William & Mary purchases through procurement are 30-49% post-consumer recycled content, and 88% of electronic product expenditures are EPEAT Gold certified.
“This is going to help us align procurement with initiatives that are near and dear to us at William & Mary,” Ferree said. “We'll be able to use the data from buyW&M to create dashboards and provide visibility into efforts that really demonstrate who we are and what we stand for.”
The contract to design the new system was signed December 2019, just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The university underwent dramatic changes and in doing so, Ferree said, the campus community demonstrated a renewed appetite to learn and try new things. She added that buyW&M presents an opportunity to continue to embrace innovation and efficiency.
“We have designed what’s called a configurable system, which means that as William & Mary continues to evolve, this system can evolve along with it,” she said.