Tasked with a revolution of procurement, Mahmoud Al Alawi, HCT’s Director of Procurement and Contracts discusses the organisation’s digital journey…
As the largest applied higher education institution in the UAE, The Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) encompasses 16 men’s and women’s campuses across Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Al Dhafra region, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah, where around 23,000 Emirati students attend those colleges.
Established in 1988 by the late His Highness Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder of the United Arab Emirates, the concept of HCT was originally started in 1985 by its founder H.E. Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, then Chancellor of United Arab Emirates University and current UAE Minister of Tolerance. From its outset, HCT was built on a foundation of productivity, self-determination and excellence. Today, as a key to the UAE’s vision for future development and prosperity of the nation, HCT combines international best practice and UAE excellence.
In line with international benchmarking, the UAE vision and future development requirements, HCT offers approximately 72 majors in the academic programs in Engineering Technology, Health Sciences, Applied Media, Business, Computer Information Science, and Education.
The programs are constantly reviewed to ensure that they meet the UAE’s diverse labour market requirements. Through its “Hybrid Education Model”, HCT introduced a system of awarding students with professional certificates from international awarding bodies, together with the academic degrees, so as to make HCT graduates the number one choice in the UAE labour market. To ensure this model and other initiatives are fully implemented, HCT has established dynamic relationships with UAE companies and organisations and the world’s leading universities and organisations.
The Higher Colleges of Technology developed its transformative HCT 2.0 strategic plan (2017-2021), in line with the future aspirations and vision of the UAE’s wise leadership. This was subsequently transformed into HCT 4.0 in 2019, another significant milestone in HCT’s rich history, following its celebration of its 30th anniversary of operations in 2018. HCT 4.0 has come about in support of the international challenges and changes brought about by the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, which will have an impact on future jobs.
During its 30 years of operation, HCT has evolved as a higher education service provider to continue to serve the needs of an increasingly diverse UAE labour market. This evolution is particularly pertinent within the HCT procurement strategy.
In October 2018, HCT set itself a strategic mission to bring upon a “revolution in procurement” and tasked with overseeing this is Mahmoud Salem Al Alawi, Director of Procurement and Contracts. With over 10 years’ experience in the rapidly evolving procurement space, from the Armed Forces, to the Abu Dhabi Vocational Education and Training Institute, Al Alawi is certainly well equipped with a key understanding as to how procurement has become central to a business’s operations. “When I started in procurement, we were just dealt with as a department in which we were given orders to deliver items,” he says. “Over the years since, HCT leadership and UAE Government have recognised that procurement is more strategic to an organisation. As an example of that, I, on behalf of the HCT procurement department, am a member of, and attend meetings of the strategic committees that look to the future of HCT.” Examples are the Executive Committee and Portfolio Committee, which represent an organisation-wide HCT 4.0 Strategy – the “next generation” HCT.
For Al Alawi then the task was simple – to revolutionise a procurement function that supports the purchasing and contracting of “almost everything” across HCT, from basic consumables and lab equipment right through to transportation and the construction of new campuses. The major challenge that lay before him is one of legacy, as HCT has historically used a paper-based procurement process. With HCT recognising that it needed a digital procurement function in order to grow, to expand its campuses and hire more staff and attract new students, Al Alawi and his team have had to hit the ground running. “When I started, we faced many challenges with the department’s processes and attended to the needs of our internal and external stakeholders,” he says. “I sat down with the leadership of the HCT and outlined what was required of me and the procurement function of HCT – we wanted to take it to the next level. This means digital systems, implementing a new ERP system, reducing the time of transaction and deferring them and the processes,” he adds.
Success is by no means a guarantee, but Al Alawi can already point to significant milestones along this journey, namely the successful completion of 85% of that initial 70% of transactions by the end of 2018 and reaching 95% by the first quarter of 2019.
The key to this initial success, and something that will remain crucial moving forward has been a sense of trust. Prior to Al Alawi’s arrival and the launch of this revolution, HCT’s procurement function was in his own words “scattered”. Some of the team members were inexperienced in the field of procurements and contracts, which caused delays and inefficiencies in finalisation of projects and the day-to-day operations of the department. So, when Al Alawi came in, he was already on the back foot. “The key for me has been the full support of the HCT senior management. With them we’ve already been able to make significant strides in establishing trust.”
For Al Alawi, this trust has been established through transparency – something increasingly topical within the global procurement conversation. Al Alawi says that transparency goes hand in hand with giving the right message or the right situation for end users and stakeholders, both internal and external including suppliers. Al Alawi, with the backing of senior management, is establishing internal governance and creating order within the procurement team. As the team is the key success factor for any transformation plan, Al Alawi stressed that building his team’s capabilities was his first priority to overcome challenges facing him and his department. Hiring fresh blood in the Department helped to create a mixture of the fresh joiners supported by the experienced team members. “This helped us to move faster with the reformation of the Department and in applying the new governance and policies. In fact, it was amazing how both old and new members blended together as one team within a very short time, believing in our goal to be achieved as a team,” Al Alawi says. Now, every member of the team has a specific area of focus, which is openly shared with the end users so that they are aware of exactly what is being done at any given time.
“I would say that we are very fortunate to have such support from leadership in HCT to support this transformative journey. All resources were provided to support us which gave us an opportunity just to innovate and work very hard to achieve our mission. We have a clear and essential role in achieving HCT 4.0 strategic plan which proves HCT’s management awareness of procurement’s strategic role in the organisation,” he adds.
As part of the transformation process, Al Alawi hosts conferences with the end users to spotlight the work being done and the progress being made. “I engage with everyone, starting from my staff and their decisions and input right through to stakeholders – they are engaged in everything,” he says.
He points to the process of floating a tender, in which the stakeholders can now participate in the timeline and help determine how long a tender will float for as well as the criteria for awarding. “As academics, they want everything to be on time and in a specific time, not just any time. I started to show them the results. So, the results, they could be good or bad, but I gave them a promise that I will show them the results in a very transparent way. This is key for building trust,” he explains.
“With suppliers, transparency in the process is very essential, we have started a new methodology in dealing with suppliers as partners to HCT in achieving its vision. We have improved levels of communication with suppliers which led to increasing number of suppliers participating in our tenders effectively.”
“As our suppliers are a cornerstone in our
supply chain, we have worked closely with them to ensure proper supply for our requirements,
regardless if it’s stationery or workshop equipment. Each purchase request that we receive is considered as
a project by itself,” Al Alawi said.
“We prepare a project plan for each purchase request that we receive and all stakeholders are involved in this plan. End-Users do specify the quality and time that they require and it’s our responsibility to acquire it with the best cost for HCT. Our suppliers appreciate our transparency in preparing project plans; where we share clear information and instructions on project requirements, including unforeseen costs, such as, and not limited to, required infrastructure for the project or if there is a dependent licence or approval required to achieve the project completion or delivery.”
“This helps both the supplier and HCT Procurement to save time in finalising the project later on and avoid any variations that may arise due to unclear project scope. Being an educational institution, we do have some special requirements or dependencies during implementation of our projects, such as having students in the classes during academic year which may be a challenge for suppliers to make renovations, deliver furniture or lab/workshop equipment. Working closely with suppliers and end-users to put proper plans in for those projects led us to achieving projects on time and as planned, besides getting best prices from suppliers when all project details are clear to them. We do believe that our suppliers are our partners in our journey and without them we can’t achieve what have been achieved or what is to be achieved in our HCT 4.0 strategic plan,” Al Alawi says.
There are seemingly no limits to the power of technology in procurement and, while HCT is currently focusing on the digital transformation, Al Alawi points to the implementation of a new ERP system that is still ongoing. Inviting major providers such as Oracle, SAP and Microsoft, HCT will look to implement a new system by the end of 2019.
As the very nature of procurement continues to evolve and become increasingly digital, the impact on the procurement professional and the demands placed upon them is significant. The procurement functions of tomorrow are vastly different from the ones of yesterday and Al Alawi admits to pushing his team to continuously learn, develop new skills and be at the very forefront of this changing landscape. This is where HCT’s partnership with the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply (CIPS) is fully recognised. “Working with CIPS is incredibly important to us,” says Al Alawi. “One of my objectives for 2019 is to use CIPS as a benchmark and to participate in CIPS Procurement Excellence Programme. If we are to benchmark ourselves with international organisations, we have to have a benchmark with CIPS. They are the best around the world, and in procurement supply chain they are the leader in this field.”
“By engaging with CIPS it provides key exposure to the department and team. It will give the confidence to HCT management here, that when we propose anything to develop or to change any process, we have a very strong benchmark that we rely on. It’s not just Mahmoud’s vision that will enforce or change this decision. No, it’s based on an international benchmark and standard.”
As HCT continues its journey it can already begin to look back on key turning points and successes. Al Alawi says that it is already 30% of the way through its mission achieved from the Annual Procurement Plan in the first quarter and so the next 12 months will be pivotal in defining the future of HCT’s procurement function. With a new ERP system in place later this year and more technology-based announcements in the pipeline, HCT can build on this to create an accurate database, using the data obtained this year as a starting point. “We’ll have more time to do personal development for the team and come up with new initiatives since we’ll have the system supporting us by automating lots of processes that we are doing right now manually without the ERP,” says Al Alawi. “I believe that by this time next year we will have achieved 50% of our Annual Procurement Plan in the first quarter.”
With any journey, it’s a constant evolution and Al Alawi can point to a number of key lessons that he has learned over the course of his career, and his time so far at HCT. While he admits that this is the biggest challenge of his professional career, he recognises that it’s not just about one person. “Everything we have achieved so far, and will achieve, is because of the team,” he says. “It’s about believing in people and their capabilities. If we believe in people, if we give them the proper support, they will achieve more than we could ever imagine.”
“This journey is my biggest challenge across all my career. I was very lucky to be in this challenge. I am very happy and I am very proud of the success that I’m achieving with the team, with the support from senior management of HCT. Moving from nowhere to where we are now.”