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The great power of technology is to amplify what we do in our day-to-day. Tools and apps that help us connect, work together, and make it easier to do all of this.

I love finding people-led solutions that enable this. So when my team at Silicon Reef were asked by transnational FMCG business Unilever to create a portal that would help manage their vast array of global suppliers, we immediately saw an opportunity to connect people and improve supplier engagement.

Our challenge

Unilever works with over 12,000 global suppliers to create and supply consumer products from washing powder to shampoo and food goods. They were overwhelmed with huge amounts of data, spread across different systems and data centres. This made finding relevant information time consuming and challenging.

We needed to create a communications hub to give them better access to news, events, key documents, and Power BI dashboards, as well as connecting them to the Unilever team. It would also support the development team when creating new products, helping with go-to-market faster, and with greater accuracy.

The technical details

To enable the suppliers and Unilever team to connect easily, we needed to modernise the Unilever SupplierNet solution to Microsoft 365 (M365). This meant a complete rebuild of the branding, user experience, and interfaces for supplier interaction. We moved the portal to SharePoint Online within M365. This gave Unilever:

  • Consistent corporate bespoke branding across Portal Sites to signpost location and context.
  • Single sign-on for suppliers using their own corporate credentials, making access easy and secure.
  • Corporate group and nested group access.
  • Digital support for all key activities.
  • A file library for all manuals and documentation.
  • Full reporting of all SAP data into Power BI for metrics and KPIs.
  • Built-in security from Azure, with full ability to control user and network access.

5 ways employees are more engaged

Female employee working on Dynamics 365 presentation of charts and graphs on a Surface Studio monitor.Employees and suppliers now have a single source for all company messaging, communication, and resources, ensuring that the information they are using is timely and accurate.

Unilever Procurement Managers can now quickly and easily raise issues and incidents on their deliveries or goods directly within the portal, reducing the time it takes to raise and chase issues with suppliers.

The return of investment for Unilever will be under 12 months. This is due to a reduction in hosting costs from moving from a server farm model to using SharePoint and Power Platform.

But the added-value benefits have been significant and continue to roll in as the portal is used in earnest.

1.      Creative collaboration

Secure and discrete collaboration sites allow both suppliers and Unilever employees to confidently share information, from anywhere, on any device. This allows them to work together ad-hoc, encouraging creativity and spontaneity in the development of new products or rollouts. The hub is a place for everyone to come together. It’s a unique opportunity and – with the volume of suppliers interacting with Unilever – only possible through this technical platform.

2.      Secure and accessible file storage

Man interacting with a Huawei MateBook laptop.Unilever has a vast array of regulatory certification requirements across a huge product range including animal testing, vegan certification, codes of practice, and other scientific documentation.

Managing these via the hub, rather than via email and attachments, creates a permanent, referenceable information trail for legal reference, and to aid future product development. SharePoint encrypts data in transit and at rest. When combined with single sign on and multi-factor authentication, it means these sensitive documents are protected.

3.      More efficient processes

Suppliers can now self-serve with access to their own performance metrics and KPIs on demand, as their own data is visible from SAP via Power BI. They can review their performance as an interactive dashboard and drill directly into the data.

Company information, procedures, up-to-date news and past documents can also be accessed without having to contact Unilever. All of this significantly drives down the volume of requests, meaning suppliers can focus on the work they need to do. This also frees up Unilever to spend more time on important work than document chasing.

4.      Faster innovation and creation

It’s easier for suppliers to input new materials into the product library. This gives Unilever direct access to the latest materials when creating new products, simply by carrying out a search.

Currently, they have libraries for fragrances, colour and naturals, with many thousands of individual items from many suppliers listed, and continually updated.

5.      Supplier empowerment

Corporate and nested group access in SharePoint allows divisional responsibilities and activities. SupplierNet gives a segregation of suppliers under their own control. Suppliers can create their own groups of users who can access key systems and block access to others. This means suppliers can control the access of their data, without breaking permissions at a higher level.

Working together without barriers

Female enterprise employee working at desk with multiple devices, talking on TeamsFor Unilever, inviting external partners on to a collaboration platform was about far more than just sharing a document or site. It was about helping people connect to work together better, with the right information, from anywhere. And it worked – colleagues now have four times the increase of engagement against the original system.

“Feedback from the suppliers’ interviews has been uniformly positive. They consider it to be a huge step forwards. The concept of offering single sign-on to applications via a dedicated portal is something they believe will make their interactions with the complex Unilever IT architecture much easier. The suite of applications housed under the new portal provides a uniform look and feel, significantly reduces both training and barriers to access for supplier users, and increases uptake where Unilever requires suppliers to engage.”
Chris Yates, Lead SME, Supplier Integration, Unilever

Offering a tailored, permissions-based experience – one that recognises the way a supplier or partner actually works – brings significant benefits far beyond the financial ROI. Not only does it boost engagement, it also significantly improves management of security, and enables a greater collaboration between host and partner, and even between the partners themselves.

A solution like SupplierNet allows this communication. And, as in the case of Unilever’s Supplier Partners, when the users feel engaged, they are more informed, quicker to raise and respond to issues, and more efficient in their dealings with the business.

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About the author

Photo of a smiling man with dark hair, Alex Graves.Alex Graves is Founder and Managing Director of UK-based Microsoft 365 Agency Silicon Reef. Alex started his career in IT Training, honed his skills in IT project management and, three-years ago, started Silicon Reef with a group of like-minded friends and colleagues.

With his passion for blowing the boundaries away from conventional working practices, Alex leads the strategy thread of the business, helping clients to design operational and technical solutions to improve collaboration, employee engagement, and productivity.

Alex was on a perpetual hunt to discover the work/life balance and thinks he has found his own with the Silicon Reef model. Now he’s shifted his focus on bringing this balance to his clients.


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