What if everyone is wrong about the future of procurement? by Kelly Barner

Posted on March 3, 2015


As many Procurement Insights readers already know, Jon and I are writing a book that is equal parts coverage of procurement’s evolution to this point, examination of our current crossroads, and mapping our likely future trajectory. We are by no means the only ones speculating as to how the uncertainty we face today will play out for the organizations and professionals of tomorrow.

On February 16th, Jon and I were among 34 procurement experts asked by the Next Level Purchasing Association to make predictions about what 2015 will mean to the future of the profession. We, along with colleagues from a variety of positions, companies, and perspectives, shared optimistic speculations about education, technology, and relationships with external business partners. (Click here to read the post.)

Every person – without a single exception – made some reasonable suggestion about events likely to take place or areas of development or investment that we need to prioritize. No one responded with, “2015 is the year I will get my resume up to date, because, let’s face it, procurement is a sinking ship. Every man for himself!” Every one of us believes in the predictions we made, and why not? We love working in procurement and want nothing but the best for the profession as a whole and all of the individuals building careers in it. We are so focused on maximizing the potential contribution of procurement to the organization that we have forgotten to consider a very real possibility.

We could all be wrong.

What really made me stop and think about this alternative possibility was a February 16th article in USA Today titled, “Disruption is cheap; cravings are profitable” by Michael Wolff. (You can read the full article here.) In the article, Wolff discussed the fact that although technology firms seem like the best bet for ROI today, they are very new players on a stage with a long history. “The recent study by Credit Suisse that sin businesses, most notably tobacco and alcohol, have since the beginning of the 20th century outperformed every other business sector is a bracing reminder of what is constant in this time of radical change.” This is true even given amazing recent accomplishments by firms like Apple. They are still isolated points on a very long scale.

Those constants, according to Wolff, that really make an industry, company, or solution a long term success, are the habits that support basic human needs and wants. Apply this concept to the seeming evolution playing out in procurement, and it becomes clear that there is more than one possibility for what will be evident when we (or someone else) looks back at this field and this time one hundred years from now.

One possibility is that the needs and habits of buyers, or non procurement professionals within an organization that need to request and acquire goods and services, will be met by a combination of tactical procurement and supporting technology. They may not want a procurement function that is agile and strategic. Since executive teams are already skeptical about the need for real change in the role of procurement, this lack of interest on the part of our stakeholders would seem to be the final nail in the coffin of that idea.

The other possibility is that those of us pulling for ‘revolution’ are somehow clinging to a function that we have outgrown but are not yet ready to let go of. The fact that our ideas are even being entertained gives some evidence to our promise, but how much of our potential is associated with individual skills and knowledge and how much of it is a result of buy-in from non-procurement leaders? We have to acknowledge the possibility that there is nothing wrong with procurement as it is today, no matter how much we might like for it to transcend its tactical history and rise to a permanent role in the C-suite.

I’m not condemning procurement professionals to a dystopian future of transaction processing in bland grey suits and sterile offices. There is unquestionably value to be gained from time spent building analytical skills and understanding the critical role the supply base plays in the long term success of the enterprise. We do need to consider the possibility, however, that significant change will never come to pass in the majority of procurement organizations. If this happens to be the case, we’ll all be okay. The cream always rises to the top, as the saying goes, and whether the top happens to be in procurement or not, I doubt any of us would regret for a moment the time we spent in the field.

In The Procurement Value Proposition, Gerard Chick and Robert Handfield wrote, “It is easy to spend a lot of one’s professional life wondering what the future might bring. Of particular interest right now is the debate about the impact of big data and the power of the cloud. Maybe it is this introduction of a more scientific procurement that will bring the smart people into the field. The perennial discussion of just how big a change this might be, reminds me of something Peter Thiel said: “We wanted flying cars and they gave us 140 characters.” So maybe we should watch this particular space with a degree of suspicion.”

Indeed. Clearly suspicion is merited. And yet, as long as we are paying attention and willing to make the most of the circumstances that arise, there may not be a downside. The world is being changed 140 characters at a time, but who really needs a flying car? The real take away is to seize every opportunity that arises, and not to think we know what the ‘right future’ must hold.



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