Thought Leadership

The Science and the Art of Procurement

As we move towards a new decade is the emphasis in the procurement world changing – are we going to see a new age, where the Art of Procurement comes to the fore?

Much of our focus in the last twenty years or so within the procurement profession and within our specific procurement functions has been on what we might call the “Science of Procurement”.

The huge growth in the use of technology has been the most visible part of that developing picture. Over the years, we have moved from the first spend analysis initiatives, laboriously building Excel-based “spend cubes”, through to today’s automated, cloud-based, AI-driven, integrated, holistic (add your own buzz-word here…)  procurement platform. Technology has radically changed procurement activities and procurement roles across virtually all our spheres of activity.

Outside the technology field, we have also seen “science” come to the fore in terms of codifying processes such as Category Management. There may be different models in use, but there is a pretty well-accepted logical methodology behind how organisations approach their management of major spend areas. Professionalisation of the function, logic and analysis has also extended into other areas, with a growth in relevant qualifications, all the way through to procurement and supply chain MBAs and even Doctorates.

But, as we move towards a new decade, perhaps the wind is shifting, and we may see a different focus in the next ten years.  Is the emphasis in the procurement world changing – and are we going to see a new age, where the Art of Procurement comes to the fore, alongside the scientific approaches?  I first saw this term used a few years ago by Philip Ideson, as a title for his website and excellent series of podcasts, and it feels like this may be an idea whose time has come.

However, we would stress that doesn’t mean forgetting the science and (of course) the technology. After all, we’re only just beginning to see what AI and machine learning might do to revolutionise procurement and supply chain management; the possibilities are endless and hard to predict.

But we are also seeing increasing focus on issues such as;

  • how procurement can successfully influence, engage and collaborate with internal stakeholders to drive value;
  • procurement being asked to support development of unconventional business models that move beyond traditional buyer / seller (partnerships, JVs, large firms running start-up incubators, etc); and
  • capturing and exploiting innovation from supply markets and individual suppliers becoming a top priority for organisations and therefore procurement functions.

When we look at that sort of activity, we can see that it is very different to the standard procurement processes – spend analysis, competitive sourcing, purchase to pay management. Now those core tasks and issues are not going to go away, and we would not want to suggest procurement leaders take their eyes off those particular balls or stop trying to execute this work as effectively as possible! But adoption of technology, automation, and best practice process is not the ultimate objective; it is a means to an end.

The emerging strategic priorities for our organisations require different approaches from procurement, different skills sets amongst staff, and critical success factors such as creativity, flexibility, adaptability and even imagination really start to come into play. In addition, our expectations and requirements of technology must evolve as well, to support not just rapid deployment of standard best practices, but the ability to bring our best ideas to life and promote agility.

So, this talk of creativity, agility and innovation all starts sounding and feeling much more like “Art” rather than pure “Science”, and it is interesting to see that technology firm Ivalua has titled the Ivalua Now 2019 conferences this spring (in Chicago and Paris) the “Art of Procurement”.  To support that, the firm hopes to challenge the speakers to go beyond the usual “journey to best in class” descriptions and include their reflections on how procurement is embracing change in their organisations. How will procurement leaders contribute to generating real competitive advantage, to growing business revenues through innovation – supporting the top-line as well as the bottom line, as it were.

I’ve argued elsewhere that actually, if procurement doesn’t change and widen its scope, we in the profession may face existential issues of survival, as technology advances further. So, in our next two articles in this series, we’ll look at case studies that demonstrate the sort of innovative approaches procurement organisations are taking and how considering the Art of Procurement might secure our future. And finally, you can register for the Ivalua Paris event here if you want to participate in what should be a stimulating couple of days, from April 10th-12th.

Author: Peter Smith, Managing Director at Procurement Excellence Ltd. Until recently also Managing Editor, Spend Matters UK/Europe.

Blog first published by our friends at Procurious.  Here is the link if you want to visit their site.

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