How I Became a Temporary ‘Staffing Supply Chain Anthropologist’ at VMSA Live 2015

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Before getting down to business for 2.5 days of working sessions, VMSA Live kicked-off last night with a vibrant networking reception for attendees, representing all parts of the staffing supply chain (including contingent workforce managers, VMS and MPS professionals and staffing suppliers and other service providers). When I entered the reception hall, it occurred to me that I was walking into a kind of microcosm of the whole intermediary staffing supply chain, and it was an incredible opportunity to just talk with, listen to and hear the perspectives of those practitioners who – in their different roles – are actually making that staffing supply chain work every day. If there was such a thing as a “staffing supply chain anthropologist,” then that was what I tried to be last night. I was interested to see what I would learn and what kinds of inferences I might draw from a random ethnographic sampling of thoughts and opinions.

So what did I, the accidental “staffing supply chain anthropologist,” take away from this evening?

I think what impressed me the most was the staffing suppliers. This is kind of surprising, because I realize I probably harbor some bias toward staffing suppliers, thinking of them too much perhaps as increasingly outmoded service providers, whereas in fact, they are the workhorses or drive train of the staffing supply chain. Indeed what an odd (and idle) supply chain it would be if there were only enterprise contingent workforce management programs and MSPs and VMS'. In addition to being the supply chain workhorses or drive train, they (suppliers) are not dumb (to put it in harsh terms). On the contrary, while performing their heavy lifting, most of them seem to be continuously trying to figure out how to perform better as labor services providers and understand why the supply chain works as it does (and if it is being optimized “locally” and “globally”). Some are beginning to pursue paths of innovation, even though the economics and incentives of a strictly transactional supply chain do not promote such behavior.

So, it’s caused me to wonder about contingent workforce procurement strategies over the past 5-10 years. The leveraging by enterprises of non-employee workforce and talent-based services has been increasing, and it is expected to increase in the future. However, have the supply chain strategies that have been pursued to date succeeded in developing viable sustainable supply chains, which would include a vibrant, innovating supplier base? This is a question that contingent workforce management practitioners, who have effectively created the supply chain that exists today, would perhaps benefit from asking. While cost controls and risk management practices have been increasingly implemented, adoption rates and user satisfaction levels in enterprises, C-suite interest in, understanding of and support of programs and how far we have gotten with MSPs and VMS’, are questions that may leave us with some uncomfortable thoughts.

Is a strategy and approach that inexorably drives commoditization of an extensive supply-side service provider industry (not simply the outputs or services they provide) the basis for a sustainable talent supply chain?

I think the main point I am trying to make centers around this particular observation: Everyone I encountered in the room last night was an active, engaged problem-solver, whether they were a supplier or they were from some other part of the supply chain. Along with many others, the fundamental problem that they are all concerned with is how to make the needed talent and labor services flow through and get delivered through the supply chain.

This is a “wicked problem.” Wicked problems are typically not solved from a single perspective.

Our approach to the staffing supply chain to date has been to produce certain results by imposing a specific set processes and systems down the line. And while our narrow set of key metrics have been achieved, have we really framed the problem correctly to also solve the problem of sustainability and expansion for the future? When we look at it this way, we may start to question if our view of the supplier base may be too narrow … reductionist. Suppliers may not just be workhorse haulers of labor back to our enterprises, they may also be problem-solvers and innovators and providers of insights into our own supply chain design process. Perhaps our metrics should include measures of supply chain improvement and innovation and our approaches should include ways to capture sustainability, problem solving and economically encourage innovation across the whole supply chain. This is a novel, perhaps deviant, suggestion – but perhaps there is some sense in it.

The next 2.5 days at VMSA Live will consist of the collective engagement of this assembled microcosm of different kinds of staffing supply chain practitioners in open communications, exchange of ideas and approaches and the pursuit of better ways of making the supply chain work. I will be retiring from my temporary, pre-conference “staffing supply chain anthropologist” role, and returning to my more staid and less colorful role as an industry observer and analyst covering what happens here and what important developments arise from what goes on and therefore merit sharing.

Standby for further coverage over the coming days.

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