David Noble, CIPS CEO, at the Procurious Big Ideas Summit

This week, we are looking back at the recent Procurious Big Ideas Summit, reporting on some of the discussions there, and maybe even helping to move those discussion on a little.

David Noble, the CIPS Chief Executive, gave a good presentation, although things got a bit trickier for him later on the panel discussion. Noble explained how systems and “data intelligence” is shrinking the bottom tier of the procurement profession, but at the same time raising the intellectual entry point. Algorithms with intelligence can replace large parts of our work – so where might the future of procurement lie, if there is less of the low level work to go around?

His answer – “business strategy, complex acquisitions, enterprise development, supply chain financing, outsourcing / insourcing decisions”. Good stuff, we thought.

So we have to ask, he said, what is the value we can add as a profession in this new world? CIPS has undertaken a project to define the future of the profession (we would like to know more about that). But part of the way forward, Noble believes, is the idea of licensing the profession.

We have heard that before of course. But Noble acknowledged that CIPS might not be the only provider of such a registration; it is the first time I have heard him say that, and he is absolutely correct. However, I still have doubts about the whole idea. But Jason Busch, my business partner from Spend Matters US, who was also at the event, has already made his comments here, and has come down broadly in favour of the idea. (We don’t agree on everything)!

The panel discussion at the event provided ammunition for those doubts. How would licensing cope with a new CPO moving into the profession, perhaps from another part of the business? Indeed, one of the most senior CPOs present, from a huge global business, has exactly that background, having risen through other parts of the business rather than procurement. Would the concept of licensing being mandatory mean the owners of that business were not “allowed” to appoint that individual – or at least not until she had been through the licensing process?

That just seems untenable to me. There is also no guarantee that a licensed procurement officer will really be competent, or indeed won’t be corrupt. And underpinning all of this is the fact that there is no clear professional “body of knowledge” in procurement, unlike the situation in other professions such as law, medicine, or engineering.

Now I do understand where Noble is coming from. And if I were the President of Nigeria, I might decide that requiring anyone involved in serious procurement work to be licensed , qualified or accredited would be a very sensible move. But if I’m the CEO of a large global firm, then I'll decide who is appropriate to procure on behalf of my firm and be our CPO, thank you, not CIPS!

My concern - with the wellbeing of CIPS still close to my heart - is that Noble and CIPS are getting on the wrong side of this discussion when it comes to major private sector firms. We are in danger of looking bureaucratic or (even worse) self-serving.

And even more pertinently, licensing does not fit with the vision of procurement that was painted during the Big Ideas Summit - a dynamic function, acting as trusted advisers to board level colleagues, creating the CEOs and COOs of the future, being “intrapreneurs” as Chris Lynch put it, and enabling executives in other disciplines to become more commercially capable.

Indeed, Noble himself gave a pretty convincing picture of that very vision during the first part of his speech - I just don't think licensing fits with the things he was actually saying himself. Perhaps we should focus the licensing idea more on the public sector and those sectors / countries where procurement is not quite at that visionary stage? But it is certainly not a message to take to leading global corporations, in my view anyway.

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