Can Procurement Make A Difference – eWorld Discussion (part 2)

In part 1 yesterday we featured my opening remarks at the eWorld event, when I led a workshop discussion on the theme "making a difference". We had a packed room incidentally, which as four sessions were running simultaneously was gratifying. I guess that shows there is an appetite amongst procurement people for talking about some of these big philosophical issues.

Perhaps the audience was somewhat self-selecting, but no-one challenged me in terms of my first question - which was is it worth even spending any time thinking about this as an issue. There seemed to be interest generally, and although there were a range of contributions they were generally around how we could make a difference - and perhaps how you defined "a difference" -rather than whether we should even trouble ourselves over the issue.

There was a school of thought in the audience that proposed we make a difference simply by “doing a good job”, as we might say. So if by being good procurement people, we help our organisations to succeed, grow shareholder value (private sector) and meet their objectives (public sector), then in a sense that is enough.

I have some sympathy with that view although I am not convinced it goes quite far enough. I'm not sure it quite leaves the personal "legacy" we talked about in part 1, and in any case businesses are much more ephemeral than we think. NatWest was huge one minute and gone as an independent entity the next, and our individual contributions are often hard to measure really. Personally, I don't think "Peter did a good job as NatWest's CPO for 30 months till RBS took us over" will be etched on my tombstone.

If we look beyond that, then we get into other areas where we can make a difference. It could be by mentoring and supporting young people in the profession. It might be by supporting the use of charities, social enterprises and the like in our supply chain or driving sustainability initiatives.

But there are tricky issues. The discussion touched on whether procurement could be the "saviour of capitalism" - could we help to rein in bad practice, boycott businesses that behave badly (pay their bosses too much, pay too little tax).  But most CEOs may not like the idea of punishing their peers for paying people like them generously! Anyway, should we appoint ourselves arbiters of what’s right and wrong? In a democracy, if parliament chooses to allow something to be legal, should an unelected group of business (procurement)  people take it on themselves to suppress it?

But one idea that appeals to me, is achievable and of real benefit to our organisations is to see ourselves as the champions of competition and innovation in supply markets. That can be through driving innovation with existing suppliers or by encouraging new firms, start-ups and innovators into our key supply markets.

This has the beauty of working on several levels. Competition is good for the wider economy. It stimulates "good capitalism" as opposed to the bad capitalism that our new political rulers in the UK don’t like. It stops monopolies and oligopolies forming and helps small, young firms, and it may well be that real innovators come disproportionately from outside "the establishment", so maybe we help minority owned firms too. And of course it will benefit our organisations too, as we get better suppliers ultimately.

And in terms of our legacy? Well, when in a few years’ time, if the CEO of a great business (a Dyson, Apple or Tesla) stands up and says "we would never have got to this point if Ginny Butcher, the procurement manager at Smith & Co, hadn't given us our first significant contract...", then you can feel you achieved something significant.

One final point which was raised right at the end of our session. Sometimes we have to be tough with suppliers, we have to tell them they haven't won the contract or they're not performing. But treating people politely and with respect, including friends, colleagues and suppliers, costs nothing. And it is an easy and positive way of increasing our positive contribution to this world a little and adds to our chance of "making a difference”.

By the way, I did not take notes at this session, this is from memory, and I have coloured this with my own views. So if you were there and want to add anything, or think I have missed some key points, then please do drop me a “comment” here. Indeed, if you weren’t at eWorld, we are still really interested in your thoughts on this tricky but fascinating issue.

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