Selling Procurement – Chris Lonsdale on What Makes It Attractive to Students

Following his guest article here on the attitudinal changes he is seeing amongst his students, and another excellent article about Kraljic here, we caught up with Dr. Chris Lonsdale of Birmingham University recently. He is Programme Director of the MBA in Strategy and Procurement Management, Head of the Procurement and Operations Management Group and Programme Director of the UG Business Management degrees (isn't that three jobs, Chris?) Birmingham's 'procurement MBA'  is one of the longest standing and most respected in the UK (and wider afield too).

We started by talking about the status of procurement generally.

“As I said in that article, it has become much more of a graduate profession. Many people still fall into it, as they always did, but we see a lot more who are making a positive choice to move into procurement or start their careers in the area.”

Birmingham has taken procurement seriously for many years now, going back to the days of Andrew Cox and beyond, but many institutions still don’t, as Lonsdale observes.

“One problem is that so many academic institutions still don’t cover procurement. I’ve looked at the syllabus for MBAs at leading business schools and most just don’t touch it, or have a small amount of procurement and supply chain content tacked onto Operations Management. That’s crazy when you consider the percentage of most organisations’ spend that is going to go to third-party suppliers. How can they just ignore that entire aspect of business?”

I’m with him there - I’ve felt for a long time that CIPS could perhaps target that issue. But how do we make procurement interesting and attractive for students?

“My take is that if you put content that is related to real procurement issues and challenges in front of students, often case study related, they really respond. We regularly get feedback from students covering procurement as part of wider courses, saying, ”I thought this was going to be boring but it wasn’t!

“As a profession, we can get very descriptive about procurement, but what grabs the attention is how it really happens, including the people related aspects - the challenges of managing both internal stakeholders and other parties. Don’t talk about the types of specification we might develop, talk about how we deal with those issues through examples. Talk about procurement transformation in the context of broad business challenges. That can take us into different strategies and scenarios, then we can work the more academic concepts, such as buyer-seller power, into those real situations.”

And is this working at Birmingham?

“Well, you will never get everyone motivated, whatever you do! But procurement is one of our most popular options now when students get to choose modules.”

Lonsdale sees procurement as inherently more interesting and complex than many other areas of the traditional business syllabus.

“Procurement is complex – we consider how power is exploited, ethical issues, information asymmetries. There is an element of theory, but these are concepts that are grounded in real business decisions. Take the concept of “trust” in commercial decisions and actions. What does it mean to individuals? To the organisation? We can use procurement examples to bring concepts like that to life, and talk about what really happens.”

We finished off our discussion with me asking Lonsdale about e-learning and the new generation of “MOOCs” – massive open on-line courses. They are now offered by all sorts of organisations, from small private training firms to Harvard University. Will they affect traditional universities and courses?

“Really, I don’t think anyone is sure yet. Some may end up competing with us, but like any disruptive technology, it takes a while before the real effect is clear. I suspect it will be a case of segmentation. There will be a place for the MOOC but their popularity might be related to the age or financial status of the student for instance.”

Thanks to Chris Lonsdale – and a lesson there for the profession and anyone trying to attract the right people into procurement. Position what we do as solving complex but real-life business challenges, and bring the theory of procurement into it via actual case studies and examples. His experience suggests that if we do that, procurement can stand up well to any other business discipline in terms of its interest and attractiveness.

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