The Case for Procurement Hazing (Part 1)

The concept of hazing goes back hundreds (if not thousands) of years as a form of initiation into a formal or informal group, or even a profession (more on this in a minute). Wikipedia defines hazing as "the practice of various rituals and other activities involving harassment, abuse or humiliation used as a way of initiating a person into a group." Hazing can also cross the line, as Wikipedia also suggests, including the 18th century example that novelist Francisco de Quevedo includes in a book, showing "a scene of students hazing one another." In the military, an example of hazing I've heard from various colleagues who served in the Coast Guard is dragging new recruits out and getting them filthy with motor oil at a given set of coordinates in the sea -- or something to that effect. Then they're "official."

Yet hazing does not just have to be about inflicting violence or filth on an individual to bring them officially into a group. It also takes place in the professional world, in both informal and formal circumstances. Take the case of investment banking. In the banking world, unofficial hazing takes the form of forcing young interns, analysts and associates to pull all nighters -- once or twice a week is about right -- to work on financial models for a pending transaction. Or at least to be "on call" to work on models if necessary.

This ritual hazing bonds a certain type of person to the profession while pushing others away from it. I knew, for example, that working on the advisory side of transactions on a full-time basis was not for me after two years of a night job and internship in college working for a small-time banker. Yet doing it provided me with the empathy necessary to work with those in the business as well as those negotiating larger procurement contracts, including the personal sacrifice necessary to get something across the goal line.

A more formalized form of hazing in the financial world is the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exam, which takes four years, on average, to complete. Don't get me started on the exam content at this hour in detail, but it makes the CPSM look like a middle school test by comparison. The CFA is a true test of a candidate's ability to understand capital markets, company/sector analysis, general economics, and core financial modeling and portfolio analysis. It requires not only memorizing a ton of material over the course of many years, but also applying it in context.

The failure rate is substantial, despite the pedigree of many of the candidates (who often have MBAs from the top programs in the world). For the June 2012 exam, the Level 1 pass rate was 38%. For Level 2, this climbed slightly to 42%. And for Level 3, 52% of candidates passed. Is studying for -- and attempting to pass -- the CFA a ritualized form of financial services hazing (primarily for buy- and sell-side analysts)? You bet it is.

The procurement industry completely lacks a CFA equivalent. According to ISM, the pass rate for the CPSM exam is 65-70%. While the CPSM does require sitting for a number of separate exams, it does not have the concept of "levels" like the CFA, which one tackles the course of a number of quarters or, more commonly, years. CIPs (the Chartered Institute of Purchasing & Supply) administer a number of certifications for which it publishes pass/fail rates of candidates, which range significantly. For the May 2012 exam for the International Certificate in Purchasing and Supply, pass rates generally hovered above 50% for different units in the course (one unit, managing inventory, had a pass rate of only 47%).

However, generally speaking, CIPs pass rates for other exams is much higher, at 75% or more. Consider the Level Certification in Purchasing and Supply, where the pass rate for each unit was above 80%, and hit 96% for the individual course "Purchasing in Action," which, judging by this percentage, might be described as the procurement equivalent of the stereotypical college course "rocks for jocks" in which varsity athletes cluster together to check off their science requirement with a gentleman's B (without even attending class). But whether this CIPs course is really the equivalent of "buying for poets," I'll leave up to you to decide.

The most important theme to hammer home here is that certification programs do not serve as a form of ritualized procurement hazing or test to welcome those who are worthy into the profession. It's no CFA. Nor is it a CPA (or is it the equivalent of passing the bar exam in NY state for that matter). Simply holding an ISM or CIPs equivalent may help you get a job or move up the ranks, but there is nothing exclusive about it like a CFA that tells the world "this individual must be exceptional -- or close to it."

To be continued...

- Jason Busch

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Voices (3)

  1. Charles Dominick, SPSM, SPSM2:

    I never said SPSM=CFA. Frankly, I am not a CFA (and would wager that you aren’t either, "puh-lease"), so I am not qualified to draw any comparison of rigor, prestige, etc. between anything and the CFA. Actually, the only comparison I made between CFA and SPSM was that the SPSM pass rate is *higher* than the pass rate Jason reported for the CFA in the context that lower pass rate=more rigorous.

    That being said, I will reiterate my point that anyone who tries to claim that earning the SPSM, SPSM2 and SPSM3 isn’t rigorous is not likely to have done so. That would be like me saying it’s not difficult to be an NFL quarterback who threw for 500 yards in a game. If it was so easy, why is Peyton Manning on the front of the sports pages and not me?

  2. puh-lease!:

    SPSM = CFA? Sorry, collective eye roll here. CFA Institute is a non-for-profit organization that is the de facto standard for investment professionals and has >100K members, with a 50 year track record, strong corporate respect, rigorous content, and deep corporate governance. NLP is a small private firm trying to establish itself as an alternative to the ISM/CIPS/etc in the purchasing training/education market by setting up a competing set of certifications. I’ve seen some of the training materials, and it is nowhere as deep as CFA content, nor is it exactly ‘pushing the envelope’ in the procurement arena.

    Also, I can’t recall the details from spendmatters a few years ago re: NLP supposedly inserting yellow-highlighted "SPSM certification a plus" text into job descriptions scraped off various corporate/recruiter web sites. If true, I feel that it’s questionable form to do that and doesn’t exactly instill confidence in someone doing certifications in Purchasing ethics!

    Still, NLP does a good yeoman’s job in training up folks and I’ve talked to a few firms who’ve used them. There’s also nothing wrong with for-profit firms who offer training/certification programs. For example, Accenture Supply Chain Academy is pretty deep, and they actually partner with a large number of corporations, academics, and even work with ISM/CIPS/APICS to support their credentialing.

    Charles, keep up the good work, but let’s keep it real shall we?

  3. Charles Dominick, SPSM, SPSM2:

    I should probably wait til the series is completed to share my thoughts on the matter, but I’m feeling a bit trigger-happy this morning.

    I absolutely agree with you that the procurement profession should have a difficult-to-attain standard that communicates, to use your words, "this individual must be exceptional." And, actually, that is the guiding philosophy behind the SPSM family of procurement certifications.

    For the first level certification, the SPSM, there is a 69% first attempt pass rate and an 83% pass rate overall. Now, the SPSM Certification is a prerequisite for the more advanced SPSM2 Certification. The SPSM2 Exam has a 59% first attempt pass rate and a 77% overall pass rate. The SPSM2 Certification is a prerequisite for the even more advanced SPSM3 Certification, which was just launched July 1, 2012. It is too early to share any pass rate numbers but, over time, I suspect that the downward pass rate trend will continue because of the increasing complexity of the material.

    The point is that, as candidates progress through the family, the most exceptional procurement professionals are the only ones that make it through. So, if the SPSM3 overall pass rate (not first attempt pass rate, an important distinction) is, say, 65%, that might sound high compared to the CFA, however, it should be seen as a multiplier for previous pass rates. 83% x 77% x 65% = ~42%. Another thing to keep in mind is that not everyone who becomes an SPSM or SPSM2 has the initiative to move to the next level. The SPSM3 Certification requires over 100 hours of study and not everyone has the motivation for that rigor. Therefore, the SPSM3 is a testament to both the initiative of the individual and their intelligence. Therefore, I believe that the SPSM family of certifications is in alignment with your thoughts on letting the best and brightest weed themselves out from the rest. I’d be surprised if anyone who disagrees actually has an SPSM2 or SPSM3 credential after their name.

    As the SPSM family of procurement certifications continues to expand and become more advanced, even fewer people will pass through the funnel. I totally agree with you that the procurement profession needs a filter through which only the best and brightest can pass and I think that the SPSM family of certifications fills that need today and has the wheels in motion to continue to fill that need for the foreseeable future.

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