Professional Development in Procurement: Rationale and Strategies

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One reader who wrote in to Ask Spend Matters last year posed an interesting question that fell outside of our editorial team’s wheelhouse: “What are the most pressing professional development needs for sourcing and procurement professionals today and for the next five years?” While we’ve fielded many of the procurement strategy and technology-focused questions we received, we thought our friends at MRA Global Sourcing would be perfectly suited to provide a compelling answer to the above. Read their response below!

With shifting market conditions, technological advancement and other factors, the procurement function is changing rapidly. If supply management professionals and their companies don’t keep pace, they’ll be at a serious disadvantage.

As procurement evolves, so do attitudes toward professional development, and the way workers build their knowledge base. Let’s examine the state of professional development, and what’s on the horizon.

The Case for Development

Building skills required to thrive in the workplace shouldn’t stop when a manager tells a candidate, “You’re hired.” If it does, employees fail to grow, and their companies can’t compete. Let’s look at three key benefits PD offers staff and their employers.

Competitive Advantages

Technology will continue to drive procurement groups not just to change but to constantly transform themselves. Global strategist C.K. Prahalad advised managers to shift emphasis from best practices to “next practices” — emerging tools, techniques and processes that embrace what’s ahead rather than what’s happening now. Investment in professional development may help this effort. Focusing on best practices catches a company up with competitors, but looking ahead sets it apart

“Best practices lead to agreement on mediocrity,” Prahalad said. “What we really need is to ask, ‘What is the next practice?’ so that we can become the benchmark companies and institutions around the world.” Emphasizing education on up-and-coming trends like automation of tactical procurement processes can help your sourcing group outperform others.

Efficiency and Effectiveness

Most positions involve learning on the job. Supplementing that practical education with formal learning (like online courses, seminars and industry conferences) helps build staff knowledge, which empowers people to do their jobs more accurately and efficiently. Industry organizations like Institute for Supply Management and APICS offer a wealth of courses, conferences and certification programs to boost staff skills and a company’s collective knowledge base.

One reason why companies likely will continue to enhance day-to-day experience with development programming: learning in the field can be costly. On-the-job learning can come from making an error out of ignorance or inexperience, which could be expensive and damaging to the company. Course and seminar learning, by contrast, helps staff build knowledge necessary to avoid such errors — and the costly lessons they can come with.

Morale and Retention

Learning can boost a worker’s mood, strengthening their commitment to excel in the workplace. Online learning opportunities are on the rise, but in-person meetups are still thriving. According to tech-centric PR pro Mike Crawford, offsite skill-building events like conferences don’t just treat employees to a change of scenery. They expose them to new people, ideas and methods to do their jobs. Employees likely will return to their jobs reinvigorated and with new perspectives to apply to their work and to share with colleagues.

Boosted morale means more than smiles in the workplace. Happier employees are likely to stay with the company longer. Retention takes effort, but the resources required to find a replacement can be even more time-consuming and costly. Also, when a procurement professional walks out the door, the time and money spent growing their skills is walking out, too — likely into the welcoming arms of a competitor.

The Changing Landscape

Attitudes and practices around professional development are shifting and will continue to evolve in procurement and other fields. This includes determination of who should chart an employee’s development path (the worker or the company), investment in education and the formats training can take.

Who’s Responsible?

According to academic journal The ILR Review, the number of U.S. employers providing formal skills training to their staff has been trending downward since the start of the millennium. One reason for the shift away from company-provided professional development is the increased frequency with which employees are changing jobs

If a procurement professional lands with a company that doesn’t invest in employee development, the Harvard Business Review recommends, they should still take certain steps to remain personally competitive:

  • Get a handle on how their company gauges their success
  • Pinpoint personal weaknesses
  • Develop a plan for closing skills gaps, and record progress
  • Make career improvement goals and progress known with managers
  • Build skills with specific benefits to their company
  • Seek out mentors to help along the way

Development Strategies

There are different types of professional development programs growing in popularity amongst procurement professionals.

We are witnessing an increased demand for specialized and niche training programs that procurement groups deploy for their team members. There is now even a market for “procurement university”-type boutique consulting firms. These companies are sought to come in and train departments en masse on topics like negotiation, category management, procurement software, supplier relationship management and more. Unlike traditional sourcing consultancies, these programs take a purely educational approach and make your office their classroom, complete with grades, report cards and all.

While it may be more challenging to track and quantify the soft skills piece, this development area can’t be avoided for procurement staff. Supply chain professionals need to be able to do what technology can’t: build and maintain solid relationships with colleagues, suppliers and global stakeholders, often in high-stress situations. Some companies are getting creative and have turned the focus to psychology by hiring professional coaches or groups to educate their teams on how people operate and think.

We encountered one such group at a procurement risk management conference last year who have been hounded by Fortune 500 companies (especially in high-impact industries like pharma and food) to share how the human brain reacts to risk. The idea is that, with knowledge and training, behaviors can be altered in a way that removes emotion to objectively and effectively evaluate risk. As any procurement professional knows, emotional, panic-driven decision-making can have dire consequences for companies and their consumers, so gaining an edge in this space is highly desirable.

Virtual Learning

Procurement practitioners are increasingly charged to do less with more. One area seeing cuts over the years is, unfortunately, professional development. As the Harvard Business Review reports, the number of U.S. employees treated to employer-funded training has declined to 15%.

The dwindling funds available don’t mean employees need to be left high and dry with regard to training. In order to save travel, per diem and other expenses associated with traveling to in-person conferences, employers are turning to online conferences, courses, webinars and other online educational programming. Cyber-learning opportunities may bear a charge but frequently cost less than an in-person event.

And benefits don’t stop at the price tag — employees also get to learn at their own pace, avoid traveling away from the home office and, depending on how the course is set up, several employees may share in the learning. Industry associations like the aforementioned ISM and APICS, as well as universities like MIT and other resources, offer industry-specific online courses.

Another possibility: massive open online courses (MOOCs). There’s a surprising amount of quality web-based educational content, produced by various organizations. Finding procurement-centric content may require some digging, but there also are courses that can build other helpful skills, such as foreign languages, analytics, general business and more.

Return on Development

Professional development requires an investment, but companies likely will continue to find it pays off. Procurement leaders can find an especially strong ROI on procurement-centric programs, and luckily there are a wealth of options for them to turn to.

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