Behavioural skills are not enough – we need the technical stuff as well

We published an article last week, in which we startes to look at procurement skills. We’ve classified skills into three groups – what we call technical, behavioural and category related. (See here for our diagram and thanks for the comments on that piece, it’s well worth taking a look at some interesting contributions to the debate).

Now over the last few years, the biggest change in the way we look at and talk about procurement skills has been the increased focus on behavioural skills. We’ve come to realise that having good technical knowledge is not enough to be a top performer. You have to be able to work with internal stakeholders and colleagues, be persuasive, tenacious, have self-confidence, show initiative – all those great personal qualities.

I remember my friend and ex CPO Guy Allen, when we interviewed him for our book, saying that the quality he most valued in his category managers was “intestinal fortitude”. The strength to stand up to senior stakeholders and suppliers, hold your ground and show confidence.

That increased focus on behaviours has been absolutely right. But as usual, when the pendulum swings, it can swing too far. And it is important that we don’t lose sight of the technical elements of the procurement role which need to sit at the heart of what we do as a profession. Because being nothing more than a persuasive communicator, without any deep skills to offer, won’t be enough to succeed.

There’s also the issue of what increasingly clever technology is going to do for the procurement profession. We’ve touched on this before – what Giles Breault, who was the CPO of Novartis until recently, calls “the democratization of the supply chain”. That means that anyone equipped with a smart phone and Google can find out more about a market, supplier or product in half a hour than an expert procurement person could have done in a week a few years ago. Easy to use cloud based platforms will enable our user to get supplier information, place orders, even run auctions perhaps. Why do they need procurement?

Now this is a different topic really and needs more exploration. But one of its implications is that it simply won’t be enough for procurement executives to have good inter-personal skills. They need a hard core of knowledge and capability that other people in our organisations - the marketing, IT, production or operations executives -  don’t possess.

Yet we need to think about what exactly is in that core, because some of what used to be part of it, has been or will be simply automated away. The current CIPS syllabus today won’t be the right one for 2020, that’s for sure.

So this isn’t a call to disregard behavioural skills, but to get them into proportion. They are important in most procurement roles, can make the difference between average and star performers, and generate big wins for procurement. But whilst I can accept that, I regard the technical skill set as the admission price for us to be allowed into the game at all.

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Voices (5)

  1. Paul Vincent:

    In this debate (as ever) we need to be wary of too much self aggrandisement. Once we get started on the ‘technical’ versus ‘behavioural’ road we can then often take what I feel is a dead end turning onto the ‘procurement’ versus ‘non-procurement road’. I wrote a blog on the latter point a couple of weeks ago and it is a bit of a hobby horse of mine. I haven’t cut and pasted it the blog into this comment box for that reason but if anyone is interested to read my perspective (and it doesn’t fall foul of your editorial rules Peter!) then here is the link

  2. Ed Luttrell:

    As you would expect from me, I’ve been delighted to note the increase in comment and opinion about behaviours in the context of procurement and supply management. And I would also agree with Peter that, if we are to see a continuance of increasing competence and positive impact of procurement, we will need a healthy balance between the technical and behavioural. However, I suggest that we might be looking at this issue in a less than helpful way; we could make some useful distinctions here between SKILLS and BEHAVIOUR.

    As I see it, so far the debate seems to have positioned these two as a polarity: either we have people that have good technical skills OR good behavioural skills (or, ideally, both). But what if behaviour was not a SKILL at all? Granted, we all know that skills (such as riding a bike or doing your shoe laces up) can be taught, practised and integrated (get them ‘in the muscle’; make them ‘unconsciously competent’). We have read about the 10,000 hours to mastery. But surely behaviour is so much more than acquiring skills (e.g. of dexterity, agility and strength) whether they be mental or physical?

    Skills are the acquired tools and mechanisms of utilising knowledge and applying learning. Behaviour is manifested, observable actions that arise, surely, THROUGH skills but do not originate there. For the human being, the complex and remarkable animals that we are, behaviour originates from areas much, much deeper than learned skills. They originate in the curiously elusive regions of the unconscious mind; the way we think-emote, from our early formative years when our inter-personal neurobiology took shape in the form of models, attitudes and frames through which we perceive, value and make meaning about our subjective world.

    I suggest that if procurement wants to take the next important step, it should be towards a consideration that behaviour is not a skill to be learned in the same way that technical competency can be learned. Behaviour is something that emerges from who we ARE. Is the profession really ready to embrace this idea? I wonder…….

    1. bitter and twisted:

      Also, behavior is not innate to the individual – it is the interaction between individual and the organisation.

  3. bitter and twisted:

    If a purchaser ‘engages’ with a ‘stakeholder’ to ‘persuade’ them of a wonderful purchasing policy, but comes away agreeing the stakeholder is right, does that mean:

    A) they have poor behavioral skills – they failed to persuade

    B) they have good behavioral skills- they listened

  4. Kim Godwin:

    Behavioural skills alone are of course not the only answer, but depending how you define “technical” skills they might not be the full answer either. If technical skill is the procurement process and knowledge such as contract law (all the stuff that makes up the CIPS syllabus) then I wonder whether there are two other key areas – (1) market knowledge and insight and (2) commercial acumen. Market knowledge can be learnt but insight can’t yet is highly valued, and what about commerciality? Without that I suggest we are dead in the water but what exactly is that? Is it, somewhat like leadership, the outcome of a range of behaviours, skills and knowledge?

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