The Future of Procurement – An Apology

I spoke last week at the Science Warehouse customer event and my keynote was titled “The Future of Procurement – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. (You can decide which this picture represents ...)

The general thrust of my argument is that the external drivers for procurement are not as favourable as they have been over the past 20 years, as outsourcing and globalisation cannot continue to grow as they have. So there is a real danger that robotics, AI and machine learning will send the profession into crisis. Many of the activities and tasks procurement people currently do will be automated out of existence, or technology will at least lead to the end user (budget holder) being able to do more themselves without the help of procurement.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. My core message was (and is) that we need to identify the skills and activities that won’t or can’t be automated out of existence, and which will still be best done by “procurement” rather than the business. There are some of these, believe me, but we do need to think carefully about what they are, then develop the skills to position ourselves to deliver them.

In the Q&A after my presentation, I got onto the fact that new jobs do emerge as old ones die. Employment is higher in the UK than ever despite the disappearance of coal mining and many other historical jobs that many people fulfilled. Now I do think that there will be fewer procurement jobs in the future, but I pointed out that new roles, new opportunities will come along. And just to illustrate that point, I said that roles such as coffee shop of baristas or social care workers barely existed when I was a kid, and now they employ thousands.  Or words to that effect, anyway.

Now apparently, when I talked to some of the audience over post-event drinks, some people took this to mean I was suggesting hordes of newly unemployed procurement professionals would have to retrain to become Starbucks staff or carers, helping old folks live their lives (both fine jobs in their own right, we should say). But that’s not what I meant!

My comments were really made to illustrate that 30 years ago, there were far fewer care workers and pretty much no baristas in the UK. New jobs do grow as old decline, as we have seen over the decades and even centuries. There will be fewer procurement people, but more people probably working in procurement technology firms for instance! And new roles, occupations and even professions will come along to replace what has disappeared.

But I don’t really think procurement will die. The main purpose of my session was to encourage people to think about the future, consider what new technology will do to their current jobs and procurement generally, and then think even harder about how we can define value-adding roles for the profession and ourselves as individuals.

The session was supposed to be a call for that sort of action, not a suggestion that we should all swot up on Macchiato-making! I have every confidence in the profession, but we do have to be aware of the dangers ahead.

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