MSDUK Conference – CPO Panel Session Gives Good Advice on Inclusive Procurement (Part 2)

Following an advisory session from the CPOs on the panel at the recent MSDUK supplier diversity conference, our esteemed procurement leaders fielded some quite pertinent questions from the floor. It was an animated discussion which bore some actionable insight and some very interesting points were made. It’s not important to pinpoint who said what – rather convey the key messages.

Q. One attendee remarked how small diverse businesses bring innovation and creativity in a way that today big businesses can't. He cited a recent visit to Harrods where a young female popular blogger was giving advice on makeup: thousands of girls are queuing to pay £15 for ‘her eyelashes,’ he said. The big concerns like Clinique were amazed. Big businesses need to keep up with what’s changing and SMEs can bring that. He observed that the digital revolution is coming out of teenagers’ bedrooms (not necessarily big businesses). These are the dynamic people – his question was: how do these people get noticed, when there is no formal request for their talents? How, for example do they do business with Government?

A. The panellists took turns to give their views – rather like Question Time. So we’ll aggregate their answers: it was universally recognised that smaller suppliers bring innovation and intelligence. But it was observed that innovation is something that happens, it’s not something you can force. It takes dialogue. Tech companies are also doing a lot of innovation especially in the fields of AI and machine learning. What’s missing is 'forums.' If Government were to develop forums that suppliers could tap into, it would create a more structured approach. We should start with the problem or expectation, then ask for creations. (We have recognised this approach before in other EU countries over on our Public Spend Forum site.)

One supplier from the floor felt innovation is something that is expected from you: your customers come to you because you offer them something others can’t, because you’re the best. The buyer can’t do everything themselves, suppliers bring the innovation. There are many organisations that run award programmes that recognise and reward innovation – so it’s a good idea to look out for those. (And we can tell you about some of them here.)

In terms of getting through the Government door, it was acknowledged that it can be a complicated process depending on size of contract. But good advice was given – don’t just think you have to talk solely to procurement. They should be involved, but more importantly, talk to the users. And use organisations like MSDUK, they are important because they can speak on behalf of their members –  "they are our source of getting intelligence on how we could make things easier".

Q. But how do you make sure you are talking to the right person, in the right part of the business? That they are not just interested in their monthly targets?

A. Organisations that care about inclusive procurement must make it transparent how important small and diverse suppliers are to the business. It needs to be articulated at all levels. Obviously a lot comes down to the skillset of the person you are talking to – if they don’t care, then innovation is stifled, but that’s another issue. You know where your value lies, demonstrate it and remember you can use Procurement to get to another route.

Q. During an RFP, we are encouraged not to deviate from the process, we can get marked down. It is a challenge to bring innovation to larger tenders.

A. Some parts of government, like DWP, and some businesses hold supplier engagement days with SMEs, and there should be more of that across government, it was felt. There is of course a pre-procurement phase and suppliers are encouraged to use them to get better acquainted and noticed before they go through the process.

Q. How will things change after Brexit?

A. The panel were all of one mind – that nothing changes for now. There will still be regulations like there are for all countries. In the future, they will depend on the trading relationships we have, then we will put in place the regulations to support them, and we will make them as simple as we can. The key message is ‘business as usual.’

Q. Innovation seems to be the focus when it comes to considering SMEs, but what about efficiency and speed – they are big benefits too. Procurement managers should look to more than innovation and disruption – they should think about agility. When you look at your policies – is that in them?

A. All markets are different – the key is to achieve consistency of approach. When we assess value, there are different triggers that are important for commercial, and speed-to-market is one of them. If you can bring agility and cost efficiency, that is innovation. Those things are expected as the baseline, but it’s important to communicate that to all stakeholders. The key is to be able to demonstrate where your strength lies, if it’s speed, give evidence, we will reward that.

The session was very well presented and well received by suppliers and buyers alike. At the end of the session, one of the suppliers I spoke with put the value of supplier diversity like this: “We don’t just add colour to your organisation, we add saffron to your cooking,” which was a rather nice way of saying, we add flavour, it’s good for you and you can get a lot out of it. He added – you must think ‘diversity,’ and make sure diverse suppliers are not just a token in your business. 

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