Business Undergraduates – The Procurement Concepts that Enthuse Students

chris lonsdaleAt a time of much discussion about the future of the profession, guest contributor, Chris Lonsdale, Birmingham University, Lecturer, Procurement and Supply Management, shares his experience of how procurement is perceived by young people studying business at his university.

The procurement and operations management team (POM) where I work has long been involved in postgraduate and executive education. However, POM's largest commitment actually concerns undergraduate students. Such students, as part of their overall business degree, can follow a 'pathway' that involves (a) a foundation business-to-business module and (b) follow-on modules on procurement and supply management (P&SM), B2B marketing, operations management and project management.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most popular subject on our UG degree programme is consumer marketing, with an array of modules available. However, the POM modules hold their own, attract sizable student numbers, produce a largely positive student response and influence numerous student career choices. Modesty prevents me from suggesting that this is due to the quality of the POM staff, which allows us to consider other possible reasons, focusing on the P&SM-related teaching that I cover.

First, procurement contains many engaging intellectual puzzles and this helps capture student attention. Students can be a little sceptical of academics standing at the front of the class outlining their pet theories and concepts, and rightly so. But, when studying P&SM, our students are asked to consider how important to procurement are concepts such as trust, opportunistic behaviour (e.g. lying, reneging), information asymmetries, uncertainty and power, especially when procurement situations are large in scale and complexity. In my experience, students can relate to these concepts and can see how they must present very real challenges to practitioners, operating as they are in a less than perfect world.

Second, I believe the subject of P&SM also appeals to students' practical and entrepreneurial interests. On our P&SM modules, students are presented with (theory-informed) cases that put them in hypothetical situations. They have to manage internal client relations within organisations that contain powerful vested interests; choose appropriate negotiation strategies and tactics; make supplier selection decisions that consider the medium as well as short term; and, develop contractual and relationship arrangements for complex procurements. They can see that this is management at the sharp end.

The key, as a lecturer, is to know how to 'sell' procurement - sound familiar! My view (from bitter experience) is that there are certain aspects of procurement that 'grab' students and certain aspects that they can (mainly) learn out of the classroom as part of self-study. Much of the fine detail of e-procurement systems and vendor ratings matrices, for example, fall into the latter category when teaching general business students. A focus predominantly on the 'big themes', backed up by short, punchy case studies, has worked for me and my colleagues in getting students enthused – and motivated for further learning.

All of this brings to me to the fact that a noticeably larger number of students than ever before are approaching me to say that they are choosing a procurement role for their industry year or their career after graduation. I am now regularly providing assistance to students who have upcoming interviews and assessment centres for procurement roles. These young people are not just 'falling into procurement', a story I have heard over and over again during my many years working with procurement professionals. The view from this particular ivory tower is a pretty positive one.

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