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Making a Trusted Advisor of the Procurement Function

The procurement function in an organization can play an important role—potentially both strategic and advisory. It can also, however, be dragged down into petty negativism. It’s in everyone’s interest to get it right.

Getting it right is the subject of a new article by the two of us, called The Role of Procurement as Trusted Advisor to Management. Link to a.pdf version here.

Following is a quick overview.

Procurement as Strategic Partner

Ideally, a firm’s procurement function helps broadly. Of course it manages the buying of commodity stuff cheaply.  It should also design good overall purchasing processes.  But ultimately it should also help an organization invest its expenditures wisely.

That last is a mandate most CPOs and CEOs alike would welcome—in principle. But they rarely get there, because procurement gets bogged down in a classic trust conflict: the conflict between transactions and relationships.

Procurement has pushed hard to attract brighter and better staff, but capability is not enough.  A genuine understanding of and concern for clients’ ambitions and goals is needed: procurement needs to be benevolent as well as capable in the way it works with clients.

The Transaction Trap

Most organizations measure procurement by how much they can cut cost.  This simple fact—the focus on cost savings as a metric—has outsized influence.  It means discussions are always about price—but not value.  Expenses—but not expenditures.  Cuts—but not contexts.

The cost savings focus drives procurement to excessively favor market-based, impersonal processes—which too often prevent the value of trusted relationships with suppliers. The transactional focus implied by cost metrics also favors explicit contracting, rather than the constructive use of implicit contracts on occasion.

This focus also leads to destructive gaming: you can’t prove savings if you’ve already cut the source of waste by strategically redefining processes, hence procurement organizations are tempted to “squirrel away” savings to appear the biggest.  The cost focus also means that purchasing’s clients know that ‘savings’ just means their budget is going to get cut.

The whole ‘savings’ focus drives dysfunctional, non-strategic behavior by everyone.  And it’s gotten worse since 2009: CPOs and CEOs alike, in a bad economic environment, have said, “Just go find some savings.”

The Trust Cure

It’s not often that we should start with metrics instead of strategy, but this may be the cart that should drive the horse.  Instead of focusing so extremely on cost savings, we suggest procurement focus on a Spend Control Index.  Details will vary by organization, but the gist of it is a unified scorecard that makes procurement accountable for all external spend—based on revenue, adjusted for items like salaries, interest, and above all, linked directly to strategic decisions.

Such an approach is easily linked to strategy; it enhances strategy implementation; and it is easily auditable. Most importantly, it allows for reframing of discussions between management and procurement; allowing the latter to behave like a trusted advisor.

Read the whole article here, or in .pdf form here.

Why Influence Is Only Halfway to Trust

I was interested to read, in the Wall Street Journal  that persuasion is taking the place of old-style command and control managemen

True—and yet only half the truth.

The author, Erin white writes:

Managers say they increasingly must influence — rather than command — others in order to get their own jobs done. The trend is the result of leaner corporate hierarchies and the erosion of division walls. Managers now work more often with peers where lines of authority aren’t clear or don’t exist.

Historically, each business-development staffer worked with a specific engineer in Mr. Martino’s group [at IBM]. He wanted to create teams of engineers to work with business-development staffers. Business-development managers feared the move might lead to confusion and missed connections. So Mr. Martino agreed to appoint team leaders to help coordinate. He says the system is working well.

"The more we operate as a global company, you’re going to be faced with dealing more" across group boundaries, he says. "It’s just the reality."

That’s the truth part: that as organizations become more global, they must get more horizontal, matrixed, and team-based.

Now here’s the half-truth part: that isn’t the half of it.

Marry globalization to business process outsourcing, and you have a massive replacement of clear vertical management not by indirect management—but by commercial contracts with third parties.

Think it’s hard coordinating business development managers in Armonk with engineers in Tennessee? Try coordinating them with an engineering subcontractor in Bangalore.

The difficulty is not just about lines of authority—it’s about horizontal, commercial, supplier/customer relationships with the companies that now handle the work you used to handle internally across those corporate boundaries—which you used to think were complex!

Handling vague lines of authority is merely a way-station on the road to globally outsourced supply chains.

Jack Welch had it half right when he talked about the need for boundaryless companies. The half he missed was to get rid of the word “companies.”

Courses on influence are indeed taking over the corporate agenda from courses on management. But it’s a half-step and change is hampered because “influence” is still chained to an us vs. them paradigm.

The value of “influencing” skills is harshly limited if they are applied only to the achievement of sustainable corporate competitive advantage. If I’m on the same team as you, I might not mind being influenced. But if I’m the outsourcing partner you’re trying to influence, in order to increase your bottom line at the expense of mine, then every attempt at influencing me just makes me more cynical about your motives.

When applied to outsiders, when we say "influence," we mean “getting you to do what I want." Until we see customers and suppliers as on the same side of the table as we are, we cannot move to trust—helping us both get what we both want.