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.