Last week, the ISM held their annual conference in Indianapolis, Indiana.  The conference was well attended, and the folks that I spoke to appeared to be happy with the content and the training sessions.  Overall, I agree – the ISM did a great job organizing an agenda that met the overarching needs of the supply management community.  However, I can’t help but wonder if our profession is getting a little stale.  Year after year it seems like we are talking about different variations of the same topics – stakeholder engagement, category management, cost savings, sourcing strategy, and negotiation strategy, to name a few. This is not a criticism of the ISM at all – these topics are still relevant to our community.  My question is, why?  Aren’t we supposed to be evolving, adapting, and (hopefully) improving?  Yet year after year, we still cover the same topics, and people seem to need these same trainings over and over again.

For all the talk in the blogs on the evolution of procurement and procurement 2020, we are still rehashing the same challenges and making very little progress in a profession that has a lot of room for improvement.  The title of my session at ISM this year (co-presented by the esteemed Rebecca Karp), was “Navigating Ahead in an On-Demand World – Procurement’s New Realm”.  During this session, Rebecca and I covered the evolution, or at least perceived evolution, of procurement, from a three bid and buy facilitator to the role of true business partner.  Most people in the room agreed that business partner is where we are at today – both supporting the business objectives of the organizations we serve, and acting as a front line account manager for the suppliers we work with. The problem, as outlined by our presentation, is that the business doesn’t feel the same way about us.

To them, we are still a facilitator at best, and a bottle-neck at worst.  We focus on cost savings instead of value, we run a process that is too rigid, we aren’t customer-service focused, and no one understands our spreadsheets!  These are the basics, and we still aren’t getting them right.  So it’s not that strange that the topics covered at ISM this year are the same that were covered last year, and the year before.  Apparently, we aren’t learning anything!

Outside of the same old coverage, if I had to pick three “trending” topics based on the conversations I had at ISM this year, they would be “millennials”, “soft-skills” and “revenue-focus”.  In a way, all three of these trending topics give me some hope that the future is coming, but all for different reasons.

The millennial topic was covered in great detail, from senior procurement executives trying to understand how we manage this apparently new breed of human – that wants to be valued at work, but also have a work-life balance, to actual millennials either trying to explain why they are so special, or explaining that not all people, even within the same age group, should be considered the same.

The controversy around millennials in itself didn’t give me much hope, but the fact that so many people with a fresh perspective are entering our industry, excited about it, and see it as a good start to a career – represents a huge change from even the procurement function of 10 years ago.  Fresh blood never hurts!

Soft skills and revenue focus for procurement professionals are things we’ve known for a long time, but I have never seen them talked about as much as at the conference this year.  As an industry, we are starting to understand that just running a process isn’t enough, we need to provide good customer service to support the business and put strategy back into strategic sourcing.  We are also finally starting to understand that a dollar of cost savings is worth a heck of a lot more than a dollar of revenue.  That recognition is critical to our future success, and the sooner we can report the bottom line impact on EBITA and profitability to the C-suite, the better.

The reality is, while we are still trying to get the basics right, there is a lot ahead of us as an industry and a profession to be excited about.  It will be interesting to see what the next year brings.  Until then, see you at Disney!
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Joe Payne

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