All posts by Elaine Porteous

Is Blockchain The Next Big Thing For Supply Chain?

What does blockchain mean for your supply chain?

By Oleksandr Nagaiets/ Shutterstock

Few people working in supply chain roles have a clear understanding of how this fledgeling solution called blockchain is, or could be, applied in their organisations. There is much hype and misinformation in the marketplace and much of it is due to the unproven nature in practice and unknown long-term costs of blockchain applications.

So what is blockchain?

Without getting too technical, the underlying principle of blockchain is to provide a secure environment where encrypted business transactions between buyer and seller can happen without the need for third parties such as banks and clearing agents to intervene. According to McKinsey,

blockchain is an internet-based technology that is prized for its ability to publicly validate, record, and distribute transactions in immutable, encrypted ledgers”.

Immutable, in this case, means that each link in the blockchain is completely secure and unbreakable. Blockchain’s format guarantees the data has not been counterfeited and that information can be read by any authorized party.

There are two main types of blockchain applications, one private and the other public. In the commercial environment, the networks are mostly private, this type of operation is sometimes referred to as “permissioned”.    Read more detail about how Blockchain works here.   

The world before blockchain

This diagram below is typical of a traditional sales transaction with many intermediaries.  Currently, these intermediaries process, verify and reconcile transactions before the ownership of the goods or services can pass from seller to buyer. How many people does it take to move a container of avocados from a Kenyan seller to a UK buyer?  At least thirty, but more importantly, there are over 200 individual transaction events and communications involved. 

What traditional buyer-to-seller transactions look like today  

What supply chains could look like tomorrow  

The world after blockchain

In a private blockchain network,  the procure-to-pay process is streamlined so that documents are matched triggering payment and creating a verifiable audit trail.   Nestlé is breaking new ground in supply chain transparency through a collaboration with OpenSC – an innovative blockchain platform that allows consumers to track their food right back to the farm.  The initial pilot program will trace milk from farms and producers in New Zealand to Nestlé factories and warehouses in the Middle East.

What does blockchain mean for your supply chain?

How can this fledgeling technology be beneficial? According to McKinsey, there are three main areas where blockchain can add value:

  1. Replacing slow, manual paper-based processes.
  2. Strengthening traceability which reduces quality and recall problems
  3. Potentially reducing supply-chain IT transaction costs  (maybe?).

The answer seems to lie in its potential to speed up administrative processes and to take costs out of the system while still guaranteeing the security of transactions.  Blockchain has the potential to disrupt or create competitive advantage, but the biggest barrier to its adoption is that so few have a good grasp on how it can be of use in their operations.

The potential benefits

  • faster and more accurate tracking of products and distribution assets, e.g. trucks, containers, as they move through the supply chain  
  • reduction of errors on orders, goods receipts, invoices and other trade-related documents due to less need for manual reconciliation 
  • a permanent audit trail of every product movement or financial transaction from its source to its ultimate destination.
  • trust is created between users through using a transparent ledger where transactions are immutable, secure and  auditable

What are the obstacles?

1.The cost

Implementing a blockchain solution may require expensive amendments and upgrades to existing systems which is both costly and time-consuming. Who pays and what is the return on investment?

2. Change management

There will be a need to convince all involved parties to join a particular blockchain and collaborate for mutual benefit. More openness will be needed, the old ways of protecting information won’t work. There is likely to be some mistrust initially especially around market share and sales data.

3. Rules and regulations

Legal advice is essential to understand what regulatory frameworks must be complied with. There are no accepted global standards for Blockchain that align with maritime law, international customs regulations and the various commercial codes such as Incoterms that govern the commercial transfer of ownership.  

4. Security

Is Blockchain really unbreakable?  Hackers would not only need to infiltrate a specific block to alter existing information but would have to access all of the preceding blocks going back through the entire history of that blockchain, across every ledger in the network, simultaneously. Even with encryption, cyber-attacks are a concern and cybersecurity costs money.

Transacting using “smart” contracts

Blockchain can be used to create “smart” contracts that execute the terms of any agreement when specified conditions are met. The “smart” part is a piece of computer code that predefines a set of rules under which the parties to that smart contract agree to interact with each other. Not recommended for beginners.

What industries will benefit most? 

Industries with the greatest potential are those that deal with extensive paperwork such as freight forwarding, marine shipping, and transport logistics. 

Tracking ofautomotive parts as they move between manufacturing facilities and countries is an attractive application as interfaces between motor manufacturers and their 3PL transport partners are complex and often not well-integrated. Toyota is venturing into developing blockchain solutions for its core parts supply chain operations.

Vulnerable and highly regulated supply chains such as food and healthcare

can benefit due to their need for transparency. Real estate has great potential due to the mass of records and documents involved such as transfers of land titles, property deeds, liens etc.  

Avoiding the hype

Gartner says that although blockchain holds great promise, often the technology is offered as a solution in search of a problem. They advise that “to ensure a successful blockchain project, make sure you actually need to use blockchain technology. Additionally, much of what is on the market as an enterprise “blockchain” solution lacks at least two of the five core components: Encryption, immutability, distribution, decentralization and tokenization.”  Gartner’s long term view is that blockchain will only move through its Trough of Disillusionment by 2022. 

Will it work in your supply chain?

The jury is still out on whether blockchain will really create a competitive advantage. Also, the cost of running a blockchain in time and resources is the unknown factor. For companies thought to have efficient supply chain operations with trusted partners and reliable databases, such a complex solution may not be needed. A supplier portal that is housed in the cloud may be more than adequate when coupled with an established ERP system.   

5 Favourite Supply Chain Job Interview Questions… And Answers

There is no limit to the types of questions that can be asked at an interview for a mid-level role in supply chain management (SCM).  We have selected five of our favourites which come up regularly…

By djile/ Shutterstock

There is no limit to the types of questions that can be asked at an interview for a mid-level role in supply chain management (SCM).  We have selected five of our favourites which come up regularly but first, let’s pause for thought about what employers are looking for and why.    

Supply chain careers of the future

According to Unilever, a big global employer with complex supply chains, future opportunities are in:

  • Manufacturing
  • Data analysis 
  • Procurement
  • Transportation
  • Customer service

The accepted way top employers assess your specific skills and technical competencies and your future potential is by conducting a behavioural based interview.  You may be asked to describe situations or tasks you were involved in, your exact role and the results.  They may say “tell me about a time when ………” The skill here is to steer the answers to the best work you have done. Aim to demonstrate how you understand the challenges of today’s complex supply chains, especially theirs. This should lead the interviewers to outline their current problem areas. 

What competencies are employers looking for?  

Problem-Solving

Day-to-day supply chain management involves facing unexpected problems, failures and disruptions. Interviewers need to find out if candidates can identify issues and establish root causes. You may be asked to explain how you resolved types of situations or if you did not, what lessons you learned.

Analytical Skills

To stay competitive companies have to find ways to reduce costs, move goods more quickly and manage supporting operations. You will need to demonstrate your ability to find solutions and implement process improvements using available data.

Communication

Interviewers want to know how you can manage difficult situations such as an angry customer or unhappy service provider.  They will try and establish whether there is likely to be a communication barrier between you and others, both internally and externally.

Global Perspective

Businesses are becoming increasingly global; online connectivity is available 24/7. Interviewers are likely to try to establish your grasp of economics, cultural differences and current world events that may impact their business. 

Five favourite supply chain interview questions

Q1. What is supply chain management? or  What are the key elements of supply chain management?

A.   There is no one correct answer. Basically, the purpose of SCM is to make goods or services readily available to fulfil customer demand. One possible answer is “supply chain management encompasses the planning and management of all activities involved in sourcing and procurement, conversion, and all logistics management activities.” (CSCMP’s definition). Consider adapting your answer to suit the employer; its business may be more involved in services than goods.   

Q.2  What experience can you bring this role?

A.   This is where you can shine. Using what you know from the job specification, be prepared to explain what you have achieved in similar circumstances.  .The key is to be specific and factual when describing projects. Include actual values such as savings achieved, processes improved and size of teams. Go on to describe how these project s benefitted your employer.  Interviewers use the STAR technique:

  • SITUATION  you were in
  • TASK performed
  • ACTION you took
  • RESULT of this activity.

Important: do not overstate your level of experience. It is possible that the interview will dig deep. 

Q 3 How can you add value to our business?

A.  Your research into the current financial and operational status of the company and its place in the market is useful here. Listen carefully to any additional information the interviewer gives you on what’s important to them so that you can respond directly to their problem areas in the supply chain.  Explain about your ability to use the new tools and technologies available, how you would improve supplier relationships and what you would do to save them money, (e.g. reduce inventory, eliminate wastage, procure better).  The aim is to demonstrate your understanding of the role on offer and how you are a perfect fit for their needs.

Q.4 How much do you know about our company and our supply chain?

A.  Organizations expect you to know what they do, where they fit into their industry hierarchy and who their main competitors are. You have to demonstrate that you have done the required homework. They may ask for example: “what do you know about our products and services” or “what is our approach to sustainability?” Fast-moving consumer goods manufacturers and retailers are particularly expert at this. Interviewees at L’Oréal and Diageo have been asked for detail about product ranges, customer bases and global sales figures.

Q.5 How are you keeping up with the new developments in supply chain management?  

A.  Explainwhat you are actively doing to understand the new developments in processes and technology, especially as it affects their operations. However, be honest and realistic when you express how you will use this new knowledge to further their goals. The interviewer is trying to assess your future potential. Consider your answer to an imaginary question such “ what do you think we can do to improve our supply chain agility?”

A hot tip

Many inexperienced interviewers ask silly and irrelevant questions. Some questions are just pointless such as “what is your greatest weakness?” or “how would you describe yourself in three words?”  Read up on these inane questions beforehand and be prepared to address them with stock answers.

At the end of the interview

Ask questions about any areas that you feel have not been adequately covered to your satisfaction. Remember, they may be interviewing you but you are also considering whether you want to work for them. After thanking the interviewer, ask about the next steps in the process and a possible time frame for an offer. This is the point at which you have the opportunity to close the deal. 

If you’d like to read additional related content or get involved with thought provoking discussions check out the Supply Chain Pros group – a one stop shop for all your supply chain needs.

Where Does Your Supply Chain Begin and End?

Supply chain professionals are no doubt an important link in any supply chain but it is but one link in the end-to-end process.

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Working in any supply chain management role can be all-consuming as well as challenging -but we can’t work in a vacuum. Supply chain professionals are no doubt an important link in any supply chain but it is but one link in the end-to-end process.

In the simplest type of supply chains, items and services are sourced from suppliers and converted into products and delivered to the customer or end-user.  During this process, both products and information move forward through the chain.   In the same way, products and related information move back up the chain.   

If only it were that easy. 

Any supply chain involves interactions between people, entities, information, and physical resources that combine, hopefully harmoniously, to sustain a company’s competitiveness.  It also has an objective to reduce overall costs and speed up the production and distribution cycle. As supply chain professionals know very well, if a supplier is unable to supply on time, and within the stipulated budget, business is bound to suffer losses and gain a negative reputation.

Q.  What is the main goal of an efficient supply chain?

A.  To get the customers what they want, when they want it, at least cost.  

If a company fails to focus fully on the consumer or end-user its ability to surviveis severely at risk. 

How to improve your supply chain

Sourcing is an early activity in the supply chain but demand planning comes first. By sharing projected requirements with your suppliers you can assist them to manage their own sourcing process and their inventory. Any forecasts that you supply them may not be cast in stone but they help to take the guesswork out of your order process.    Your Tier 2 suppliers, i.e. your supplier’s suppliers, are the ones that provide the items and services needed to fulfil your orders.  What products do they supply, what are their costs and what are their lead times?   

 The automotive industry is particularly good at this.  Modern vehicles are made up of more than 30 000 component parts.  Most leading vehicle manufacturers have a close grip on their Tier 2 suppliers: the parts suppliers for engines and equipment and computer software and hardware needed to make them run.

Technology in the supply chain 

The use, speed, and capabilities of technology are defining the trends in modern supply chains.  The cost of these technologies is starting to decrease making automation more affordable for mid-size companies. 

Demanding and techno-savvy customers are effectively re-shaping supply chains in the e-commerce world.  Customers expect to receive their order within a day or two whether it’s food, fashion or new bed linen.  They can choose not only what to buy, but who to buy it from and how to buy it.  E-commerce is creating new challenges throughout the supply chain from demand planning through procurement to warehousing, distribution and logistics.  Whether a customer is shopping in-store, on their laptop or mobile device, they expect their experience to remain the same, wherever they are in the world.  Retail companies that can adapt their supply chain operations to the new era of e-commerce will have the best chance of success.  

Global supply chains

Global supply chains are becoming very fragmented and dispersed and so require lots of resources and technologies to function well. Complex supply chains such as those in aerospace, hi-tech, chemicals and pharmaceuticals are becoming more difficult to design and manage.   According to Gartner, some of the most efficient global supply chains are in fast-moving-consumer-goods (FMCG) companies such as Unilever, Nestle, Nike and Inditex (Zara).  These companies have close relationships with their suppliers, even owning some of them, which is contributing to their successes. 

Johnson & Johnson is a confirmed leader in the healthcare industry due to its on-going focus on its supply chain capabilities such as end-to-end visibility.  The company prides itself on being a customer-centric organization.  It is an early adopter of new technologies such as 3D printing which it is using to enhance its manufacturing and distributions operations and unlock new opportunities.  Its global team has played a large part in streamlining the sourcing processes for both ingredients and packaging.    They realized that their supply chain was not as nimble and agile as it could be, and they weren’t leveraging their global scale in sourcing enough.

The professional association for supply chain management and the leading provider of research and education (APICS) provides a supply chain operations reference model (SCOR) on which you can assess your current abilities. It identifies steps in four measures:  process, performance, practices and people.    

The SCOR Model

APICS proposes that to improve your supply chain you need to:

  • Analyse your supply chain business processes and their dependencies with the SCOR framework in mind
  • Document and design your supply chain strategy, processes, and architectures to increase the speed of system implementations
  • Design internal business processes while taking organizational learning goals into consideration
  • Simulate the process to identify bottlenecks, gaps and process enhancements to improve supply chain performance

Underlying any successful supply chain is a strong organizational structure, up-to-date technology and strong leadership. An organisation’s supply chain is a significant source of competitive advantage and business leaders are embracing it as a strategic capability. 

If you’d like to read additional related content or get involved with thought provoking discussions check out the Supply Chain Pros group – a one stop shop for all your supply chain needs.

3 Success Factors In Building An Agile Supply Chain

Adaptability and agility in the supply chain are crucial in responding to fluctuations in demand and shorter product cycles.

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Today’s global marketplace is volatile and fast-moving.  Adaptability and agility in the supply chain are crucial in responding to fluctuations in demand and shorter product cycles. Agility within this unpredictable market requires that your supply chain is responsive and can deal with any sudden variations. According to most experts, there are three main success factors in effective and agile supply chains: your supplier relationships, your people, and the effective use of the supporting technology.

The FMCG sector

Organisations involved in the fast-moving consumer goods sector (FMCG) need to be able to adapt to unanticipated external shifts in customer demand.  Any company that has a constant stream of new, innovative products and services,   and is selling direct to the consumer (B2C) in the e-commerce world, needs to be doubly flexible.

Fast fashion poses real challenges. If you launch 10 000 new designs per year and you have more than 1 700 suppliers across 50 countries, you need to be both agile and quick.  Inditex, one of the largest fashion retailers in the world and the holding company of the Zara brand, does this successfully.

What contributes to its success is:

  • Market sensitivity.  Teams of retail and commercial specialists plan their products based on sales data collected on the fashion trends of target customers around the world.
  • Postponement of production.  Less than half their garments are sourced as finished products from low-cost producers. At least half are manufactured at short notice, mostly in Europe, depending on demand. 
  • Flexibility.  Manufacturing activities including labour intensive finishing operations are accomplished by a network of 300 specially trained subcontractors. 

Zara has gained accolades for its ability to swiftly implement decisions and deliver new clothes to stores faster than its competitors.  It has a supply chain that is not only agile and flexible but incorporates many lean characteristics into its processes, especially when overseeing the operations of its subcontractors.  In a lean approach, anything in the process that doesn’t add value for customers is eliminated.  Lean supply chain management is essentially about lowering the cost base and reducing waste as much as possible.   

The manufacturing sector  

In the manufacturing sector, being agile means that your supply chain must be responsive enough to deal with late deliveries and non-compliant suppliers.   The need to move raw materials, components and finished products across borders and over longer distances adds complexity.  This has resulted in longer planning time and increased levels of inventory.  Improving speed in logistics and minimising disruptions are important to gain competitive advantage and to reduce costs.  

Lean and agile supply chain solutions are often offered as an either-or option but many large global companies such as Unilever and Kimberly Clark are now embracing both approaches in their diverse operations. Having a hybrid supply chain strategy by using lean and agile approaches in combination is becoming commonplace.

Technology companies need to react quickly

 Communications and information technology company Nokiacommitted to achieving agility in its supply chain when it decided to move its manufacturing away from its home base in Finland. The company aims to refocus lower-value activities closer to component sources, thereby increasing supply chain responsiveness and streamlined logistics. “We are aligning our manufacturing strategy to increase competitiveness,” said Nokia spokesperson Mona Kokkonen. “We need to optimize our manufacturing operations so we can collaborate more closely with suppliers and be more responsive to customers’ needs.”

An I.T. systems company such as Cisco hasa highly diverse and extensive supply chain that spans the globe. Cisco has increased its agility, resilience and ability to scale by implementing new business models, a single ERP instance, standardization and automation throughout its supply chain.

The three success factors in building an agile supply chain

1.Focus on effective supplier contracts

If a key supplier fails it is necessary to have an alternative plan to avoid delivery crises and disappointing customers. In this situation, and especially if there is a sole-supply agreement, contingency plans must be put in place. Multiple supplier relationships for the same goods or services are sometimes necessary to reduce risk, but this comes at a cost. 

2. Build an agile team

The most effective people are those who are alert to external changes and market trends that may affect the business. They need to have a sense of urgency as well as being flexible. Exchanging information with suppliers, listening to customers and being aware of impending disruptions are all activities that, when acted upon, will set you ahead of the competition.  

3. Apply the right technology

Leaders in agile supply chains connect their supply chain partners on a shared technology platform, often cloud-based, so that they all have access to the same data in the same timeframe. Procter and Gamble (P&G) and Wal-Mart both speed up decision-making by analysing data on order status, inventory, shipments, documents, and payments.  The resulting information provides insights into future demand and facilitates forecasting.  

Supply chain agility delivers results when a company can quickly detect changes, opportunities and threats in the external environment AND act on this information speedily. This responsiveness depends on the ease of accessibility of usable real-time data and the electronic means by which to share it. 

Competition is fierce so organisations need to be alert and responsive to turbulent changes in the external environment.  As industrial and retail supply chains become more complex agility will become a real factor in a company’s survival. The use of appropriate technology will be a key success factor but only with the active involvement and support of both employees and suppliers.

If you’d like to read additional related content or get involved with thought provoking discussions check out the Supply Chain Pros group – a one stop shop for all your supply chain needs.

Making Supply Chain Your Organisation’s Competitive Advantage

In order to succeed, a business must be able to deliver more value to customers than its competitors. How do you make supply chain your organisation’s competitive advantage?

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In order to succeed, a business must be able to deliver more value to customers than its competitors. It is becoming more difficult to find, develop and sustain these opportunities in the rapidly evolving business landscape.  The free movement of people across borders, developments in technology and real-time communications add complexity to global supply chain management. World trade is highly competitive, constantly changing and volatile.

As a result, supply chains today need to become more strategic. They are multi-layered, integrated manufacturing and distribution systems that, to work efficiently, need to be optimised on a continuous basis.

Technology

Automation of manufacturing using robotics and self-driving equipment in factories is now commonplace.  Software solutions and telematics improve information sharing, processing, and analysis of data which is converted into usable information to inform policy and operational decisions. However, it’s important to ensure that technology investments are based upon business needs – and not just the newest tech available.

Areas of competitive advantage

Many global businesses now compete on the basis of their supply chain capabilities rather than only on their product lines.  Leaders with efficient supply chains such as Wal-Mart, Proctor and Gamble, Tata Motors, and Unilever focus on rationalizing each activity in their supply chains. They constantly monitor costs, demand patterns, lead limes and administrative processes to achieve competitive advantage while applying relevant technologies.  

Cost of goods sold (COGS)

Reducing the cost of goods sold can be achieved through a more focused approach to procurement including price negotiation and strategic sourcing.  Inventory, distribution and freight costs are specific target areas where the potential to save can be found.  Walmart runs a retail compliance program that defines when, how and where their supplier must deliver. This helps the company reduce its costs by adjusting its storage and distribution needs in line with customer demand. This means lower prices for the customer.    

Freight costs can be managed down by outsourcing delivery logistics where there are potential economies of scale.  Telematics is used extensively by third-party-logistics providers (3PLs) to provide visibility into the movement of goods, both in the warehouse and in transit, and ensure their safety.   

Shorter lead times

There are many delays experienced in supply chains.  Some of these are because of slow processing of orders due to cash flow challenges, batching of orders, organizing shipping and freight and slow communication processes.

One of the main methods by which a business can drive increased value is by decreasing these lead times. Both business- and consumer-facing companies are experiencing increased demand for faster shipments. Speedy deliveries can have a significant impact on sales. Amazon Prime customers will often pay more for guaranteed next day delivery.

Flexible demand management

Technology now provides us with forecasts of future customer demand using artificial intelligence tools. Predictive analytics are extremely useful in determining the optimum seasonal stockholdings and allows us to prepare suppliers for increases in demand. 

A flexible supply chain can quickly adjust to fluctuations in supply and demand keeping inventory down when interest is buying is low but being agile enough to respond to spikes in demand.

Documentation and administration

Streamlined and slick documentation and administrative processes in the supply chain are a great competitive advantage.  Reducing re-work and duplication, increasing visibility and smoothing communication channels are real advantages.  Supply contracts and service level agreements are often neglected areas that create hold-ups and expensive errors.  Some progressive organizations are using blockchain technology for maximum visibility and security.      

Insource or outsource?

The decision of whether to outsource manufacturing and/or services depends on in-house capabilities. Ideally, areas where competency or capacity are lacking are prime candidates for outsourcing.   Some larger organizations have the capital and resources to manufacture their own products, others will typically outsource their manufacturing to white-label providers.   Building internal warehousing, logistics and distribution facilities is a major undertaking and capital intensive. Successful outsourcing contracts in this category have robust service level agreements and detailed contingency plans. 

Supplier relationship management (SRM)

SRM is a huge topic and ranges from simple tasks such as paying suppliers on time to developing long-term collaborative partnerships with suppliers for mutual benefit and to promote innovation.  Leading companies in SRM such as Nestle, Toyota and Coca-Cola treat key suppliers like collaborators to get them integrated and prepared to take extra steps to ensure quality and speed.

Sustainability

A sustainable supply chain makes long term business sense.  Consumer awareness of environmental and social issues is growing around the world. IKEA is one of many companies that work with suppliers on a variety of challenges, from energy efficiency to sourcing materials responsibly.  Ignoring this trend may create reputational damage that takes years to restore.  

Conclusion

Effectively making use of rapidly advancing technology could be the key to leveraging your supply chain to get ahead of the competition. Difficulties in supply chain management occur due to evolving complexities and interdependencies. Companies that work on achieving continuous improvement through consistently and persistently working on strengthening linkages will drive competitive advantage.  

If you’d like to read additional related content or get involved with thought provoking discussions check out the Supply Chain Pros group – a one stop shop for all your supply chain needs.


The 6 Stages Of Your Procurement Job Interview

How to you prepare for (and ace!) your procurement or supply chain job interview?

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There is no shortage of general advice available online on how to prepare for and behave in an interview situation, and it’s free. That’s all very helpful, but what about preparing for an interview in supply chain or in a procurement role, how is it different?

1. Before the interview

The basics are the same whatever the role, preparation is vital.  Do research the following:

  • The background of the company, its culture and the industry it is in.  The more information you gather before the interview, the better prepared you will be to answer leading questions during the interview. Be fully prepared to answer the questions “How much do you know about our company?” or “Why do you want to work here?” 
  • The interviewer (or hiring manager).  Who is he or she?  What is their work background and experience?  This will help you find some common ground. 
  • Know your TCO, RFI, P2P, SRM and the rest of the acronyms. Interviewers may use these in conversation. It may unsettle you if you don’t know what they mean.   
  • Make sure you really understand the skills that are required and how much experience is expected. If you don’t quite fit their view of a dream candidate, motivate how you will grow into the role quickly. Think about the types of questions that you can expect and prepare your answers in advance. 

2. At the interview

Job interview formats go in and out of fashion:  you can be asked to do a video or panel interview or even one that includes end-users or stakeholders.  Whatever the format, you need to demonstrate your suitability for the role on offer and how your skills and background will provide tangible benefits for them.  

3. Functional skills

You will probably be asked about your experience and skills in relevant supply chain technology and related tools, e.g. SAP, Oracle, Ariba or other e-sourcing software. You may be asked about direct and indirect categories that you have worked in (make sure you understand the difference) and about your particular expertise in certain commodities or services.  In both these areas be careful not to embellish or over-represent your knowledge or achievements as your interviewer may know a lot more than you do. If you claim that you saved your organization £5 million in spend last year you will need to be able to substantiate it.  Currently, employers are looking for people with specific experience in complex procurement categories. In these types of role they expect candidates to be already familiar with the external marketplace and key suppliers. 

Questions sometimes start with “Tell me about a time when…”, where the interviewer will work through the STAR technique:  

  • The SITUATION 
  • The TASK or problem that arose
  • The ACTION you took
  • What was the RESULT

Prepare multiple examples in advance and rehearse them well so that they tell a story. Be ready for “tell me more”.  Make sure that you demonstrate that you have good critical and analytical thinking skills, are a good communicator, have time management skills, and are flexible, i.e. show that your expertise is transferable to them. 

4. Behavioural skills

Behavioural interview questions are very common in supply chain and are designed to elicit specific and detailed responses about inter-personal and conflict situations which you have been exposed to. How did you handle the issue, what actions did you take and what was the outcome?  Your answers will show that you understand effective ways to deal with suppliers and internal clients.  Listen carefully to any clues the interviewer gives you on what’s important to them so that you can respond by giving your own examples. You need to be able to articulate how you would be able to bring about change and implement improvements seamlessly, where required.

5. Do you have any questions?

An interviewee will almost always be asked this. Understanding how to communicate your interest is very important so have your questions ready.  This is not the time to discuss the remuneration package or benefits that may be offered. Genuine questions about how the company manages its procurement function and how the different elements of their supply chain operate will be welcomed.  If the interviewer is interested in you they will demonstrate it by asking a variation of the following, ‘why our company, why this position and why you?’  This often is your most critical response during the interview process.

6. Where it can go wrong:

Feedback from senior managers and top recruiters says that where candidates fail most is in:

  • Not being fully prepared and having to refer to their CV for details
  • Did not know enough about the company and its operations
  • Did not have the right attitude/did not demonstrate any energy for or interest in the role offered.
  • Could not provide examples or explain how they are suitably qualified
  • And arrived late for the interview!

Displaying a positive attitude and expressing a sense of enthusiasm for the company and the role is an excellent starting point for landing that job. Cultural fit and good inter-personal skills may be the clincher; processes and applications can be taught over time to fulfil gaps in experience. 

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Is Category Management Still A Career Choice?

Far from the predictions of many, category management is alive and well, but it is changing. Elaine Porteous explores how…

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Contrary to some predictions in the last decade about the demise and imminent death of category management in procurement, it is alive and well, but evolving.  In truth, it is becoming more complicated as third-party spend in the 21st century does not easily fit into historical categories.  There is more overlap and intersection in I.T. services as it merges with telecommunications, marketing services now include internet and social media and packaging is concerned with sustainability.     

Category management’s aim is to segment its spending on third-party goods and services into groups depending on function and end use.  The difficulty in defining category groups has increased due to the overlap between commodities and the rapid innovation in technologies.  Category managers handle more than strategic sourcing. Their role includes creating a category plan, handling supplier relationships and providing continual oversight in the category. 

Specialise in your niche and own the category

It is generally understood that difficult and complex indirect categories pay more.  Indirect spend refers to goods or services that are not directly incorporated into a product or service delivered to a customer, e.g.  I.T., marketing, facilities and professional services.  Experienced category managers can earn £75 000 per annum.    

Why are some categories difficult?  Partly because stakeholders in these categories resist procurement efforts to influence their spend and are protective of their incumbent suppliers.  It can also be because procurement people may be seen to be lacking in the knowledge needed to lead the supplier selection and contracting process.  

Professional services can be a bit of a minefield. Marketing, management consulting, legal and insurance are commodities that have unclear and convoluted pricing structures which take time to understand fully.   

Managing indirect categories requires behavioural skills as well as deep technical knowledge of the category. Aspiring category managers need persuasive skills, empathy and the ability to listen as well as to be decisive when the need arises.  They also need to act as change agents and diplomats.

Don’t try and change the supplier of food catering services without engaging with the users or there may be a riot.   

Information Technology

Sourcing and contracting I.T services is different from any other category. Without extensive experience or formal training, this category is going to be an uphill struggle. The advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), SaaS and blockchain will require constant study and awareness of how to apply new types of applications. Where the I.T. function is mission critical to the company operations, e.g. in banks and insurance companies, procurement and sourcing professionals need to be totally immersed in the category and its commodities which can include: software licences, hardware, peripherals, servers, data and telephony, 3D printing, warranties and maintenance.  Category managers are increasingly being hired from internal and external I.T. departments.

The organisational culture and landscape on the indirect side has many nuances that do not exist on the direct side. The procurement executive will therefore need to traverse the waters of indirect spend with unique strategies to ensure success.

Marketing services

This category requires focus, stamina and a long line in patience. The relationship between marketing and procurement works best when they meet to discuss and agree on sourcing and contracting strategy and when procurement takes over the pesky administrative details.   Traditionally advertising agencies have been the major recipients of marketing spend, some providing a one-stop service, maybe with no contract or service level agreement (SLA).  This is changing; the use of printed matter is diminishing, digital agencies are taking over so there is healthy competition for the overall spend.

See also  Is Marketing Procurement’s Blind Spot?

Legal services

Even though the legal services area is complex and services are expensive, it is possible to build credibility with the in-house legal team by finding out

  1. and understanding what their needs and issues are
  2. which areas have the potential for savings
  3. where better value can be achieved from external legal firms. 

The low-end, routine or commoditized legal services are the easiest to address. By learning the language of solicitors and attorneys you can express your sourcing ideas in words they can understand. Managing supplier relationships with law firms need to be focused on minimising bad behaviours and rewarding and incentivising those who provide accurate, transparent pricing and deliver excellent service and good advice.

Human Resources

HR has a wide remit in many large organizations with the main focus being on people management. Most HR professionals would agree that they don’t have an in-depth understanding of their suppliers’ cost drivers such as profit, overheads, risk and how these impact on return on investment (ROI).  They are beginning to realise the benefits of having their procurement counterparts with them around the negotiating table.  Procurement’s selling proposition to HR is to demonstrate its ability to deliver value by being a source of market intelligence and a guide to best practice. 

Depending on the industry sector you work in, some categories can take on greater or lesser importance. In fast-moving-consumer-goods, packaging, logistics and transport are vital to the success of all food, drink and healthcare companies. In insurance and banking, reliable technology is the key.  

Tips to help you succeed in difficult categories

  • Research the market by benchmarking the pricing of services to  establish the competitiveness of current suppliers
  • Develop a database for each type of service by evaluating current suppliers, their pricing structures and capabilities
  • Re-negotiate and improve the contractual terms and conditions, pricing models and rates on current agreements and/or go to market with a well-thought outsourcing strategy.  
  • Establish what deliverables and technical skills are needed for each type of service so that you can determine which suppliers can provide them
  • Identify incentives to improve relationships with your incumbent suppliers and aim to consolidate your base

There is a growing awareness of corporate social responsibility across most categories. Sustainability is becoming more than a consideration in categories that have the potential to have a detrimental impact on society and the environment. Job descriptions for category managers are already including responsibility for sustainability strategies. 

See also  Where Are All The Great Procurement Jobs?

Procurement Outsourcing – What To Watch Out For

The advantages of procurement outsourcing have been well-documented, the disadvantages – less so. In this article Elaine Porteous outlines how the trend has evolved and minimising the risks associated.

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The outsourcing of procurement tasks started off a couple of decades ago when companies found ways to process orders and invoices more efficiently. It grew and got labelled as procure-to-pay (P2P) and is still a popular solution for managing volumes of repetitive transactions. Tactical procurement, where low-cost/high volume commodities are being sourced is the next favourite area for outsourcing. Lately, procurement outsourcing has expanded into a wider range of activities, even moving into areas such as strategic category management, supplier selection and contract negotiation. Non-core services are the most likely candidates for outsourcing:  HR services, I.T. support, facilities management and logistics. 

According to CIPS’ definition of procurement outsourcing, it can also include “the provision of procurement services and processes within an operation which may involve the transfer of people and/or assets to another company.  Procurement service providers (PSPs) may have a full-service offering taking over the entire procurement function of an organisation.  Other smaller PSPs may manage only one element of a procurement function such as spend analysis or contract management.

According to McKinsey, to make strategic procurement outsourcing a success, companies need to take a highly systematic approach with three basic steps:

  1. They outsource strategic buying only in categories where doing so offers clear value.
  2. They have a precise understanding of the sources of that value and how to unlock it.  
  3. They choose outsourcing partners that have the capabilities to address those sources of value, then define and implement agreements that maximise the chance of capturing potential savings

The choice of a PSP depends on its capabilities, the size and complexity of the supply market and the buying organisation’s relative influence in that market; the expertise and availability of resources will affect the decision.   Outsourcing works best when the ability to manage a strategic category in-house is low.

Trends in outsourcing

There is a growing interest within procurement about outsourcing data-heavy activities such as spend analysis, supplier performance management and tender evaluations.  Tracking of realised savings has always been a headache and a topic of disagreement due to varying methods of calculation – by outsourcing this to specialists there is less room for debate. 

Governance, regulation and compliance is an area that is increasingly becoming onerous for companies, especially in the banking and healthcare sectors and is, therefore, a candidate for outsourcing.  

The outsourcing agreement 

When a decision has been made on what can be successfully outsourced a PSP must be selected in line with in-house procurement policy. This should include normal supplier due diligence to establish the company’s capabilities, including reviewing the supplier’s financial statements to ensure that the business is profitable and the supplier is not at risk of failure.  Next, the basis on which the partnership will work must be negotiated and confirmed.  The relationship needs to be formalised in a comprehensive contract with an enforceable service level agreement (SLA) that defines the rules of the game. Key performance indicators (KPIs) need to be clearly defined. These are the metrics used to measure performance and the calculation of bonuses.   

In the SLA, risks can be minimised by defining:  

  • Minimum acceptable service levels with penalties/incentives  
  • What happens when the PSP fails to deliver? Contingency plans
  • Who owns the data?
  • The PSPs responsibility for data security and confidentiality
  • Who owns the work developed during the contract?
  • What happens when there is a change in ownership of the PSP?

Managing the outsource partner

You have a contract in place and an SLA, what next?   The PSP is like all other key suppliers, it needs to be managed through the entire contract period.  Implementation is often the stage at which the outsourcing project fails. Stakeholders, if not consulted, can be obstructive and delay the process.  The manager’s role is to deliver the service to users, monitor the PSP’s performance, ensuring delivery against the pre-set KPIs.

Advantages and disadvantages of outsourcing

The advantages have been well-documented by the PSPs themselves, the disadvantages, less so.  Among the leading full-service PSPs are Accenture, Capgemini, Infosys and IBM.  The advantages are

  • Lower costs due to PSPs’ economies of scale by aggregating customers’ requirements  
  • Outsourcing low value/high volume purchases frees up internal expensive resources
  • Access to global expertise and market knowledge in categories where there is little in-house capacity or experience
  • Time-consuming negotiations and contracting are managed by specialists

Because outsourcing involves handing over direct control to a third-party it comes with challenges.  These may be service delivery issues, a lack of flexibility and unforeseen management crises at the PSP.  Open lines of communication at all levels are vital to the success of the contract.  Whatever the function being outsourced, the aim is to create a long term partnership that is designed to achieve more than just cost-cutting.  

Cybersecurity – What Does It Mean For Procurement In 2019?

How should procurement professionals be addressing cybersecurity within their organisations and addressing the weak links?

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Google and McAfee estimate there are 2,000 cyber- attacks every day around the world, costing the global economy about £300bn a year.  The widespread adoption of digital solutions for the management of big data is a threat that is making organizations vulnerable to security breaches.   The proliferation of new SaaS products on the market and the use of cloud-based solutions are focusing our minds on how to protect our data and intellectual property.  The growing use of bring-your-own-device (BYOD) is adding to the complexity of defending organizations from attacks. 

Protection from data hackers has traditionally been the responsibility of the I.T. department where it should be taken seriously, although some companies have been inclined to put the issue on the back-burner.  Procurement’s interest in cyber-security is two-fold: 

a) it has to manage the myriad of potential security issues within the supplier community

and

b) it has to concern itself with data security issues within its own operations

Cybersecurity at suppliers  

Cyber-attacks do not always come in through the front door.  Many breaches come through weaknesses in the lower layers of the supply chain:   e.g. importers, agents and other service providers. Hackers, whose main objective seems to be to hold organisations to ransom, can infiltrate any of these layers. 

The weak links

  • Your suppliers’ suppliers are often targeted because they are more vulnerable.   They may have access to important information of yours and only have a very immature approach to data security.  It is estimated that over a third of corporate IT breaches are via third-party suppliers.
  • A lack of awareness among employees about how hackers gain access to systems.  The act of “phishing” which attempts to acquire usernames, passwords and credit card details via email for fraudulent purposes is a widespread activity that preys on peoples trust.   
  • The lax use of BYOD at suppliers can cause major security issues as malware protection and detection on these devices is often inadequate. 

 “Cybersecurity is never just a technology problem; it’s a people, processes and knowledge problem.”

US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

How to tackle the weak links

  • Due diligence.  Conducting risk assessments on each supplier before contracting will allow you to identify any areas of concern.  Firstly, potential suppliers should be vetted to ensure that they are not on any denied party or watch lists. On-boarding of new suppliers should include asking leading questions about their approach to data security and which protective systems they are using.  Many large organizations are adopting ISO 27001 which accredits them through an auditable security management system.               
  • Access control.   The level of access of each approved user to information needs to be monitored especially when there is any change in the relationship with a supplier.  This could be an organisational restructure or a takeover at the supplier which affects access to a shared system.  The aim is to prevent unauthorised access to data and procedures.
  • Education and training of staff Awareness programs and training staff about their responsibility for data security should be standard practice, both in-house and at suppliers.  Advice such as don’t click on unknown attachments, always use strong and unique passwords, and keep an up-to-date backup is a start. 
  • Notification about breaches   A contract clause that requires a supplier to inform the organisation regarding any security breach that may impact either business should be included in any supply agreement.

Cybersecurity within procurement

Large warehouses  of data are used by procurement professionals to identify cost-saving opportunities through spend analysis within their organisations.  Other files include supplier contracts, financial information and many P2P transactions.  We need to protect the confidentiality, availability and integrity of our information.   Cyber-attacks can be delivered through counterfeit hardware or software that is embedded with malware.  Outsourcing procurement functions with no due diligence or using unreliable and untested software packages can open the door to hackers.  Security gaps can arise due to the incompatibility of legacy systems with the outsourced solutions.  

Remember the data breach at TalkTalk in 2017?  The then CEO, Baroness Dido Harding said,

“There was the IT equivalent of an old shed in a field that was covered in brambles, all we saw was the brambles and not the open window.”

 She was referring to the weakness in their legacy systems.  The firm was fined £400 000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

What can we do today?

  • Collaborate with our IT department to regularly monitor systems, frequently update internal policies to create a security fence for the organization
  • Assist suppliers to build a robust cybersecurity plan to strengthen their IT infrastructure and cyber resilience
  • Stay updated on the latest innovations in data protection  
  • Work with suppliers to ensure that their IT systems and infrastructure are regularly updated. Ongoing reviews at regular intervals will help to identify emerging concerns
  • Develop a contingency disaster recovery and continuity plan to accommodate any potential supplier failure, including alternative suppliers. Always have a plan B.

Traditionally, procurement-specific risks just meant price fluctuations, delivery disruptions, supplier failure, fraud and non-compliance but no longer.   

Besides the reputational risks such as environmental crises, unfair treatment of staff and safety issues, the loss or corruption of corporate information can severely disadvantage a business.  The extent of the financial and reputational damage depends on the size of the breach, number and type of stakeholders affected and how quickly and effectively the company acted. 

Stakeholders Are Your Customers. Ignore Them At Your Peril

If you fail to meet the expectations of key influencers, projects will be delayed, will only be partially workable or at worst, doomed.

Stakeholders can and will influence the outcome of your project, especially if they are likely to be directly affected by it. If we fail to meet the expectations of key influencers, projects will be delayed, will only be partially workable or at worst, doomed.  

Who are your stakeholders?

Stakeholders are any of those individuals that can impact your activities by:

  • removing obstacles and championing  your goals
  • by slowing down or blocking your activities  
  • influencing others about your project –positively or negatively

Many of your stakeholders may not initially be obvious.   They can be:

  • End-users of the product or service
  • Line managers, executives and support staff
  • Procurement team members and co-opted subject matter experts 
  • Suppliers and their subcontractors
  • Government agencies and the media
  • Customers and society at large

Why is stakeholder management so difficult?

Stakeholders have conflicting priorities and often are not working towards the same goal. Personal ambitions may trump the company vision.  You may be the messenger bearing bad news or saying no to their proposals. Seasoned procurement people use their persuasive skills to win support from stakeholders.  This can be the difference between success and failure.

Because stakeholders will change over time, we need a systematic approach to identify and prioritize those influencers.  A stakeholder map is a simple analysis tool we can use to identify which key people have to be won over.

A simple shareholder map

This map provides a guideline on how to manage stakeholders based on their interest and their influence:

Figure 1   The stakeholder analysis grid

The Greens

Stakeholders with a high level of influence in your specific project and who also have a high level of commitment and support must attract the most focus.   They are usually easily identified and are easy to engage. They usually include line managers and end-users.  Ensure you continue to maintain their support through good communication and monitoring their needs. These people can be used to influence others.

The Oranges

This is an important group to manage and may include senior management, e.g. CEO or GM. Keep them satisfied.   Increasing their interest or commitment to your project through regular updates can be very helpful.

The Browns

These customers are your supporters. Keep them informed, their enthusiasm may be infectious and they may have more influence in the future.  Less time is needed to maintain this group. 

The Purples

External stakeholders such as the media and government may fall into this group so it is not necessary to spend too much time there. But keep them in the loop and monitor them as they may move into another group!

Identify all key stakeholders and plot them in the grid in Figure 1. 

Steps to follow to ensure success of any initiative:

  • Concentrate your time on working with key stakeholders who can make or break the initiative. Make sure every stakeholder has an appropriate way to participate and offer input.
  • Understand and manage their expectations. Identify any potential adversaries early in the process and manage them directly by allocating key tasks to them. Persuade those people who may not be immediately supportive. 
  • Under-promise and over-deliver.  Think like a salesperson.
  • Keep everyone well-informed and build strong relationships with the people who support the project.  Recognise and reward positive behaviours to preserve the relationship and buy continued support. 

Dealing with difficult stakeholders

The first step is to clearly identify those stakeholders and work out what motivates them and what is causing their resistance. Ignoring difficult stakeholder behaviour is not recommended; take time to immediately identify the cause of their objections and the underlying issues. People want to feel understood and feel that their opinions matter.

Engage directly with the person directly without others present. This leads to more clear and calm conversations. Actively listen to what they have to say and don’t close communication channels because you don’t like what you hear.   Remain fair, objective, and professional, and remember to keep the project objectives within focus. Try to find common ground by asking open-ended questions.  

Why projects fail: communication is the key

Lack of frequent and accurate communication to and from stakeholders is probably one of the main reasons for the failure of projects.   Another is not listening to the needs and concerns of the key stakeholders, both internal and external. 

When to communicate with stakeholders

  • before the launch of a project to get buy-in. Early engagement is important.
  • at regular progress meetings held to keep everyone updated. Report back on progress (or lack of it) and milestones achieved.
  • before implementation to ensure alignment with the process and the proposed solution
  • at the end of a project to establish lessons learned

Stakeholder management is the process that we use to identify key stakeholders and win their support.  We use the analysis grid to prioritize them by influence and commitment. Understanding what motivates them is the first step to getting them on board.