In my first article I consider whether buyers resort to blunt negotiation too much, arguing that a significant amount of value is ignored by not appropriately committing resources to the early and later stages in the procurement cycle.
In this, my second article in a series of five, I address the issue of SRM and some of its potential pitfalls.
Much of the recent procurement press, conferences and social media has been consumed with organisations promoting their methods of working with suppliers in a collaborative manner to create value and return greater profits for all parties. Supplier Relationship Management (SRM) is the most commonly used phrase.
I agree with the outlook that often suppliers are the experts in their field; more expert in that field than the buyer’s organisation. This should not be a surprise as, for the most part, the buyer’s organisation only expends a very small fraction of its resources in any area of supply, but for the supplier that same area may represent a very significant part of its entire business.
Who Are the Experts?
It follows, logically, that suppliers may know more about the upstream supply chains and its extant inefficiencies than the buyer. It also follows that any supplier whose business substantially relies upon a small number of goods or services will have greater capability, capacity and appetite to analyse and strategise over how to extract maximum value from the supply chain when compared to the buyers organisation.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule – particularly, in the case of new product/service launches or when the buyers organisation has a lot to win or lose. Generally though, I contend that such projects which are truly strategic to both the buyer and the supplier seldom occur and are even less frequently in the scope of the SRM blunderbuss.
Indeed, when such circumstances arise (true interdependance, or buyer dominance between buyer and supplier) then I will agree that full scale SRM can be appropriate. For a majority of buyers, I assert that they might never work on a project which is of enough significance to either their own organisation or that of the supplier to warrant full scale SRM and its associated direct and opportunity costs.
I also contend that if a SRM programme is pursued, unless buyers are aware of the dangers, the supply chain as a whole may become more efficient but that the buyers organisation sees little tangible benefit itself.
Who benefits most?
A core facet of SRM is the sharing of information in a collaborative manner. As we also understand from our first, rudimentary attempts at negotiating, information is a primary determinant of price and value. The party with better information is likely to conclude the negotiation nearer to their most desirable outcome.
As such the “players” in the supply chain (organisations in any supply chain are both buyers and suppliers) will seek to extract maximum value from the supply chain for themselves – as their shareholders oblige them to do. So, any high performing buyer needs to be aware of the impact of sharing any information and making sure that increasing their supplier(s) knowledge will not be detrimental to their cause – or if it is, to ensure that greater value is reciprocated.
Once information ceases to be confidential capitalist rules and human behaviours means that parties will, first and foremost, seek to extract maximum value for themselves, sharing the newly created value only when they are influenced to do so by the other players in the supply chain.
So far, so good, but repeated experience of working with major multi-national organisations has seen them under-state the investment necessary to ensure that at least their fair share of the value created by the SRM collaboration is retained by their own organisation, both in terms of direct costs and technical benefits.
Some organisations have recognised that and have invested heavily in a cavalry of SRM personnel (who often mis-practice SRM by performing Supplier Performance Management (SPM), which I will discuss in another article) and who impose a newly created SRM process on to unwilling suppliers who feel obliged to comply with the requests of the buyer as “building a relationship must be good for the two organisations as a whole, right?” Wrong.
Surgery, not Cavalry
In the circumstances I have set out above, building tight, well managed SRM relationships with key suppliers can be critical to the delivery of a project, even to the survival of a company however, no supply chain can survive the substantial costs which an ill-thought out SRM programme imposes; and well executed SRM relationships cost money, a lot of money. The substantial additional costs – and they need to be sustained over the medium/long term – can outweigh the benefits.
Furthermore, if those personnel are not skilled in controlling the information and understanding the dynamics of the relationships throughout the supply chain, and over a period of time, then organisations may only see a hefty number in the costs column while their benefits column remains meagre. The benefits are retained by others.
The opportunity costs of employing procurement’s scarce resources in SRM rather than other tasks can be significant. SRM may not deliver results quickly (although, it most certainly can) and small incremental improvements may be more likely produced as the parties feel their way around each other in the early stages.
Unless the supply chain dynamics are appropriate for implementation of SRM, organisations should prefer suppliers who simply perform to the required specifications – no more, no less. Commit resources to work on developing specifications to better reflect the needs of the business, but do not impose a wide-scale SRM programme that can be predicted to fail.
Instead of a SRM cavalry wielding blunt tactics and weapons, I favour a surgeon and scalpel approach. Firstly, identification of a small number of appropriate projects/supply chains on which to run (not impose) an SRM programme (4-8 is normally all except the very largest organisations can handle and/or afford).
Secondly, the selection or development of a small number of highly skilled individuals to perform the SRM and co-ordinate the efforts of the internal stakeholders. So the final element must be to have a medium/long term commitment, sponsored at a senior level outside of the procurement functions, and to have equally skilled surgeons willingly participating within each player in the supply chain.
Effective, sustainable SRM cannot be imposed.