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Are We There Yet? The Road to Professionalising Procurement

Is procurement really a profession? Can it ever become a true profession? Where is procurement heading? In this article, Gerard Chick shares his wisdom on these important questions in considering the road to professionalising procurement.

"Study the past if you would define the future...." - Confucius. Arguably then, we first need to understand procurement’s past to understand its present and future. Procurement began with various dubious roots. Twenty-five years ago, I regularly attended purchasing conferences at an organization known as the “National Association of Purchasing Management". The meetings, by and large, served largely as a social function for a lot of buyers to get together, sit at the bar, and tell war stories. Someone listening in on these conversations was likely to hear people discuss how they had “gotten a great price” from a supplier, after I “threatened to go with someone else”, followed by guffaws and other discussions. Many of the buyers who attended this conference had been promoted to buyers as a result of working in a warehouse, an administrative assistant role, or even as an assembly line worker. If one were to attend a supply management conference today, one would meet a very different type of individual, and engage in a very different set of conversations.

Modern societies have for some time articulated the division of expert labour into various ‘professions’. These professions, of which medicine, accountancy and law are the most obvious examples, are found, on analysis, to meet certain common criteria. It is generally accepted that there are seven criteria, which generally need to be satisfied to describe an activity as a profession. These are:

-That the members of the profession are engaged in the performance of a service, which is vital to the society.
-Their performance is based on a specialised and codified body of knowledge.
-Those who enter the profession must first undergo a programme of broad general education as well as further education and training for a career in the speciality.
-Candidates for the profession undergo an examination to test their qualifications to enter practice.
-The profession promulgates a code of ethical conduct for members and makes arrangements to enforce compliance to this code.
-The profession offers a secure career to its members.

The seventh relates to a licence to practice. Whilst the first six criteria can be satisfied by the existence of organisations such as The Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS), who provide for all six points through their Charter and via their standards, qualifications and certifications, it is the seventh criteria which remains to be achieved. Another organization in the United States, the Institute for Supply Management, has a similar focus on engaging in all of the first six elements, but not the seventh.

That said, at no time in its 80 years has CIPS, ISM, or its members seen so many opportunities for creativity and leadership via professional procurement. Some of these opportunities can be seized and realised by individuals, but more usually they require a team effort under some professional sponsorship.

For a body of specialists to be accepted as professional requires that they meet their obligations to society at large with respect to that specialty. No one wants to become a professional through self-appointment. The deep-down satisfaction comes when others regard one as having earned the status of professional through their deeds.

Within the terms of the criteria outlined above, one can decide whether a case for professionalism in procurement can be made. And while procurement has undoubtedly come a long way, a para-profession may be, it still has far to go if it wishes to be seen in the same light as medicine or the law.

Nevertheless, perhaps the past is not so critical after all. Is it not down to the present and future procurement professionals themselves to shape procurement's future? Is it not their thoughts and actions that will determine if procurement can truly become a profession?

In their new book, The Procurement Value Proposition, Gerard Chick and Prof Robert Handfield question the future of procurement in further detail. Whilst recognising there is still a lot of work to be done, their thought-provoking insights set the foundation to drive the profession of procurement to new heights.

So, what do you think are the prospects for the procurement profession? Has procurement hit a dead end in any aspiration to become a true profession? Or are we at the foot of a new beginning on the road to professionalising procurement?

Looking for further inspiration?  Visit The Procurement Value Proposition landing page.