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There has been considerable recent discussion as to the importance of “soft skills” for the contemporary procurement function. In this article we review recent research into the essential skills for staff in the procurement profession to help identify those most relevant to the challenges they face both today and in the future.

Prior to 2015 probably the most comprehensive study into the skills and competencies required for procurement and commercial roles identified the following core and secondary “soft skills”, ranked in order of importance, in a worldwide survey of commercial and contract managers (IACCM and Manchester Business School 2008):

Whilst these core skills identified are doubtless still very relevant in today’s procurement and supply chain landscape it is perhaps their relative importance which is changing.

In a more recent survey of CPO’s, “Thought Leaders” and University Academics into procurement people skills Loseby (2018) identified collaboration, emotional intelligence, innovation and problem solving as being critical skills for procurement jobs in the future; collaboration, communication/listening, creativity/innovation and being results focused / driven as being the most important competencies for successful procurement teams; and emotional intelligence and the ability to influence and communicate as being the top attributes required of procurement leaders.

Whilst difficult to directly compare both studies on a like-for-like basis it is clear that there is considerable common ground but interestingly a perceived increase in the importance of collaborative working and creativity/innovation skills together with identification of two additions to the list – emotional intelligence and being results/focus driven. So what is driving these changes in the “soft skills” required for procurement?

Knight and Meehan (2018) present two contrasting provocations, namely “Titans” and “Networked”, for the future of procurement and supply, as encouragement for the profession to proactively consider how it can shape the future. “Titans” refer to the concentration of markets by the likes of Amazon, where successful procurement is more transactional requiring skills in managing the risks associated with managing at speed and on-boarding and off-boarding suppliers quickly (agility) .  In their “Networked scenario”, where commercial power is more evenly distributed and consideration of decisional impacts on all stakeholders is more important, they suggest a different set of soft skills focused on improving our ability to influence (rather than just lead), collaborate and innovate will be crucial – a more relationship based approach.

Whilst it may be possible for the procurement profession to influence and shape the direction our markets take in the future through our buying behaviour, the reality is that we will only optimise the value to be acquired from our supply markets through proficiency in the “soft skill” sets required to manage both the “Titan” and “Network” scenarios.

Procurement need to heed the advice of recent research into the importance of “soft skills” such as that  carried out by The Development Economics Research Group (in conjunction with McDonalds)  who found that “soft skills” need to be taken much more seriously as factors for business success, being valued at £88bn to the UK economy (2015). Soft skills’ reputation as being “woolly” threatens to undermine their perceived economic value where face-to-face human interaction, such as in procurement, is crucial to workplace productivity.

To date we appear to be ignoring the symptoms of an over-emphasis on procurement process and transactional competencies (in pursuit of short-term, bottom-line objectives), such as poor contract performance, strained stakeholder relationships, inflexibility and lack of supplier cooperation.  In the recent survey carried out by Loseby (2017) it was found that over 68% of respondents spend more than 40% of their working day in direct engagement with people (eg in calls, meetings, mentoring, coaching, presentations etc.) and yet 33% of them have had no formal training in any of the related soft skills.

At last we detect a growing realisation that soft commercial skills are key to unlocking the latent potential for procurement, supply and contract management both today and in the future.

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