Bridging procurement’s digital skills gap: the importance of people

Procurement leaders’ race towards digitalisation pre-empted the one-two punch of both Brexit and COVID-19. Even then, disruptive tools and technologies were heralded as a panacea for global procurement- and supply chain-related challenges; and in 2021, this is only more clear.

In spite of this, 29% of procurement leaders confess that access to the right skills was their number one challenge, according to recent research. Additionally, 15% think that a lack of adequate talent prevents procurement from realising the power of smart machines and other technologies. Evidently, it doesn’t matter how good the solutions are if nobody is equipped to use them to their full effect.

So, despite the undoubted influence that digital solutions can have on streamlining, efficiencies, management, and transformation; aren’t businesses forgetting something? Or more aptly, someone? People have always been the strongest link in procurement functions and the supply chain, and that hasn’t changed just because the market around us has.

Strong teams of people overseeing the implementation of these ‘game-changing’ technologies are as critical, if not more, as they are – and a lack thereof will ultimately see their desired objectives fail.

Whether it be through selective recruitment or bespoke upskilling, being in possession of  the right skills to keep on top of these technologies – and the unique ways of working their application will engender – will prove pivotal for businesses’ success.

An industry’s universal issue

To be sure, none of this is to say that leaning into digital intervention is the wrong approach. Rather, it’s a charge to companies leaving their people behind whilst they strive to achieve rapid-rate evolution. Single-mindedness of this kind has led to a situation in which 35% of senior industry professionals believe that new procurement technologies are not supported by the right processes and skills.

Ironically, the opposite effect has been created – more disillusioned teams feeling usurped by technologies they don’t feel able to use, making the initial expenditure a redundant investment at an already strained time. However, it’s not as simple as going out and hiring people already up to the task, either. In such a fast-moving and dynamic procurement landscape, it’s the industry as a whole that’s fallen behind. The digital skills gap is sector-wide, not company-specific.

For procurement, the ‘skills gap’ isn’t a standalone concern affecting digital transformations – it’s a gap actually born out of digital’s rapid influence.

Customised upskilling

To be agile, fast-responding, data-driven, insightful and accurate at this time is critical – and technology can be the ultimate facilitator of these traits. However, missing skills relative to new digital solutions may well be the difference between transforming procurement and stopping it in its tracks. Therefore, by failing to invest in a skill base that can properly leverage technology, it will be these same assets that organisations ultimately miss out on.

For this reason, it is essential that CPOs and procurement leaders educate both themselves and their teams on how these technologies work, and can ultimately flourish, bespoke to their unique organisational goals. This education needs to be initiated at the most basic level. Nobody understands your organisation better than you and the staff around you. It therefore stands to reason that only investing in the tech, or only investing in outside hires, will create even more of a gap between human and machine.

By identifying internal expectations, upskilling and training existing staff, and then investing in solutions that are entirely appropriate for a newly prepared workforce, tech can hit the ground running, rather than run off without you.

People and tech, stronger together

By laying out a roadmap based on existing capabilities, you can then develop existing skills to reach a new, desired level and invest in solutions that can be optimised for agreed, understood goals. The resulting culture will then already be embedded and thriving when new people come to join.

Rather than a case of “one-in, one-out” or tech vs. people, the current climate should be seen as a perfect opportunity to learn and grow together. When the future remains as uncertain as it is right now, this collaborative, mutual approach is vital, not only to counter the current procurement challenge, but to become a more resilient and flexible operation in the face of future challenges. Teams must arm themselves with as much knowledge and skills as possible.

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