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The Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply (CIPS) commissioned Dr Louise Knight (Aston University) and Dr Jo Meehan (University of Liverpool) to undertake the first major academic study on the future of the profession since 2003. The two-year study engaged business leaders, procurement leaders, practitioners, futurologists, and academic experts, to explore how the supply management landscape might change 15+ years from now.
In this article, Jo and Louise share some learning from the research project and consider some questions for procurement professionals working in social housing.
Artificial intelligence, resource scarcity, environmental destruction, political protectionism, wealth and health inequalities – the media coverage suggests that these megatrends are set to disrupt and transform all aspects of business and society. While the modern world has always been in a state of flux, the pace of change is accelerating. There are persistent challenges in the social housing landscape – the lack of affordable housing, regulatory crises, tensions between private and social housing models, the mergers of housing providers. As these interact with wider megatrends the future can start to look like an uncontrollable dystopia rather than a land of opportunity. In this new and uncertain future, how different will supply environments be? How is procurement and supply management (PSM) positioned to respond?
Most methods for predicting future PSM issues tend to look backwards in order to predict the future, but the future is not necessarily a linear continuation of the past and present, and developments are not deterministic. Through our research, we argue that the best way to prepare for the future is to better understand how we create it through today’s actions, and through actively engaging in discussions on what the future could or should be. Shaping the future raises questions of what the desired endpoints are, and whose interests we serve.
Competing future scenarios: Titans and Networked
In our research, two competing plausible scenarios 15+ years into the future were co-developed with PSM professionals: Titans and Networked. The land of the Titans closely reflects the voice of the respondents and portrays a future where market power is ever more concentrated as, in each key industrial sector, a very small number of big corporates (the ‘Titans’ after which the scenario is named) become ever more dominant. Markets are highly dynamic and unpredictable competing on (low) price and the Titan organisations drive and finance innovation. PSM algorithms deliver rapid, agile sourcing and contracting. To cope with the market power of Titan organisations, risk management and co-buying are critical activities.
The Networked scenario was not developed as an idealised counterpoint to Titans, but reflects the narratives seen in the professional and futures press where technology is used to re-distribute market power, and transitions to address climate change are critical. Firms exist with a greater diversity of form, size, and competitive focus. PSM strategies centre on regional networks, and strong data regulation is needed. Diversity and distributed power come at the cost of slower innovation, barriers to co-buying through lack of product standardisation, and there is a slowing of decision making to avoid stakeholder conflicts.
The full reports (available on request) provide a rich pen-picture of both scenarios’ details. Despite their fundamental differences, there is some shared learning for PSM around our preparedness in relation to market power, supply base changes, unintended consequences, biases in algorithms, and data regulation. While the content of the scenarios is interesting, they were not an exercise in prediction, and not the ultimate focus of the research project. The mutually exclusive, competing futures are intended to serve as mechanisms to provoke, challenge, and seed debates on PSM’s future, its roles, and responsibilities. As researchers, we were equally interested in what people didn’t discuss, as what they did address.
Playing the game better
Changes to supply markets as a result of technology and other megatrends were generally not fully considered – the assumption being that suppliers, market structures, and PSM practices would be similar to what we have today – albeit with transaction times speeded up and more visibility into supply chains. Defining PSM’s scope and its lack of strategic recognition still overshadowed debates on the future of PSM, obscuring creative thinking, new ideas and ambition. As competition between social and private providers intensifies, PSM demands new thinking on its future role and impact, rather than being able to just play the game better.
Changing the rules of the game
Social housing requires PSM to consider the consequences, intended and unintended, positive and negative, at a wider systems level. It is at this level of thinking that we see issues of value, social justice, and sustainability emerge as key indicators of PSM ‘success’ in social housing. The Titans and Networked scenarios raise questions about whether PSM’s current contracts and regulatory frameworks provide sufficient protection or incentive to handle asset-less business models, future data ownership, or collaborative networks. If PSM seek to shape and steer markets we need to question the desired end-point; who wins and who loses, and what is our role in determining the direction of travel. These are complex questions requiring careful judgement and diverse viewpoints.
Changing the game
People struggled to link the longer-term implications of mega-trends to PSM environments. There was a blind acceptance of future markets with little recognition that current actions –aggregated, over time – create future market conditions. This lack of attention to the long-term, cumulative consequences of today’s procurement decisions reflects the pressure to focus on approaches that promise ever more cost reductions, technical innovations and efficiencies. The operational PSM versus strategic PSM dichotomy considered only from an organisational viewpoint constrains our field of vision and masks collective responsibilities and accountabilities.
Strategic PSM is not just about looking further ahead on our current path. We need to explore other paths and other destinations, and recognise the trade-offs of our choices on profits, communities, and the natural world. If we are heading towards a seemingly uncontrollable dystopia, how can we go beyond playing the game better? Collective, cumulative impacts across organisations come to the fore and force us to question what we buy, why we buy, how we buy, and from whom.
Using futures methodologies highlights the difficulties of challenging assumptions and being truly future-focused. To actively shape more desirable, diverse and equitable futures, PSM needs to elevate thinking beyond the organisation, and beyond the supply chain. We need to challenge and provoke the deeper, often hidden assumptions and ideologies that shape human behaviours and our profession. Although this can sound abstract, principles around responsible trade and social justice or short-term profit maximisation take root here setting the performative measures of PSM success. In many respects, social housing already leads the way here, but we need to be careful of blindly imitating other organisations, as the commercial and social impacts of collective failure can be catastrophic.
A crucial point here is that futures are multiple, organic, malleable and adaptive, and as PSM professionals we can have real and significant agency in shaping change. The methodology developed in our research forces an uncoupling of present and future, which is challenging, but can be the key in creating desirable futures. The impacts of PSM on society and our wider communities is important in all industries but for social housing with issues of equality, access to opportunity, and dignity at its heart, it is perhaps even more critical.
For an extended report CIPS members can access via this link: https://cips.org/en-GB/knowledge/procurement-topics-and-skills/innovation-and-technology-/future-of-procurement–supply-chain/
Non-members can request a copy from by emailing Jo or Louise (firstname.lastname@example.org, L.Knight2@aston.ac.uk)
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