As the function transforms, new procurement skills are required for success. They may not be taught in traditional procurement training, but so-called soft skills are increasingly important to reposition and elevate procurement.

As procurement continues to transform, it is inevitable that the skillsets needed to drive success are also changing. In high-performing procurement functions of the future, digitalisation will mean that category and sector-specific knowledge will be curated in a platform, and no longer reside in buyers’ heads.An effective insight pillar of the future operating model will capture not only this data as a snapshot in time, but also the circumstances under which it was created.

Over time, it will enable people to be more effectively guided by the platform in their procurement activity and make more data-driven decisions. So ‘learning’ detailed facts on products and markets will become less important as the emphasis shifts towards interpreting and applying this knowledge. 

Our survey respondents from research report, "The Human Factor: Strategic procurement and the leaders of tomorrow", agree. Half rate soft skills as ‘very important’ for procurement managers; a further 28% deem them ‘essential’ (42% of Chief Procurement Officers (CPOs) and approaching 50% of the higher-spending, $1-billion-plus procurement organisations). 

The term ‘soft skills’ covers a wide range of capabilities. What they have in common is they are hard to measure or examine and are rarely taught as part of formal procurement training. But this doesn’t mean that they cannot be learnt and practised; the idea that some people are born communicators, leaders or negotiators is largely a myth.

Procurement people need to understand their customers’ needs and motivations and how to influence them

Soft skills in procurement – which is most important?

The number one ranked soft skill valued by our respondents is the ‘ability to influence and lead’, which is indicative of the requirements for tomorrow’s operating model. A more digitally literate, less hierarchical procurement structure requires, paradoxically, more rather than fewer leaders if any cohesive transformation is to occur. And these changing needs begin to emerge if we consider the soft skills in procurement most commonly cited in the top three most important.  

More than a third of respondents (36%) put the ‘flexibility and agility to manage ongoing change’ in their top three. The same number also cite the ‘courage to challenge conventional thinking’, while 35% value ‘innovation, creativity and problem-solving’. The expectation is clearly of a procurement function of the future having to adopt a more project-based mentality with an agile approach to better meet the needs of the business.

Effective leadership, in particular, is a procurement skill that organisations currently find hard to secure, with respondents naming holistic leadership, stakeholder engagement and control-tower leadership as the least accessible. The importance of these, and of stakeholder engagement, is clear; the most important deals and negotiations in future procurement operating models won’t be with external suppliers, but with internal users, stakeholders and colleagues. This is because to become more effective, procurement must be customer-centric and relevant to stakeholders.

Procurement training for the future

This means future training of technical skills, for example in negotiation, will include not only the theory, strategies and tactics that can be deployed, but also the development of influencing skills, effective use of spoken and written language, understanding the motivations and actions of stakeholders and how to influence them. This training will need to evolve from being primarily classroom based to a combination of eLearning, systematic knowledge sharing and face-to-face learning.

Although procurement soft skills development needs to become a more integral part of training in the future, soft skills practice and feedback evolve to become a continual process in career evolvement. This differs from the acquisition of ‘hard’ knowledge which is to some extent a one-time event, although regular updates and refreshers are essential.

Historically procurement has had an abundance of people who are skilled at running a process. However, now that many of the procurement processes and workflows are being codified in technology, it is people who can step back from these processes and find ways of better serving their internal customers, that will lead the high performing procurement functions of the future.

Understanding how a customer can get more value from a procurement-related activity requires procurement professionals to understand their customers’ needs and motivations and how to influence them. This is why a change of focus from hard to soft skills is so important.