For our latest Big Interview, Ben Stickland, Senior Recruitment Consultant – Public Sector, spoke with Jo Meehan, Professor of Responsible Procurement University of Liverpool about a variety of topics including whether or not procurement needs modernising.
You have been described in the business press as one of the ‘UK’s most influential business academics’, where did this all start for you and how did you get into procurement?
Like many people in procurement, I fell into it!
I would like to think people now choose it as a career, but when I left school, I didn’t have a degree, I had done A Levels in art, English and history.
I had no idea what I wanted to do other than draw pictures but I applied for the ICI trainee scheme.
I lived in Cheshire and ICI was a big manufacturer in our area, I was successful and they placed me in procurement.
So, they are to blame for my career!
I spent 11 years there in various roles looking at ERP systems, managing suppliers, suppliers’ relationships, and supply training and really enjoyed it.
From there I did a business degree and got interested again in purchasing as a subject and a research area.
I then joined Liverpool’s John Moores University as a lecturer and completed my PhD.
I was there for 11 years and I have been at the University of Liverpool Management School for the last 10 years.
What are you most passionate about when it comes to procurement?
Really around my title, responsible procurement.
There is this age-old discussion that anyone can do procurement.
We all shop, we all buy things we all have this intuitive sense of what procurement is.
But when you do that for a business the responsibility is far greater.
That is not just financially, but the impact of our spend goes far wider than we possibly are aware.
Procurement doesn’t just buy from supply markets, procurement shapes markets.
I am particularly interested and passionate in pulling apart what those impacts are and how we can be more responsible and seeing those impacts whether they are environmental, socio-economic impacts or impacts on nature or our communities, and how we can be more mindful of the impacts we have and how we can be responsible in our procurement.
Does procurement need modernising?
Yes and no.
Yes, we need to be more conscious of how we address the problems in the world in a way that is more fundamental to what we do, rather than just an add-on or making sure our suppliers have got targets for net zero.
It needs to be much more of a systematic appraisal of how procurement plays a role and may be unwillingly complicit in environmental damage or consumption and labour rights, so yes, it needs to modernise in those areas.
But, you can also argue it depends on what we think innovation and development mean.
In many ways we need to un-modernise, it is very much the case that some of the trends in the modern world for owning and consuming things are part of the problem and we can probably learn some very good lessons from history.
How was procurement done before we needed to own everything, well we shared resources, we didn’t waste, and we didn’t overconsume.
I think the lessons need to go away from purely scaled procurement models to set some boundaries about where we buy from and truly understanding what ecosystems we are in, rather than aiming for big global monolithic markets.
So we need to have much deeper debates about how we can create sustainable value differently that moves us away from resource consumption and ownership of assets, and which has positive impacts on people and the natural world.
How do you foresee the future of procurement in the next 5-10 years?
It could go a number of ways, I think the dominant way in which it is going at the moment is supply market concentration, which is concerning.
We have seen market concentration as a result of Covid, where we have fewer suppliers, therefore we have less diversity, and we have less choice, and less opportunity to shape a preferable market.
There are fewer options to do that when you have market concentration, and it can lead to, or exacerbate conditions for workers.
I also think there will be a change to technology, the future relies heavily on technology.
It will displace many jobs and brings new challenges for business and society.
What we often hear is how great it is that the technology is available and that procurement can now do what it wished it could have done for the last 20 years. But my challenge back to that is whether what you wanted to do 20 years ago is still right for the world, given what we know about the climate emergency and social inequalities.
Our consciousness has moved on about what needs doing so if we are only going to address the things we needed to do 20 years ago we may be out of step with societal expectations.
Technology also adds a lot of potential bias to our sourcing choices. If we think about how we feed our algorithms, these come from existing data – and existing biases. And yet we often forget to think about those biases and if the computer says X, we deem it to be factual and objective, so it can create some serious vulnerabilities in our supply chain decisions.
Tell us about your role at the University of Liverpool
The main course we have at the University of Liverpool Management School around supply chains is our MSc in Supply Chain and Operations Management.
We also have master’s programmes in Project and Programme management, data analytics, and the Liverpool MBA. Responsible procurement and supply chain management are important modules in our MSc programmes.
I teach strategic procurement, and develop students’ knowledge not just around how to buy but also really getting to grips with these students being the leaders of the future, so we spend a lot of time exploring what we mean by responsibility and accountability, and what their role might be and how they are changing.
We look at a range of sustainability-related issues for example the importance of transparency in our supply chains and why firms find this so difficult to achieve, and we get students to critically reflect on why they have to be concerned about non-financial issues such as modern slavery, social value or climate emergency.
As we have such an international cohort of students, many of whom have had experience in procurement, logistics, or supply chain management, we encourage students to share their experiences and perspectives from different parts of the world.
What are the motivations of your students to go into supply chain and procurement?
It is such a growing area, our numbers keep going up and up.
We are not sure why apart from the fact that we give them a brilliant experience at Liverpool!
Over the last few years, supply chain and procurement has been on the news almost daily and so people are now curious are to where their products come from and how we might manage supply more effectively.
Our students want to know how business operations really work, how products get onto the shelves and what are the processes behind that.
How important do you think soft skills are in procurement?
Increasingly important, although I do have a problem with calling them ‘soft skills’ as it implies they are easier, they are actually the hardest!
But yes, those relational aspects of our job become even more important.
To me it is not an either-or, it is not that it replaces the contracts and finance considerations – we now need to do these things as well as we always did, but the amount of complexity we now have to juggle is increasing the scope of a procurement role.
All business leadership is not just about financial performance anymore, it is also social, and environmental.
Sustainability also now changes the time frames for accountability. Traditionally we would be responsible for spend and suppliers over a financial planning cycle, but now we are required to account for our impacts on the world for a much longer time frame.
When we talk about sustainability, we often frame decisions in terms of generational impacts. This long timeframe, coupled with the immediacy of operational supply disruptions many firms currently face, creates real complexity and accountability for our commercial decisions.
Your work explores practices that allow social inequalities and environmental harm to persist in procurement, what do you think can be done to enable change in those areas?
Well, change the way the world works!
Unfortunately, all of our systems are interdependent so we haven’t got an economic system that is separate from our health system or our education system, they’re all interconnected.
I think how we start to address some of those problems is by paying attention to those interdependencies of systems. So for example, we can’t just externalise environmental risk we internalise and be accountable for our impacts and this then brings it into our decision-making alongside financial issues.
We also should move away from producing more stuff, there is enough stuff in the world. One thing we see a lot of at the moment is framing the problem of sustainability around waste.
So, we might talk about waste in the ocean and of course, that is important, but to move into a more circular model we have to go further up the chain of why we have waste in the first place and to challenge our obsession with buying.
For procurement that means we need to move into a more sharing economy, leasing equipment, and developing supply infrastructure that allows us to collaborate with different organisations.
I think as we really start to feel the effects of the climate emergency, new collaborative ways of working will become more and more important to firms.
What is your mission?
Restore the natural world from the damage we have done to it and reduce structural inequality.
I sound like I’m on an old game show or something!
I think my mission is really to get ‘responsible’ into the world of procurement. And that is not to say people are irresponsible, so please don’t misinterpret that. But I think the role we play as procurement in shaping and structuring markets is a real blind spot we don’t pay attention to the impact we have.
For me, what I want to get through from my research and my teaching is just to show how much leverage we have in shaping equitable systems and how much leverage we have in making companies accountable.
Accountability is not just passing the buck down the line contractually but it is about challenging business models and practices, and how these, for example buying on such low margins and having such fragmented and long supply chains, often create conditions for exploitation of people and the natural world. Implicit in this is also challenging some of the notions of what success means.
What is the most valuable skill that you have learnt and how does that best serve you now?
I think my most valuable skill is critical thinking and that comes through from having a research career.
It forces you to challenge assumptions and it helps to reveal blind spots; by revealing what you are paying attention to it also shows you what you are not paying attention to. This can be a really critical skill that gets to the roots of our values and why we think certain things. This is probably one of the most important skills we develop with our students through our research-led teaching at the University of Liverpool.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Life is much better with donkeys and dogs in it!
My husband and I are now fully qualified donkey guardians, we have now rehomed three rescue donkeys from the Donkey Sanctuary called Ferguson, Edric and Spud. And a puppy is hopefully our next new arrival….