Procurement wasn’t built in a day


by Ron D’Andrea


They say Rome was not built in a day …

but from 21 April 753, when legend says Romulus and Remus founded Rome, through the building of the railways to supplying the troops in the world wars, procurement has historically been a clerical job.

Those on the front line, sometimes literally, told pen pushers what they needed, and the pen pushers found someone to supply and deliver, whether it was more papyrus, slaves or enormous slabs of rock, or boots and chocolate rations.

In times of considerable growth – the Industrial Revolution and the laying of the railways – there were windows of awareness that these industries needed professionals dedicated to supply and purchasing, but strategic sourcing was still a good century away.

The godfather of procurement, Charles Babbage, in his 1832 book On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures recommended specific employees in a mine include

“A materials man [who] selects, purchases, receives and delivers all articles required.”

And in 1886, the Pennsylvania Railroad had a Supplying Department in charge of acquiring materials in the developed north east and getting them to railroad construction ever further south and west. Both clear steps towards the orchestrated, fine-tuned procurement world we see today.

But both world wars and the Great Depression returned procurement’s focus once again to purely having to overcome the scarcity of materials and to simply getting the supplies.

It was not until the 1960s that the beginnings of procurement as we know it now really started to appear; it was a time when best price was king in competitive bidding wars. Even in the 60s, purchasing occurred within departments, where people with budgets and expert industry knowledge had the power, ability and relative freedom to buy what they considered the best within their department’s price range.

Over the next three decades, supplier competition gave departments the luxury of comparing supplier quality and dependability, and by the 1990s, strategic sourcing became a reality. Procurement professionals in dedicated buying departments took over major buying responsibilities, replacing department heads and budget holders as the people sales professionals had to impress.

At the beginning of the 21st century, at the very heart of every successful organisation, procurement professionals are highly trained scientists in an industry that, just 40 years ago, was still unheard of. Procurement officers and purchasing managers work not just as buyers but as experts within the industries in which they work.

Solid understanding of supply-chain management, intelligent and strategic sourcing, inventory administration, and supplier selection and relationships come after years of study and professional development way beyond graduate degree – the world of procurement is now so far from being the domain of pen pushers as 21st century society is from the building of Rome.

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