Inside Supply Management Magazine

May / June 2020

Talent: Fulfilling a Future Need for Relationships and Soft Skills — Now

May 01, 2020
By Sue Doerfler


rganizations are turning to robotics process automation (RPA) to automate repetitive tasks in such areas as accounts payable, contracting and even supplier management. A 2017 study by Stamford, Connecticut-based technology research and advisory firm ISG found that RPA reduces resource needs by 37 percent.

And Stamford-based research firm Gartner, which calls RPA part of a larger trend of hyper-automation, states in its Gartner Predicts 2020: RPA Renaissance Driven by Morphing Offerings and Zeal for Operational Excellence study that firms can reduce operational costs by 30 percent by combining hyper-automation technologies with redesigned operational processes.

In a November report, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Forrester Research, Inc. predicted that 40 percent of businesses would have automation centers and frameworks by the end of 2019. The research company projects the RPA market to reach US$2.9 billion in 2021, up from $250 million in 2016, adding that linkage to artificial intelligence (AI) components will fuel the growth.

What does all this mean to talent? It’s been said that the switch to automation frees up workers who previously performed repetitive tasks, allowing them to move into more strategic, value-add roles. With the anticipated growth in RPA use, an increasing number of jobs are likely to be affected.

 “If our jobs are going to be largely automated, what is left for the procurement function?” says Amanda Prochaska, president and CEO of HPP, Inc. in Las Vegas and a member of Institute for Supply Management®’s Thought Leadership Council. “We on the Council believe the supply management jobs of the future are going to be all about relationships.”


Relationship Building

Relationship-building can enable procurement professionals to be more strategic, create value and increase leadership support of the function. Through strong relationships, Prochaska says, procurement professionals can help internal stakeholders understand:

  • The innovations that are needed to set the organization apart — and how suppliers can provide those innovations
  • The types of supply chain changes needed from suppliers
  • The types of technologies coming into play with the suppliers.


Strong relationships with suppliers can help facilitate innovation and new-product development. However, for workers who have typically performed repetitive tasks that have required little human interaction, relationship-building might be a challenge. So, Prochaska says, they — and others coming into the workforce — must tap into what are likely to become the supply management skills of the future: soft skills.

“If your current job is mostly doing RFPs, and now you’re asked to be a relationship owner with a supplier or stakeholder, that requires more soft skills,” Prochaska says. “Think about the ability to (1) communicate, (2) influence, (3) be trusted and (4) have a bigger picture than just procurement — because if you’re going to build relationships, you need to know what’s influencing your stakeholders or your suppliers. You will need to have that broader perspective.”

For example, consider how procurement is changing from being negotiation-focused to being influence-focused. “Negotiation is a point-in-time interaction where you are trying to negotiate something usually cost focused or price focused,” Prochaska says. “But influence requires a relationship. You are trying to understand what’s motivating other people, how they respond to different types of communication, what energizes them — and how you can motivate them.”


Moving to a Culture of Influence

Supply management organizations are seeking to digitally transform at a time when much interpersonal communication has been replaced by texting, email and social media. As a result, the need for developing influencing, relationship-building and other soft skills might seem like an anomaly.

“I feel like there’s a detachment going on in culture today,” Prochaska says. “Nevertheless, if you’re looking at what’s needed in procurement roles of the future, it’s the exact opposite.”

How do you build those robust relationships if you’re not living that culture? “People have to be intentional about leadership, especially millennials and Generation Z, because they’re not getting a lot of core-relationship and leadership skills in day-to-day life,” Prochaska says. “So, you have to be intentional about how you develop yourself, what your goals are and how you want to relate to people, so you’re ready.” Companies might also have to rethink their operating model to embrace and address future talent needs. “The operating models of organizations will be aligned to stakeholders and measured off of stakeholder success,” she says. “In fact, imagine a world where procurement is deeply embedded in the business and within the organizations of their most strategic suppliers.”  

No matter an organization’s digital transformation level — even if it hasn’t yet invested in automation — procurement professionals shouldn’t ignore the growing importance of soft skills, Prochaska notes. There’s no need to wait until the future to develop these skills. “You can do it now — because relationships are here now,” she says. “People need to focus on how to develop intellectual as well as emotional intelligence. Those who actively look to develop that today are going to be the ones who fare better in the future. It’s not like one day you’re going to wake up and say, ‘I am a great trusted adviser.’ It takes practice; it takes repetitiveness.”

In fact, Prochaska says, organizations should already be addressing the need for soft-skills development and relationship-building. “If you don’t have a talent strategy to take your team from where it is today to where it needs to be in the future, it’s going to be too late,” she says. “Technology is coming fast, and if we are not working on developing these skills now, then we’re going to have even larger talent gaps than what we have today.”

Sue Doerfler is Senior Writer for Inside Supply Management®.