We’ve written and spoken a lot about the arrival of the Millennials – the generation that has no idea how life was before Google and mobile phones; who are tech-savvy, globally aware and demanding of flexibility and diversity in their lives. Intellectually, they are no different from previous generations (we like to tell ourselves) but new tools haverevolutionised how they approach life and work.
Some of these tools are productivity based and provide us with the flexibility to work from anywhere, while others provide access to a global marketplace of employers and workers and the ability for them to engage with each other, wherever they are in the world.
One obvious example is Elance, which began life in 1999 and has since merged with oDesk to create a community of more than 2 million employers and more than 8 million freelancers from 180+ countries. In 2013, $750m worth of work was carried out across their platform – a figure that’s only set to increase. In fact, research carried out by Elance-oDesk and the Freelancers Union found the US workforce is now 34% freelance, a figure, that while easily challenged, is certainly impressive.
Nevertheless, the freelance economy is a common, if overused, phrase. Do a Google search, and you will find a plethora of articles from establishment voices such as Forbes, Harvard Business Review and Mckinsey. They all discuss, with various degrees of enthusiasm, the rise of freelance workers, how more and more businesses are going direct to contractors or freelancers to take advantage of the flexibility they bring.
Such an approach might help to combat the challenges we all have in recruiting staff in certain areas. After all, while we may not want to employ freelance category managers (although contract and interim labour is a common solution here) there will be situations when reaching out into a diverse talent pool to help with temporary or pilot projects makes a great deal of sense.
So, what skills could your procurement function benefit from by dipping into the freelance world?
User Experience (UX)
We hear a lot of about how procurement systems are rudimentary in their usability and that the big business-technology brands are looking to consumer platforms like Amazon and eBay for inspiration when it comes to the interface between user and technology. The digital experience of a user (whether customer or colleague) is crucial, and user experience (UX) specialists get paid to make them as seamless and fluid as possible.
While there’s only so much an organisation can do to influence the technology roadmap of a software supplier, there is the potential to improve user experience in other ways. The guys at Novozymes, for example, have developed a procurement app which users from around the business can use to engage with procurement. Equally, it could be worth investing in a software wraparound of legacy procurement systems.
The massive amount of data in our organisations offer a huge opportunity to those who spend the time and effort analysing it and looking for trends. Decisions made with data are far more robust than those taken on instinct or hunch, and having the skills in your team to determine where to look can be a priceless addition.
Again, there may be a clash between the central data and digital strategy, but knowing what information could potentially be mined and for what purpose is good information that can be used to underpin fruitful discussions with the central team.
Getting the message of what procurement does and the benefits it brings is another nice to have rather than mission-critical component of a successful procurement organisation and hiring permanent public relations or communications specialists who work purely for procurement is a luxury I’ve come across only at a small handful of companies.
But freelance communications specialists are common, and they will regularly work with corporate clients in order to get the right story across – whether internally or externally. A well-designed and executed communications strategy can add the gold dust on top of a well-executed strategy, and significantly improve levels of engagement!
I suppose the point of all of this is that while the freelance economy might not change the very heartbeat of procurement, it does allow us to open the door to any type of expertise and knowledge whenever we want it, cost effectively and efficiently.
And, perhaps just as importantly, is allows us to close the door should we decide it’s not needed anymore.