Sara, how have you seen your role evolve as a procurement leader over the years as ESG and supplier diversity come into focus?
Procurement leaders have gone from ‘cost cutters’ to ‘problem solvers’ within their organisations. Our core mandates used to be to drive cost savings and efficiency. We were hyper-focused on getting the most out of the organisation’s spend and supplier relationships. Those priorities haven’t gone away, especially in today’s inflationary environment, but the expectations of the procurement function are significantly higher and broader today.
Procurement functions saved their companies during COVID and the confluence of disruptions that followed. We showed we are a strategic linchpin. We are now looked upon to drive value and impact and strategically guide our organisations to achieve broader goals, including diversity and environmental, social, governance (ESG). Internal stakeholders realised the benefits of procurement and sought help with advancing their department’s agendas or solving their challenges. We listen to their needs, allocate the right resources, and ultimately enable them and the overall organisation to be successful.
I’ve been in procurement for over 20 years, and I can honestly say you’d be hard-pressed to find a more rewarding and exciting career. Procurement professionals have a real opportunity to make a tangible difference within their organisations, communities, and the world through the way we source products and services.
What is Harvard doing to have a positive impact on society? Can you share some examples, Sara?
Across the Harvard community, students, alumni, faculty, and staff are advancing scholarship and teaching on the world’s most significant challenges, and everyone wants to do their part to address inequities. Supplier diversity and inclusion have been a priority for Harvard for years, but we wanted to make even more of an impact and really invest in the growth and development of diverse businesses, especially as the pandemic highlighted inequities and disparities within our communities.
In 2021, we formed the Office for Economic Inclusion & Diversity (OEID), which is dedicated to reaching out to diverse suppliers, giving them opportunities, and providing them with tools, training, and resources to be successful. The office also encourages the use of underrepresented business enterprises (UBEs) in the purchasing of all goods, services, and construction at Harvard and standardises procurement practices with these businesses across the university.
We’re proud of the work this office is doing. We’re actively training suppliers on Harvard’s policies and how they can work with us. We’re creating a central location for them to access bid and RFP opportunities. UBEs can also apply to be mentored by Harvard Business School students.
We’ve created a dashboard to track and analyse spend with diverse suppliers across all of Harvard’s schools and measure progress over time. Everything we’re doing is aimed at increasing spend with our existing diverse suppliers, as well as the number of diverse suppliers that work with Harvard, and helping these suppliers grow their businesses.
Jim, why is prioritizing ESG and supplier diversity important and what steps can companies take today to progress in their journey?
Beyond being the right thing to do, investors, boards, regulators, customers, and employees now expect organisations to prioritise ESG and diversity initiatives and walk the talk. There’s also a clear business impact. Supplier diversity drives competitive bidding processes that lead to cost savings. Working with partners who are sustainable and have different ideas and perspectives fuels innovation and creates a competitive advantage. Sourcing from a sustainable and diverse supplier pool also reduces risk by broadening organisations’ access to multiple resources for various materials, products, and services.
One of the most critical steps companies can take to progress on their ESG journey is to make it clear to suppliers that environmentalism is a priority for their organisation. They will attract suppliers with higher levels of ESG maturity and provide suppliers who are earlier on in their ESG journey with sustainability toolkits and training to help educate them on eco-friendly best practices and sustainability innovations.
This step avoids having to overhaul their supply chain to account for ESG. Strategically managing suppliers by leveraging third-party data, scorecards, and supplier audits are crucial for understanding the ESG risks that suppliers pose and minimizing disruptions by working with them to correct these issues.
Successful supplier diversity programs start with a top-down culture shift. If a company’s culture isn’t diverse, inclusive, and supportive for all its stakeholders, they won’t be able to drive supplier diversity in a meaningful way. Supplier diversity strategy should map back to company goals and include an executive-level champion to sponsor the program internally and help bring in the resources they need.
Outside of leveraging technology to identify diverse suppliers and build a program, businesses can talk with people who have been in their shoes. They can collaborate with like-minded companies at industry events, engage in relevant LinkedIn groups, and connect with organisations such as the National Minority Supplier Development Council.
Once diverse suppliers are on board, organisations can create a supplier diversity policy that clearly outlines how many diverse suppliers need to be invited to bid for each event to ensure teams are executing on the strategy. Leading supplier diversity programs go beyond simply spending with diverse suppliers to providing mentorship and training them on how to respond to RFPs correctly, as well as creating environments where it’s easier for them to engage.
Jim, what role does technology play in helping organisations achieve ESG and supplier diversity goals?
Technology is a key enabler of ESG and supplier diversity initiatives. One of the biggest obstacles to supplier diversity and ESG is a lack of reliable supplier data. Suppliers don’t always keep their information up to date in self-service portals. The data procurement teams have isn’t always enriched to the level they need, with insights on diversity status, certifications, and proof of ESG compliance.
Researching and assessing suppliers is tedious and time-consuming, which leads many organisations to skip the verification step. Without this information, organisations don’t have a true picture of the inclusivity and sustainability of their supplier network, which makes it impossible to identify the right partners to source from to meet their ESG and supplier diversity goals and make an impact.
Technology addresses this challenge by automatically collecting, enriching, validating, and integrating the supplier data needed to obtain this level of supply base visibility and make decisions that drive ESG and diversity. AI-powered tools are available to match buyers with specific diverse suppliers who also have the capabilities to help drive ESG objectives and meet broader procurement criteria.
Software that segments the supply base and helps visualise spending with small and diverse suppliers across a variety of classifications is critical for setting benchmarks and measuring progress and ROI.
Jim and Sara, how do you expect the ESG and diversity conversation to shift and where should procurement leaders focus for the future?
Sara: I expect we’ll see the conversation shift to emphasise measurement. It’s not enough anymore to say you’re committed to ESG – you need to prove it and show demonstrable progress and ROI. Maintaining the momentum on ESG initiatives is hard. Technology is key for setting benchmarks and goals, ensuring accountability for hitting key milestones, and measuring progress and return in a credible way.
Jim: In a declining economic environment, choices inevitably need to be made. I expect the conversation around ESG will center around where companies can focus to maintain progress on ESG initiatives as financial and economic pressures come to the forefront. While some companies may need to scale back in some areas to preserve cash and resources to navigate a downturn, I’d advise them to be careful about slowing ESG down too much as it will be much harder to catch up to current levels after the economy bounces back.
I’d argue that when ESG is done right it can be a strategic lever for navigating a down economy, saving organizations money and resources, driving innovation, and helping them achieve broader business objectives and resilience.