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Training Supply Managers for Effective Internal and External Relationships


Alvin J. Williams, Ph.D.
Alvin J. Williams, Ph.D., Chair and Professor of Marketing, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS 39404-5091, 601/266-4634
Robert F. Smith
Robert F. Smith, President Training Technologies, Winnetka, IL 60093, 708/446-5569

81st Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1996 - Chicago, IL

Abstract. Training and development in the supply management are multi-faceted challenges. There is some degree of perplexity regarding the nature and type of training procurement professionals need to function in a dynamic environment. The fundamental focus of the presentation is to answer the following questions: What are the critical success factors for future supply management training? and - How can organizations train effectively supply managers to handle the challenges of complex relationships?

Introduction. Relentless discussion abounds in supply management arenas concerning the rapidity and fierceness of change. Most agree that purchasing organizations must step up the pace at which they respond to or cope with environmental dynamics, both internally and externally. One overriding theme that appears to be the binding fabric connecting the seemingly disparate discussion about change is that of relationships - internal and external. Long-term relation-ships with one or a few suppliers is hailed as a key ingredient for success. Likewise, back at the shop, purchasers are told to strengthen relationships with internal customers as a means to heighten performance. In both cases relationships play critical roles. This point is consistent with Michels and Evans' (1995) finding that relationship skills are among the most imporant ones for success in organizations. However, purchasers, as well as others in organizations, lack the full body of skills in the relationship area that encourage effective performance. Thus, there is a knowledge and/or skill gap that must be bridged to facilitate effort to goal attainment at all levels.

The current paper posits a basic model of supply management training that allows for a disciplined approach to improved preparation in the relationship management area. In addition, suggested training program content is presented and discussed.

Model of Purchasing Training. The proposed model consists of four interrelated phases: Analysis, Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation (APIE). The phases represent the crux of the process needed to equip purchasers in relevant knowledge areas. Currently, training programs still maintain a stronger transaction-based orientation than is healthy in the current purchasing environment. Relationships are discussed, but not with the degree of structure and integration necessary for value inculcation in the organization. Certainly, other areas of knowledge germane to purchasing can benefit from the model, but relationships are highlighted due to their continued position at the apex of concerns, both externally and internally.

Some of the impetus for a different approach to training emanate from diverse changedrivers, including some of the following:

  1. Organizations are being driven by customer needs;
  2. Competition is intensifying because of the opening of worldwide supply availability;
  3. Re-engineering and other organizational analysis techniques are in widespread use to improve productivity;
  4. Improved communications between supply managers and their internal customers is much more essential to performance and success.

These and other forces give greater urgency to the need to re-think the role of relationship training in purchasing organizations.

Analysis: Analysis is the critical first step in the process. When considering training, analysis occurs at three basic levels: organizational, operational or functional, and individual (Futrell, 1994). The heart of the analysis is needs assessment. With respect to training purchasers for more effective relationships, the following questions must be answered:

  • What is our definition of effective relationships?
  • How important are relationships to organizational success?
  • What are the current perceived deficiencies in managing external and internal relationships?
  • What are our perceived strong points in relationship management?
  • What are the ESSENTIAL components of relationships?
  • How can the purchasing function create and sustain value for the organization?
  • What are the obstacles or impediments to enhancing purchasing value-adding capabilities?

Responses to these and similar questions form the basis for determining the training needs in relationship building and maintenance. In fact, the same questions are useful in assessing needs at the functional and individual levels as well.

A companion component of the analysis phase is the ascertainment of the types, nature, structure, and dimensions of relationships needed for effective performance. To a certain degree, extended relationships possess some of the qualities of organizational communities. Stannack (1995) identified the following dimensions of communities that might have some implications for relationship training in organizations:

  • Benefits - conscious understanding of the benefits of collaboration among customers and suppliers.
  • Wholeness - the community relates as a group to its environment.
  • Sharing - sharing risks and benefits.
  • Ideology - the goals of the community can only be obtained in a collective framework.
  • Goals - the community has collective goals and needs, and expects its members to work to their satisfaction.
  • Authority - ultimately the community is the source of authority within the community.
  • Transcendence - the communities' existence has a value which transcends the existence of individual members.

In assessing relationship training needs, it is important to consider the dimensions of communities, groups, and teams that make them function. If through observation or other means, internal and external relationships in purchasing organizations lack any of the above seven dimensions, the gap could serve as a indicator of corrective action. Where is the purchasing organization deficient in the above qualities? Where do we go from here?

Planning: The planning phase of the relationship training process is dependent on the findings from the needs assessment and analysis stage. After relationship needs are identified, subsequent action can be taken to structure a program to address the major concerns. In particular, relationship training goals are discussed and developed. Examples include:

  1. To enhance the cognitive dimension of purchasing professionals concerning relationships (knowledge of relationships and their importance to overall performance).
  2. To improve the affective component of relationships in which purchasers participate (how purchasers feel about relationships with significant others in- and outside of the organization).
  3. To move purchasers in the direction of taking proactive stances in nurturing relationships that impact performance.

Although the above goals are qualitative/descriptive, they provide some guidance in directing efforts to improve relationship training. Implementation: Implementation may take various forms depending on needs, resources, and the situation. Some suggestions for operationalizing the relationship training process follow.

A fundamental starting point is to teach process mapping as a key element in understanding relationships. Plank, Waller, and Bringelson (1995) define the concept as "the documentation and diagnostic methodology and modeling technique that identifies the existing activities but simulate changes to improve outcomes of the process being mapped. Although process mapping is most notably associated with assessing cost and value, it is useful in looking at relationships. As purchasers and others understand their connections and links with those inside and outside of the firm, foundations for stronger relationships are etched. This leads ultimately to a better understanding of both place and purpose.

In conjunction with process mapping, the training effort should include concept connections or concept maps to integrate ideas, values, and perspectives. Concept maps may provide answers to the following questions and others like them: How do critical concepts for success in purchasing and in the organization connect and relate? Can these connections be taught? How do these connections apply to external relationships? As purchasers and others understand conceptual connections and underpinnings, relationships become easier to build and maintain.

Reinforcement and repetition of the value and criticality of relationships must become integral components of the training process. One-shot approaches are of limited significance in encouraging certain types of organizational behaviors, i.e., strong relationships. Reinforcement must occur in various forms and with alternative delivery systems and mechanisms.

Another aspect of the implementation effort is to teach purchasing to others in the organization. Educate relationship partners concerning purchasing and its responsibilities. This really involves more interfunctional training for all current and potential partners in internal and external relationships.

Implementation strategies and approaches can be as varied as the organizations involved. There must be a match between the corporate culture and the approaches chosen. In addition, flexibility in the implementation effort can be a critical success factor.

Evaluation: At some point the relationship training effort must be assessed and measured. As usual, it is extremely difficult to determine if changes in relationship behaviors are due specifically to training efforts. Evaluations may occur during the training process with the corresponding adjustments being made. Evaluation may take the form of pre- and post-tests, with or without various control groups. Whether evaluation is formal or informal, some attempt to determine effectiveness is essential. It provides clear input for the next relationship training encounter.

Summary and Conclusions. Relationships have become critical elements of purchasing and supply management success, and promise to become even more so in the future. Thus, it is essential for purchasing professionals to allocate additional training resources to this important topic and to re-think how it fits into the scheme of the entire culture of the firm. Evidence of increased focus on relationships by mangers is presented in Kolchin and Giunipero (1993). Their study revealed the intent to target relationships and partnering as future training priorities.

This alternative approach to training allows for improved understanding between customers and clients, greater focus on continuous communication, and a stronger proactive approach to meeting needs through continuing dialog. It is one step in the direction of responding to changing environments.

As firms stress empowerment, value creation, customer satisfaction, long-term arrangements, fewer supply sources, and greater performance expectations, relationship training is mandatory. Increased effectiveness cannot ensue from haphazard arbitrariness in handling the important topic of relationships.


  1. Futrell, Charles. Sales Management. 4th Edition, Fort Worth, TX : The Dryden Press, 1994.
  2. Kolchin, Michael G. and Larry C. Giunipero. Purchasing Education and Training Requirements and Resources. Center for Advanced Purchasing Studies, National Association of Purchasing Management, 1993.
  3. Michels, William L. and Peter Evans. "Spotlight on Skills: The Important Ones." NAPM Insights, National Association of Purchasing Management(October 1995).
  4. Plank, Richard E., Matt Waller, and Liwana Bringelson. "Assessing Cost and Value in the Supply Chain: The Process Mapping Activity." Proceedings for the First World Wide Research Symposium on Purchasing and Supply Chain Management. National Association of Purchasing Management, 1995, pp. 178-186.
  5. Stannack, Peter. "Building Organisational Communities: The Role of Purchasing and Supply Chain Management?" Proceedings for the First World Wide Research Symposium on Purchasing and Supply Chain Management, National Association of Purchasing Management, 1995, pp. 134-150.

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