#Learning: Understanding a new Category

Looking at advertised Procurement category roles, most specify very clearly the required Category expertise. As an external candidate, you will likely only have a shot at roles where you have gained experience in a past roles. Unless this is a role in a smaller company encompassing a range of categories. Or you being an exceptional fit otherwise. Or of course, you are applying internally with the benefit of having demonstrated the ability to learn quickly before.  

Now, in the new category role, what are the most effective ways to get up to speed quickly and start delivering in the role? Based on my experience, a combination of different tools is useful here:

  • Procurement insights: Professional bodies like CIPS or Procurement market data providers are sources for good quality insights into different categories and trends around them. Look for category deep dive reports, sample category strategy documents and similar. Management consultancies can also offer some good material in that regard
  • Suppliers: Identify some of the top suppliers in the market and spend time reading on their website what the services offering is. They may have videos, downloadable papers and similar as well which help get a better idea what the offering is. Later on, it’s worthwhile spending time with actual suppliers onsite and getting a live insight into their operations and ask more detailed questions
  • Peer network: Learning from peers is a very effective way to understand the category. Reach out to them on social media, tap the existing network (within company and former network) and attend category specific procurement and industry events. If you have done a little bit of reading and learning beforehand it will be more effective, you’ll be someone at least asking smart questions and hence be seen as a useful part of the network.
  • Stakeholders: Tap them as a source of knowledge, they are the subject matter experts from a user side. Again, you want to be careful not to appear completely clueless in your questions as those are people who will look to you to provide competent procurement support in the space going forward. But appearing interested in the more detailed aspects of service, their insights on suppliers, what works and doesn’t, etc. is highly useful and a good start to the collaboration.
  • Social Media: Social Media like Twitter, Linkedin groups or Procurious, the first social network for Procurement and similar are useful to get a regular feed of topical news, ask questions to peers and experts you would otherwise not have access to and find new insights material. Podcasts and Youtube can yield good social content too
  • Training: Formal training is available for different categories through Procurement and industry bodies and formal training institutes. Pick carefully, there is a lot of offering out there with different usefulness. Webinars and eLearning (Procurious, Coursera and Co.) can supplement physical training offers.
  • Literature: Traditional literature on the category can be useful as a starting point or ongoing reference into the subject matter. Often quickly outdated, this is a less preferred learning option in our view. But investing in some great desk reference material can be handy and gives a break from the screen with much distraction.

Whichever are your preferred ways of learning, a combination of different techniques is usually most successful. And having people to ask practical questions in addition to theoretical exposes is an absolute necessity.

If you have the opportunity to spend time in a category before formally managing it, by all means do so. With teams stretched, it is usually easy to volunteer participation in a project of another category manager and it allows you to learn a great deal without having formal responsibility. And if you do a great job, this may position you for an internal move or yield a reference for an external move into said category!

Finally, the difficulty of learning is also dependent on how many characteristics the categories previously managed and the new one share. E.g. IT Services and Consultancy Services share a lot of characteristics in terms of the commercial drivers. Moving from a direct category like Sugar to Marketing Services is a much bigger change. So accordingly the need to invest in learning and to ask your company for support in formal education potentially will differ.