Supply chain grad takes direct approach to indirect procurement

Though Dell may be best known for its consumer technology products, the company has evolved into a preferred end-to-end solutions provider for enterprises around the world. While many are familiar with the direct procurement process that ensures the right components are available to build its computers, an equally powerful global team led by Jana Kennedy is responsible for acquiring all the goods and services necessary to effectively operate Dell on a daily basis. As executive director of General Procurement, Kennedy oversees a group that manages a multi-billion dollar annual budget for indirect goods and services, with emphasis on serving as a trusted "one-stop" for internal clients to secure everything from office supplies and airline tickets to consulting services and business process outsourcing.

Kennedy, who specialized in supply chain management in the W. P. Carey MBA program, has moved the historically transactional general procurement function away from "three bids and a buy" to a more strategic structure built to understand and anticipate the corporation’s everyday business needs.

"Procurement of indirect goods and services has traditionally been an untapped area of opportunity," says Kennedy. "Rather than awaiting a request from a department, we are utilizing more advanced techniques involving category management."

Kennedy assigns managers to each category of expenditure, such as telecommunications or corporate travel. The manager treats that category as its own business and has responsibility for sourcing and negotiating agreements with external service providers. At the same time, the category manager functions as a business consultant to key internal stakeholders, developing relationships to gather facts and history about usage and expectations. By compiling and analyzing both internal and external data, the manager then develops a strategic plan for on-going procurement of a given good or service in the category.

"It's important that our category managers build trust and credibility with our internal clients," Kennedy says. "In order to fully optimize our efficiencies and our budgets, we need to be the preferred sourcing agent for these resources."

Indirect procurement is receiving greater attention within the context of the supply chain, mainly because the potential for savings is substantial. As the area gains momentum, however, Kennedy acknowledges that the entire supply chain is becoming increasingly influenced by the amount of information and technology available today. So much available data can be a blessing and a curse.

"We have access to more information to help us make better decisions, but it can be difficult to sort through everything that might be relevant," she says. "We need to be able to sift through data quickly to move forward quickly."

Business Intelligence

That's where business intelligence comes in. The technology to help manage massive amounts of data will continue to influence the effectiveness of the supply chain, by converting information into insights. But it takes the right people with the right skills to turn those insights into actions.

According to Kennedy, those critical thinking skills and having a robust approach to problem solving are key outcomes of a business-driven graduate education: "Speaking for my team at Dell, there's a lot of ambiguity that we have to address, and critical thinking helps us deal with ambiguous situations. It's that skill that enables us to look at things from a broader perspective."

Kennedy also believes that the skills she gained through her study of supply chain management at W. P. Carey readily apply to numerous work environments and industries. While organizational culture and the competitive position of a corporation can differentiate one supply chain from the next, the managerial toolbox will always travel from place to place.

"Supply chain management skills are transferable. It's the culture and a firm's competitive position that influence what tools I choose," Kennedy says.

Kennedy regularly draws on the lessons and experiences tied to her W. P. Carey MBA. A supply chain manager for virtually the entirety of her career, she remembers learning on the job before pursuing her graduate degree. During the MBA program, she had access to a strong team of faculty, became knowledgeable of the best practices of the time, and met an array of professionals from different companies, all of which expanded her awareness of the larger business picture.

"My studies validated what I had learned prior to getting my MBA, and gave me a lot of confidence to say, 'I can figure out how to get things done'," Kennedy remembers. "My first job out of graduate school was with a smaller technology firm who hired a couple MBAs to drive change and increase the skill level of the procurement team. I had a very loose job description, but my MBA helped me understand the company and what needed to be done within that environment to set up the supply chain."

Network for Value Chain Excellence

As a member of W. P. Carey's Network of Value Chain Excellence, Kennedy remains engaged in her alma mater. The network meets twice a year on the ASU campus, and network members interact with students and faculty. During these meetings, faculty present their latest research, and members of the network share best practices and gather ideas from one another. Most gratifying to Kennedy, though, is the time she spends with students.

"I love hearing about what the students are doing and what ideas they have. They are bright, enthusiastic and so advanced. It's remarkable how accomplished they are professionally. Some have even started their own businesses," Kennedy says. "I also gain insights into their personalities and how they might fit into a particular corporate culture. They share what they are seeking from an employer, which helps me assess whether our recruitment approach at Dell is going to be attractive to them."

Her continued involvement with the business school has been a key to Kennedy's own professional development. Early in her MBA program, Kennedy saw the value of understanding and integrating best practices and staying attuned to changes in the field of supply chain management to foster continuous improvement.

"Staying connected to the university has helped me stay current on what’s happening in supply chain, so I can bring forth new ideas," says Kennedy. "I didn’t walk away from the experience once I graduated. Instead, I call on the experience to guide me in taking what I've learned and allowing it to evolve, so I can stay ahead of the curve."

Kennedy's most important advice to prospective MBA graduates? She encourages them to own their own careers and to work at building their personal brands. She suggests that students ask themselves, "What do I want to be known for?" That attitude and a proactive and direct approach lead to more opportunities in the future.

And clearly, the direct approach has served Kennedy well.