Supply Managers Have More Difficult Job than Ever: How to Make Everyone Happy

Keeping costs under control while successfully managing supplier relationships has procurement professionals taking on multiple identities

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Corvallis, OR — April 26, 2010 — In the world of a supply manager, navigating the territory between their internal customers, the suppliers and the buyers is tricky. A new study by an Oregon State University supply chain researcher shows this balancing act between keeping costs under control and keeping suppliers happy is even more difficult than previously thought due to tough economic conditions.

In his new paper in the Journal of Business Research, Zhaohui Wu, an associate professor in OSU's College of Business, hypothesized that since research has shown that companies believe supply managers should have the ability to "wear many hats" and take on multiple roles as needed, that this ability would have a positive relationship with the manager's interpersonal relationships.

In fact, Wu's in-depth interviews with 11 supply managers and their key contacts in eight diverse U.S. companies showed just the opposite: Suppliers believed that supply managers who excelled at these different roles were viewed in a more negative light by suppliers.

"Suppliers seem to think they are acting fake, that the supply manager is putting on different faces," Wu said. "They questioned the sincerity of the manager, and the better that manager was at navigating between the roles, the more the supplier doubted his intentions."

As Wu's paper points out, this is paradoxical and suggests that being the middleman in a supply chain relationship is more complicated than ever. Companies and suppliers state they want a supply manager with ability to take on multiple roles — to negotiate on behalf of the buyer as well as to work efficiently with the supplier.

As the researchers point out, "Individuals, depending upon their organizational position, may perceive role-changing behavior differently." The four roles the researchers identified are: a negotiator for the buyer, a facilitator between buyer and supplier, an advocate for the supplier, and an educator of internal customers.

As an example to illustrate the complex nature of the role of the supply manager, Wu gave this example: "Let's say you are the buyer for GM, and you have an established relationship with a trusted overseas supplier of an essential component for your product, and all of a sudden your company wants you to get a better deal, or perhaps they want it earlier," he said.

"Now your supplier also has to trust you. At the same time they may tell you, we've got an issue, and now the product is going to be late, or perhaps they say they can rush delivery but it will cost more and the cost they quoted is more than your company wants to pay."

All of these negotiations are part of the "many hats" that Wu says a supply chain manager wears. He said in today's economy, the situation is even tougher, which is why more research is needed.

"The nature of supply management has changed," Wu said. "Most of the time now, you are dealing with overseas companies, and price negotiation is just part of the job. There is more time pressure to get the product, more focus on quality control, and managing the expectation of both the suppliers and your internal customers."

Wu said the supply manager is playing an ever more important role in coordinating the process, which requires taking on multiple identities. "It's a more cognitive, more sophisticated job than it was in the past," he said. "In the past, supply managers were largely seen as number crunchers, people who had to be good with negotiating contracts. This is no longer the case."

The research shows that in some cases managers are successfully able to take on these different roles, but the trust between buyer and supplier can be affected. Because this juggling of roles is an aspect of the modern managers, Wu said more research needs to be done to find out how managers can integrate their roles smoothly.

"Maybe some of the supply chain managers are like George Clooney, just naturally good at smoothly navigating relationships, we don't know," Wu said. "Or perhaps there are tools that can help form a coherent identity. The cognitive aspect is missing in supply chain research; in this paper we are just measuring the behavioral aspect."

Wu is director of the college's Sustainable Business Initiative, is an expert on supply chain networks and management. He is lead author on the paper, which was written with Michelle D. Steward of Wake Forest University and Janet L. Hartley of Bowling Green State University.

The article can be found at