By Sriram Narayanan, Ph.D., MBA, and Joe Sandor, MBA

How can a supplier and buyer can begin a creative process?

It is important to recognize that any knowledge creation activity starts with a most fundamental issue, a question. As Albert Einstein said, “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” We all recognize the importance of asking good questions. However, as organizations focus on suppliers from innovation, knowledge-transfer and risk-mitigation perspectives, it is important to recognize the importance of asking questions — and having a measure for the quality of answers an organization gets not only from its suppliers, but its buyers.

Questions have driven humankind over thousands of years. The Socratic dialogue employs a series of questions and answers that promote independent, critical and reflective thinking, often leading to a series of question-and-answer cycles. An important element of better supply management is the art of superior questioning. A superior question can then devolve into a series of conversations that can help promote innovation between the buyer and supplier.

On may wonder: What questions should one ask? The obvious answer: It depends. There are four types of questions that buyers can ask in their interactions with suppliers. Keeping these in mind during everyday transactions and scenarios can provide procurement managers new meaning and impetus to ask questions while increasing creative input in their supplier transactions.

The four question types, which draw from creativity research of James Gallagher and Mary Jane Ascher’s hierarchical taxonomy (1963), are:

●Memory-driven:These questions are the lowest and involve a repetition of facts, for example, recalling terms of contract, due dates, product specifications or any such strategies. It should be noted that many procurement activities and actions could be standard and require fact-seeking questioning.

●Convergent:In asking a convergent question, a buyer is typically trying to establish an answer. How did a problem happen? What did a process look like? These are also fact-finding questions, but they have a little more detail than memory-driven questions that are attempting to get at “that data.” Here, we are seeking a higher order of information.

●Divergent:A divergent question seeks to generate a variety of options. These questions should often allow the creation of options — for example, aspects including, “let’s generate this scenario,” “what other possibilities exist,” and the like. Typical procurement situations can be engaging suppliers in new product activities. The key property here is that all answers are equally valid. Typical brainstorming sessions tend to follow this thinking approach.

●Evaluative:These questions have the property of comparison. For example, when two options that are generated can be compared, additional questions can be asked. These questions should involve a superior understanding of the perspective of each participant. In that sense, asking evaluative questions in a buyer-supplier environment should also require an understanding of each other’s culture.

It is important to note that a combination of these four approaches can be used. Procurement managers should think about these frameworks and focus on how effectively combining these questioning styles in each environment can help yield not only a creative procurement environment, but also a creative supplier who generates options.

So, procurement managers: Did you ask your supplier a question today? What type of question was it?

Sriram Narayanan, Ph.D., MBA, is an associate professor and Kesseler endowed fellow of supply chain management and Joe Sandor, MBA, is Hoagland-Metzler professor of purchasing and supply management at the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University in Lansing, Michigan.

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