A Brief History of Procurement: Key Points From Past and Present

Although historical accounts are spotty at best, procurement practices have existed for thousands of years. It’s evolved from a function of subordinates to one that’s been elevated to a management level. It’s garnered such importance in the business world that major companies dedicate whole departments and executive positions to procurement (maybe even one you hold). Despite these changes, the types of challenges addressed by procurement—from scarcity of supplies to competition—have mostly remained the same. Here’s our breakdown of procurement form the early years to present day to give you more insight on this ever-evolving industry.

Early Years in the History of Procurement

The practice of procurement-related tasks dates back as early as 3,000 BC. In Egypt, scribes responsible for pyramid design also functioned as clerks, using papyrus to record the amount of labor and materials needed for construction. Ancient Romans also used scribes to create contracts when the empire was engaged in trade with private suppliers. In Great Britain, procurement’s history dates back to William the Conquerer, who wanted a concise way to record tax collections. The practice evolved to incorporate goods and services with the rise of the British Empire and its colonial pursuits.

Industrial Revolution

Photo Credit: Gianluca Di natale

Procurement received greater importance during the Industrial Revolution when the practice became more than part of a worker’s skill set, but a job function all its own. When plants needed resources to help manufacture their products, many of them wound up hiring “materials” men to handle the acquisition and transportation of supplies. This often meant strategic thinking in negotiating with suppliers for the best possible price to offset manufacturing costs. Sound familiar? Some things never change.

20th Century

Though headway had been made in terms of elevating procurement-focused jobs, even during the 20th century, these roles were still seen as a lowly function, especially during the two World Wars when the practice was reduced to clerical status. However, by the 1960s, with the economy finally on the upswing, the business world recognized procurement as a management function, especially with it came to competitive bidding for supplies. Education in pertinent areas in supply chain management created professionals who were able to engage in supplier competition. Their ability to gauge supply variables like price, quality, durability and availability became even more critical to a company’s well-being.

The Information Technology Boom

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With the creation of the Internet, procurement took on (and continues to take on) an even more dynamic role in the late 20th century, engaging in B2B e-commerce transactions. The pace of activity became even faster with improvements in software that have continued to the practice of procurement more thorough and accurate.

The social status of those involved in procurement and the shape of the economy of the times have been inextricably linked. During periods when the economy was sluggish, the practice was a skill set among clerks. When the economy was more robust, procurement became a vital strategy. Given its increased importance of late, especially with the onset of more accessible technology, procurement may become even more important, especially when the practice can be part of a long-run solution to an economic downturn.

Feature Image: Steven Depolo

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