Accenture: The accidental supply chain diversity champion

Accenture: The accidental supply chain diversity champion

Since falling into a procurement career via technical support, Nedra Dickson has gone on to become a world figure in promoting supply chain diversity

As an organisation, Accenture seeks to help build supply chains that are more inclusive and sustainable. It does so by encouraging a mindset of responsible buying, with the ultimate goal being to generate long-term value for its clients, supplier partners and communities.

Both within and outside of Accenture, one person above all others has taken on the mantle of driving performance and values around a diverse and inclusive supply chain. 

She is Nedra Dickson. A Managing Director at Accenture, Dickson leads its global supplier inclusion and sustainability programmes across 22 countries. Her deep expertise in procurement transformation and supplier relationship management has seen her manage an estimated US$2bn in contingent labour spend. 

Under her leadership, and with the help of her amazing team, Dickson has elevated Accenture’s supplier diversity spend to approximately $1bn globally, and she is also credited with expanding Accenture’s award-winning Diverse Supplier Development Program (DSDP). 

The programme is currently running in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, South Africa, India and Australia, and there are plans to further expand its reach.

Dickson says: “Responsible buying allows us to work within our ecosystem to identify, develop and work with smaller, more diverse suppliers with increased agility. 

“DSDP reaches 7 countries, allowing us to drive a more-inclusive marketplace in our supply chain, and we also gain access to innovative, responsive and cost-competitive solutions for our clients.”

Under the programme, Accenture also requests that select suppliers provide information and data on how they are reducing their environmental impact “which in turn helps us improve our performance”, as Dickson explains, who has a strong pedigree in procurement transformation and supplier relationship management.

Supplier diversity programme reflects Accenture’s values

“The programme is designed to grow and develop diverse businesses, and to support their integration into Accenture’s global supply chain. It’s very difficult for such businesses to navigate large, complex organisations like Accenture. 

“So, if you partner a diverse business with an Accenture executive then you can help them peel back the layers of the business and facilitate collaboration. 

“This way, a small business can come in and develop a piece of software or advance a platform, and can do so collaboratively so that we’re working together to innovate.” 

Dickson adds: “By innovating with this diverse supplier, you're helping them grow their business, which means they begin to employ more people in their community. Then you're seeing an economic impact.

“It's a bit like a tech incubator. We look for diverse technology providers we can partner with, or even go to market with, and help the supplier build upon that technology. But it also includes non-tech businesses that we want to help grow.”

In her 21 years with Accenture, Dickson has acquired a deep level of experience of working with Fortune 500 companies across multiple industries and a range of disciplines, including: technology consulting, operations management, procurement and sourcing and category management.

And, yet, procurement was never on the radar of this engineering and computer science graduate, who began her Accenture career in tech support.

“I made sure everyone had a laptop, and I helped write some of the software we were using back then,” she says, recalling that time. 

Dickson moved on to providing help desk support for clients, and, in 2006, was tasked with moving the function to Bangalore, India. “That translated into doing tech work for some of our clients, and that’s when I realised I wanted to be client-facing. 

“I didn’t plan to go into procurement,” she admits. “It’s something that happened organically. I was told there was an opening in that area – I knew nothing about procurement, but I was excited to learn how to help clients procure the goods and services they need.”

Dickson’s role sits between strategy and consulting

Decades on, Dickson has carved out a unique role for herself at Accenture. “My current role sits within our strategy and consulting practice and is aligned to our supply chain. I help clients build, design, develop and grow their own supplier inclusion and sustainability programmes. I also help them fill gaps in their supply chains using small, diverse businesses.”

Dickson observes that her role is one that is made for procurement “because, typically, it is through procurement that contact with small and diverse businesses is made”.

She adds: “You’re procuring their services and some of their goods, so this is why so many of these kinds of businesses are aligned to procurement organisations. We work with them not only to procure their services, but to augment and leverage their talent.”

Such talent might be found upstream or downstream in the supply chain. “They might be providing raw materials, they could be procuring your coffee, or procuring people to augment your IT service. There are diverse suppliers in marketing, in HR and in legal. There's so many categories small and diverse businesses cross.” 

Dickson says that, although the role is “immensely rewarding”, it also comes with serious challenges, chief among which are misconceptions within Accenture itself around the capacity of small, minority-owned businesses. 

“Awareness around why an organisation needs to embrace supplier inclusion and diversity is an ongoing problem,” she says. “The stereotype is that such businesses are too risky, or too small.

Stakeholder education key to building diverse supply chains

“There aren’t enough conversations around the subject. We tend to write-off a business because they’re too small, mistakenly thinking that they're unable to scale up as fast. Then there is the size thing: many people look at small companies and see risk. They might doubt for example that the company has adequate insurance should there be any issues.” 

Nevertheless, Dickson explains that one of the most important demands of her role is educating her own colleagues. “By educating internal stakeholders in Accenture, you also are educating your clients. Not everyone is aware of the value-add that small and diverse businesses can bring, and it’s my job to remedy that.”

She points out that part of the problem is how easy it is for people to forget that even large multinationals were once small businesses.

“Many of the large tech companies started life as a collection of small businesses that came together, and we want to continue to be at the forefront of this kind of thought leadership,” she says.

Sometimes, the educating Dickson undertakes might be as simple as providing clarity around what diversity and inclusion actually is.

“When you look at inclusion and diversity in the workforce, we’re talking about the volume of women and minorities,” she explains. “But ,with supplier inclusion and diversity, it’s about the number of businesses that are 51% owned by a minority group. In both instances, the aim is to help underrepresented groups flourish.”

Leveraging small businesses in supply chain makes sense

What’s more, Dickson believes supply chain diversity is also about leveraging small businesses in your supply chain: “With so much disruption in the supply chain, small and diverse-owned businesses can help fill the many gaps.”

But there are far more substantive benefits of a diverse supply chain than plugging gaps, says Dickson, not least of which is innovation.

Small and diverse businesses are nimble, able to do things faster than large corporations, where there are lots of processes and procedures. As a result, they are able to innovate at pace.”

She also cites a University of Washington study showing that, for every $1mn that a diverse supplier is given, 10 jobs are created in the community. “So you're also looking at economic and social impact when it comes to such businesses.” 

Today’s supplier ecosystem is very different to that which Dickson first encountered at the start of her procurement journey, with one big change being around technology.

“Around diversity and inclusion, I'm seeing a lot of AI, augmented reality, data science, and sustainability,” says Dickson. “Small businesses have already begun to be very eco-friendly and are able to teach a lot of us large corporations where to begin.” 

Dickson is unequivocal about the benefits smaller firms have to offer, but stresses that they need help when approaching large organisations with those benefits and expertise. “Many small and diverse businesses seeking to engage Fortune 500 companies will look for help from non-profit organisations, such as National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC), National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC), Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), DisabilityIN (US), Minorities in Supplier Diversity UK (MSDUK), The Canadian Aboriginal and Minority Supplier Council (CAMSC) and WEConnect International. Bodies like these bring suppliers in, certify that they are minority-owned, and then help facilitate introductions with larger corporations. 

Countries leading way on supplier diversity ‘having the right conversations’

The NMSDC is based in the US, a country Dickson says is leading the way on diversity and inclusion in the supply chain. Canada and the UK are also strong performers, while South Africa and Australia get a mention in dispatches.

“The South African government has decreed that corporations must work with Black-owned businesses, and it’s the same in Australia with Indigenous-owned businesses,” she says. “There are many countries that are beginning to see the benefits of leveraging underrepresented communities.”

Dickson believes that the reason these countries are making progress on diverse supplies chains is because “they are bringing the issue to the forefront”. She adds: “They're going in and finding small businesses within underrepresented communities. Then they’re finding talent there and are providing training.

“It’s in any country’s interests to do the same. With all the disruption we’re seeing to workforces at the moment, around staff retention and attraction, it makes good business sense for larger businesses to go into underrepresented communities, for example, to provide training around technical skills.” 

Dickson feels Accenture itself has realised that greater flexibility and inclusivity are needed around recruitment.

“A key change we’ve made is to leverage our apprentice programme so that we no longer require entrants to have a four-year university degree. This way, we can train more people and give them the technical skills that are needed to plug the workplace gaps we're seeing.”

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