The team hires venues around the world to run exams for its programmes – from GCSE to CIPS ©Mat Wright/British Council
The team hires venues around the world to run exams for its programmes – from GCSE to CIPS ©Mat Wright/British Council

Case study: British Council's local/global balance

With a presence in more than 100 countries, the British Council needed to build a procurement department that could deliver value worldwide

In the UK, the British Council is something of a “well-kept secret”, says the charity’s global procurement director Ian Conner. “It’s more known outside the UK,” he adds, with the organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities present in more than 100 countries, working with more than 75m people directly in 2017.

Conner joined the British Council in May 2016 to develop and implement a global procurement model, pretty much from scratch. Before he joined, the charity operated a “democratised” model, with little consolidation and “lots of people buying whatever they wanted – a free-for-all”. 

While there were procurement professionals scattered over the globe, they were not part of a global function and some of them also had other roles. “Procurement was more of an advisory service, rather than driving strategy,” says Conner.

Conner was originally brought in to launch category management, but it quickly became clear that what was needed was a root and branch review. He established a global procurement function spread across five regions: UK and Europe, East Asia, MENA, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Africa. Getting the regions to full staffing wasn’t easy – although the attraction of the British Council brand helped – and he is now rolling out a learning and development programme across the team.

Showing the value of procurement to sceptical stakeholders globally has been critical. One of the first hires Conner made was someone to track procurement benefits and savings, which had never been captured before. “That gives us the credibility among the execs, they are seeing us delivering value, and they want more.”

Investing in a spend analytics tool (Simfoni) has also helped make things more transparent, and will help demonstrate value. Conner says in 2017, the team saved more than three times the original savings target. In 2018, they hit their annual target with three months to spare. 

British Council has a “huge tail spend”, says Conner, with a supply base of 43,500. He points out, however, that this is partly because the British Council often works with smaller local suppliers in the regions. A move away from POs to using purchasing cards for smaller spends should help here. Conner estimates it will take away the need to process about 50% of POs, some of which cost more to process than the deal itself. 

A “big win” has been persuading local finance directors to fund the regional hubs for procurement. “It was about showing them compelling logic about how using procurement could save them money – plus using personal charm,” says Conner. In Africa, where the British Council had been using 42 travel companies, procurement moved to a regional online travel company, saving the region about £500,000 over three years, as well as allowing them to capture more data around travel and address booking behaviours that will deliver further value.

Travel is a major category. “I never thought that I’d be able to say, I’m off to a business meeting in Kathmandu, but here I can,” says Conner.

Conner’s category management strategy covers five categories so far: financial services (which also covers professional services), travel and venues, HR, IT/IS/telecoms, and property and estates. He would like to introduce advertising and marketing next. Venue hire is a significant spend, with the British Council often hiring large venues for running exams (it even runs CIPS exams overseas).

“You can go to Pakistan and see 1,000 people sitting in a room taking an exam,” says Conner. With such a global footprint, it’s about striking a balance between doing smaller, local contracts and consolidating larger ones, in areas like FM for instance.

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