The Met Illustrates the Power of Partnerships

The COVID-19 pandemic hit right when The Metropolitan Museum of Art was in the midst of digitally transforming its procurement business. Two procurement leaders share their experience and lessons learned through this unexpected journey.

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Partnerships enable supply and demand. People who need things connect with those who supply them. But beneath this simple truth, supply and demand partnerships are often extremely complex—and are managed by workflows categorized under procurement. Part science, part finance, part art, procurement workflows either fuel or hinder an organization’s efficiency and agility.

To better understand the importance of relationships and technologies in driving efficient and flexible procurement workflows—especially during a pandemic—I spoke with two leading procurement experts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Tiffany Sen, head of procurement and financial operations, and Nicole Seales, procurement operations manager. Excerpts from our conversation are below.

Can you talk about the change management program and the transformation you’ve been working on at The Met?

Sen: One of the reasons procurement is unique at The Met is because we do so much more than acquire and display art. We manage live events, educational seminars, conservation, and scientific research. We oversee ongoing construction projects in our special events galleries. We buy advertising. We run a full retail organization. So, the goods and services that we need to procure to keep things running on a regular basis are vast and varied. And, that makes it exciting because no two days are ever the same. We could be buying anything from wigs and mannequins to marketing services, construction, architecture design, human resources services, and healthcare—or services for logistics, shipping, and art storage.

One thing that has helped our change management efforts is that, by nature, people here are curious and ask a lot of questions. So, we made the decision to truly engage with our colleagues early on. We held a number of town hall meetings, brown bag sessions, and opportunities to meet and greet, and we embraced a multi-channel communications program, including a quarterly staff newsletter and hosted conference calls; now, we're also having virtual coffee breaks once a month. We’ve engaged with our colleagues to address their specific questions, assuage their fears, and help them understand why we're doing things the way that we are, and how that will benefit them.

Seales: Prior to Tiffany joining The Met, the word procurement was such a foreign term here. Nobody understood what it meant. And, we're talking with people who are scholars in such diverse fields, so we really had to get in there and speak the language they could understand to accomplish what we were trying to accomplish. People here loved their paper, and here we were saying, "The system is now automated.” We were taking away their need to walk through the galleries to interact with colleagues and get things signed.

So, we had to shape the conversation very differently to get them to understand the benefits. It hasn't been easy, but we've come a long way.

“Knowing your culture and constantly communicating opens up transparency and allows people to trust.”

Nicole Seales Procurement Operations Manager The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The pandemic has obviously impacted supply chains and sourcing. How have you been managing through it all?

Sen: It has definitely been tricky and tough. We closed down in the middle of March. Many of us, including me, thought the closure was going to be more temporary, but it ended up lasting until the end of July.

Technology has helped us manage everything. So many of us already had laptops and could connect from home. We used tools, including Workday, to continue to work and engage with each other without missing a beat. Our controller and CFO have said many times that we were able to do our month-end closes in record time since we've been working remotely, thanks to Workday Financial Management.

What was complicated for us was that 2020 was our 150th anniversary, and we had a huge mountain of events planned to celebrate this occasion. So, we spent the second half of March, all of April, and most of May cancelling contracts, renegotiating commitments, and trying to understand when and if we would be able to continue to hold these events or if we just needed to cancel them outright.

Coupled with that, because we were closed for so long, our revenue took a dive since much of it comes from museum admissions, memberships, and contributions. We had to make sure we could get our finances in order.

Even though the museum was closed, we had people who were still working onsite, mainly security and facilities teams who needed to take care of the building and our collection. So, we had to make sure we were getting PPE to keep them safe while they were working. We also needed to protect other people who were coming into the building for contracts, including an HVAC upgrade. Our reopening committee was working with us to make sure that when we did reopen, all our staff and visitors would be safe.

For us, managing the pandemic came down to our ability to be agile and pivot. We needed to implement temperature checks, visitor screenings, and social distancing. We had to work with teams to understand an appropriate traffic flow through the museum, and we had to purchase signage to help with that.

I think the main trajectory of our stewardship over the finances—and our working relationships with our colleagues and suppliers—hasn't changed per se. We’ve just had to focus very acutely on these particular areas, in addition to supply chain, to understand where the risk is. We’re doing a lot of monitoring, communicating, and making sure that we're shoring up risk wherever it exists—in the supplier area, in the supply chain area, and in the PPE area. In uncharted territory, we must do everything we can with the knowledge that we have to meet all of our risk management objectives simultaneously.

“Managing the pandemic came down to our ability to be agile and pivot.” 

Tiffany Sen Head of Procurement and Financial Operations The Metropolitan Museum of Art

What role does technology and machine learning play in addressing these disruptions from the pandemic and preparing for the future?

Seales: Most recently, we've been engaged with the Workday team on guided requisitioning, spend category recommendations, and optical character recognition (OCR). Three years ago, we did a tenant assessment to understand what's flowing through our system and how it was built, in order to identify the bottlenecks and cracks. Then we took the time to level things out so that we can maintain our progress and keep up with the Workday changes and upgrades. We quickly realized that we needed a simple base solution, so we cleaned up a lot of our business processes, which were very cumbersome and outdated. We reviewed custom validations, stripped them out, and cleaned them up, so we had a foundation that was ready to meet our needs and incorporate all these cool AI and ML functions from Workday.

In February 2020, we deployed a catalog of suppliers and enabled the supplier portal because our goal is to work smart, not hard. We want our users to be excited about how they are working and engage them as much as we can, so we are getting there. With optical character recognition, Where's My Stuff, the guided buying—these are all things that will continue to improve our user experience, which is high on my priority list. If they're struggling and they're not enjoying the experience as much as we are, then something is wrong.

We also put a lot of effort into reporting functionality to give users visibility into the transactions that they submit. And, we’ve customized our system in a way to make sure our users can follow processes seamlessly.

What piece of advice would you give to another procurement leader who's looking to enable change management and deploy new technology at their organization?

Sen: The first thing I would emphasize is the power of listening, because when we did the tenant assessment, we thought we had a pretty good idea of what was working, what wasn't working, and what we needed to change. And, that assessment did validate some of our work, but we also needed to hear from our colleagues about what was and wasn't working from their points of view as well. We wanted to make sure our colleagues felt that the solution we designed was truly inclusive and that it addressed some of their pain points and concerns, not just our own.

I think it’s also important to invest in those relationships and communicate with colleagues in a way that helps them understand what we’re doing and why. We don’t know everything, and we can't control everything—and the pandemic has certainly taught us a lot in that regard— so having an open and inclusive approach is key. Leaders should look to adopt a continuous learning ideology and be agile and flexible where they can to allow for a streamlined, simple, and efficient process of working.

Seales: Knowing your organizational culture is also critical to understanding who you're dealing with, what they're capable of, and what they can and cannot understand. You might be able to deploy a solution in a way that you understand, but your end users may not. So, it’s important to take the time to help them understand the journey, and get them involved.

I think one of the biggest lessons learned—and one thing that has helped us be so successful—is incorporating our users into testing user groups where they can give feedback. We initially thought we knew where some of the cracks were, but when we started talking to our end user population, we gained an in-depth understanding of things we weren't aware of and things we needed to look into.

And, then just knowing your culture and constantly communicating with them about what you're doing—that opens up transparency, and it allows people to trust you. So, when you say, "This is best for the museum, and best for all of us," they will take you at your word.

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