Procurement
July 2, 2012

Are you growing mushrooms or flowers?

Are you going to the IPAC annual conference in St. John’s in August? More important, are your procurement people going?

Embracing the Tides of Change is not an obvious topic for procurement types. Procurement is so regulated, what can change? Besides, any change will be at someone else’s direction, so why bother? And there are budget cuts, so don’t even ask. Sound familiar?

Ask your procurement people how many ways they know to evaluate the price component of competitive bids as part of the contractor selection process. Many will say two, three or maybe four. At the 2010 International Public Procurement Conference (IPPC) in Seoul, two Finnish academics presented a paper in which they identified ten! Not all necessarily good or useful, but if you don’t know that they are there, how can you select the best? Learning needed.

The Canadian Institute for Procurement and Materiel Management (CIPMM, formerly the MMI) has for years presented an annual conference in Ottawa. With subject matter of obvious relevance, attendance is usually in the many hundreds. One year, the session moved to Montreal: it was a financial disaster as attendance dropped precipitously; the next year, same thing, same result. Apparently departments believed the learning benefits were not worth a train ticket to Montreal and a night or two in a hotel. Learning avoided.

A couple of years ago at the 4th Annual Workshop of the Commonwealth Public Procurement Network, procurement professionals from more than 20 countries, all in the same line of business, shared experiences and perspectives on dealing with our challenging profession. On paper it may all look the same, but in real life context and experience are so important: you can’t get that from articles, books or locked up in a cubicle. Any Canadians there? Learning opportunity lost.

I asked a former colleague whether she would attend an international conference where we both had experienced the quality of the presentations and the contacts to be made. She was going on her own time and at her own expense. She knew the benefit. Lesson learned.

Neal Peart from Rush may be the best rock drummer around. After more than 20 years with the band, having achieved the pinnacle of his métier, he took drumming lessons, and added complete new dimensions to his playing style. An acknowledged master of his craft, still learning.

I wrote this article in Tunisia, working on a contract by myself for three months. With time on my hands, I took courses on teaching, decision making, leading change, effective writing. Not one on procurement.

I thought I knew – but I learned more – about employee and organizational resistance to change; how to lead change and how to ensure its effects are long-lasting; about imbuing people with a life-long desire to learn, rather than knowing more and more about less and less; and that effective decision making likely results less from who makes the decision; and more on the process through which decisions are arrived at.

I learned that in times of crisis organizations too often turn inwards, relying on the tried and true rather than seeking inspiration from the outside; of the risks of entrusting key decisions to people due to their position in the hierarchy, rather than seeking out and harnessing the creativity of the entire organization; and that even in a team environment groupthink is high risk.

With the government looking for savings, the annual procurement spend of $20 billion is an obvious target. Major change is in the air. The government needs to do better – much better – and the solutions probably do not reside within.  

Nobel laureate Niels Bohr said, “An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” In today’s risk-averse public service, procurement people have less and less chance to make mistakes. By Bohr’s definition the government is creating fewer and fewer experts.

Couple that with the possibility that developing options and questioning management is increasingly vulnerable to “tell the boss what she/he wants to hear,” and it is a recipe for disaster.

Procurement organizations need to seek out new and different ways to work. Answers may come from procurement, or general management or human resources. Inspiration comes in many forms, and someone “out there” may well point out the path to success.

Send your people to St. John’s, or Seattle or Montreal: the journey offers significant value. Forget the mushrooms: grow flowers.

John Read provides procurement consulting services to pubic sector clients. He served for almost 15 years in the Public Works procurement arena.

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