Procurement
October 18, 2013

Typewriters to tablets to tomorrow

At the May 2013 Canadian Institute for Procurement and Materiel Management (CIPMM) workshop, a presenter spoke of the different characteristics of the workplace generations. Those differences may have an impact on public procurement: will our world be able to adapt successfully?

According to the speaker, Traditionalists (born before about 1945) respect authority and are slow to change work habits; they are less technologically adept than following generations, tradition-based and comfortable with conformity. Baby Boomers (roughly 1945-1964) question authority and are highly work-centric; they are competitive, seeking advancement based on personal performance; they believe in hierarchy and value face-to-face contact. Generation X (1965-1980) is independent and self-sufficient, values freedom and responsibility, may disdain authority and structured work hours, is highly comfortable with technology, and seeks to accomplish based on its own terms. Generation Y (after 1980) is achievement-oriented, values teamwork, wants to be involved, asks many questions, craves attention and feedback, and is plugged in 24/7.

Maybe you don’t agree exactly with the specific characterizations, but anyone looking at workplaces over time will see that each generation is different from its predecessors and successors. Yesterday’s typewriter is today’s tablet – what about tomorrow?

What does that have to do with good public procurement? Enough that we should be concerned. What if the way in which public procurement is carried out these days is a fundamental clash with the characteristics of today’s and, more likely, tomorrow’s generations? Will we be asking future space and time travellers to work successfully with Neolithic tools?

Are the Traditionalists and Baby Boomers who do public procurement today the equivalent of a Flammulated Owl? It is on Canada’s list of species at risk, of Special Concern because it “may become threatened or endangered because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats,” according to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

You say, “Who, me?” Don’t laugh – think about it. Good public procurement (as practiced today) is based on the structured application of rules and processes. It seems that every day someone such as the Supreme Court, tribunals or independent review authorities issues decisions and recommendations that result in new rules and regulations or new hierarchies of reviews and approvals. There is full disclosure and reasonable certainty.

All of which sounds like Traditionalists and Boomers at work. This is not surprising, since the people making the decisions are, in fact, almost certainly from those generations and are inherently valuing decisions and rulings and structures. It is how they are most comfortable working.

What if the result is an ecosystem in which Generations X and Y are either uncomfortable or actually incapable of working to their full potential? What if, to deal with cultural and contextual conflict, these later generations start to adopt workarounds that in their eyes are perfectly reasonable and suitable, but that clash with the hierarchical application of rules? Will public procurement as we know it become extinct?

Do we need – as does the owl – a sound management plan, so that we can move away from a situation of Special Concern and ensure a sound and stable population, that is to say, an appropriate procurement approach that can be sustained through the generations?

We need wild turkeys. My local newspaper reported not long ago on the return of wild turkeys to western Quebec in sufficient numbers to not only permit the reintroduction of an annual turkey hunt, but also to allow the “export” of some birds to eastern Ontario. What was apparently on its way to local extinction has a new lease on life.

Owls and turkeys can survive, rather than becoming modern dodos. Public procurement can too, as long as we recognize that it may be in peril and take steps to prevent a slow and lingering death.

It will not be easy. Special Concern status deals with biological characteristics and threats. The biology will take care of itself: time marches on, and the Traditionalists and Boomers will move aside, leaving Generations X and Y to take up the challenge. Can they survive long enough to mold public procurement to their own characteristics and comfort zones but still continue to provide high value-added to their clients and taxpayers?

Signs of the generational shift are emerging. Some agencies, if not jurisdictions, are trying to move away from rigidly prescribed procurement (particularly bid evaluation and contractor selection criteria) to a more open approach where requirements are set, bidders bid, and the agency selects the best one based on loose statements of preference.

It makes my remaining hair curl. But then, I am a Boomer.

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