By: Neil Markee
Editor in Chief-Purchasing Link
If you were not among your peers at the 2016 NAEP Annual Meeting held in San Antonio Texas recently. you missed a heavy duty professional development opportunity. The theme was Mapping Procurement’s Future- Change-Improve -Execute and the multitude of workshops offered provided many opportunities to consider what you might do to upgrade the delivery of procurement related services on your campus. Maybe the most pressing challenge was deciding which “must go workshop” to focus on at each time slot. Added to that, much of the long lasting benefit comes from the personal relationships you establish or nurture during the informal parts of the meeting that encourage face to face contact with fellow campus purchasing professionals. Relationships matter! Developing personal contacts around the country, across the border or over the oceans is one sure way to encourage thinking outside the box and avoiding having your problem solving skills cooped up or fermenting in a silo on your campus.
This was one of the best attended NAEP Annual Meetings in recent years. The general sessions and workshops were very well attended and I doubt many missed the many networking opportunities offered each morning and afternoon. Something I’ve never seen as a conversation starter in the continental breakfast area was the life size “dot surveys” for each member to answer. You would find yourself on each axis of the survey, grab a large sticky dot and place it on your demographic. Each morning offered a different benchmark.
After breakfast, each day’s program was kicked off by a thought provoking general session before the concurrent sessions began. The first morning the concurrent sessions offered a choice of six topics before lunch and six more after lunch followed by six after a refreshment break and then another six leading up to the opening of the exhibit area 5:00 to 7:30 pm. Right, that adds up to a choice of 24 workshops the first morning. Whew!
Procurement Officers and CBOs as partners
As this year’s meeting focus was procurement’s future and change I went to the workshop titled CBO Roundtable featuring Chief Business Officers from St. Edwards University, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio and Texas A&M University San Antonio. The moderator opened by asking, what were the most important issues facing CBOs at this time. Two issues surfaced. Diversity in all its aspects was the first suggested and next was installing and managing a process and structure that facilitates performance campus wide and enhances the institution’s ability to recognize the need for and to accommodate change. Under “structure”, the moderator steered the discussion to the CBO Procurement relationship.
The panel acknowledged that procurement often feels unconnected to the strategic decision making process and noted that procurement is generally not a participant in the strategic planning sessions involving CBOs. They agreed that procurement provides them with value add innovation and processes and that communication has to be better. I think it is fair to say that the CBO panel agreed that procurement could probably function more effectively if they were aware earlier of plans being formulated.
For example one of the roles of procurement is risk management. No, not the sort involved with slips and falls on campus but the risks the institution accepts in the acquisition process. Agreements can impose potentially costly obligations on the buyer. Some of these can prove very expensive during the life of the contract, product or service acquired. Hazardous materials might be a good example. The cost of compliance might be avoided or reduced if the potential issues and various alternatives were understood by all involved earlier. A participant noted that getting information to the CBO frequently involved passing it through others along the “chain of command” and each step slows the process. Generally the CBOs recognized that this was basically a communications problem that was adversely affecting the efficiency of the process. I think the CBOs agreed that structure should not impede communications. And they agreed that the bureaucratic structure and layered reporting process common on campus was necessary to ensure that all those likely to be involved in carrying out the plan were kept aware of the actions of others. Why procurement and other departments frequently did not have timely access to information they needed seemed to be seen as an ongoing structural problem common to many organizations. We really didn’t come up with a solution to the communications problem but at least the issue was being discussed. The biggest “ah ha” moment was the consensus from the CBOs that they wanted and would encourage their procurement leaders to be innovative and take the risk to bring that innovation to them. They notably agreed that creating that relationship and taking the risk may bring many benefits in the long run.
Another Communications Link
As I listened to the discussion I was reminded of an effective approach used by a frustrated purchasing professional I knew some time ago. He was new on campus and realized major change was in the air. But soon became convinced procurement was being blindsided too often by plans that apparently had been under consideration at higher levels for some time and was looking for a way to provide useful input earlier in the process. Too often he first learned of a major projector or change when requisitions began to arrive and it was too late to make adjustments that would have reduced costs and provided better solutions. Given purchasing’s existing “gate keeper” image on his campus, he understood there was little change of being invited to strategic institutional planning sessions any time soon. Looking for another effective approach, he began to attend or send representatives to departmental planning meetings when he could wangle an invitation. As purchasing earned a reputation among departmental administrators for being useful participants by providing thoughtful input and written summaries of what was discussed that could be circulated, they were invited to more such meetings. His overall goal was to make procurement’s involvement as close to indispensible as possible at the departmental level. His maybe” backdoor approach” succeeded. I don’t know if he ever got a seat “at the table” but he did succeed in influencing decision making by having, and upgraded his department’s image on that campus while improving service delivery.
During Q/A time someone asked how CBOs evaluate purchasing performance day to day. CBOs are ultimately responsible for service quality and they acknowledged that taking any action or changing anything almost always involves purchasing as it is very difficult to do anything without buying something. One CBO noted that the number of valid complaints about purchasing service played a role. To my surprise, there was no mention of tracking the performance data a sophisticated computerized system might provide. A participant noted that purchasing should not allow itself to be seen as primarily a control function, an” agent of no”, a road block, an impediment to be overcome. The moderator asked how many purchasing departments represented at the work shop had their own departmental strategic plan. Maybe 1/3 of those present raised their hands. Next he asked, how many of the three CBOs on hand would welcome a strategic plan from purchasing. All nodded yes.
It’s fair to say that at least these CBOs understood that achieving service quality goals and realizing maximum benefit from the involvement of procurement professionals can depend on the quality and timeliness of the strategic planning information they receive from those who sit at the strategic planning table.
On many campuses a variety of assistants, directors, managers etc. report directly or indirectly to the CBO and they are dependent on those who are responsible for strategic planning for the information they must have to function most effectively. The size of the reporting group and the diversity of responsibilities probably rules out their routine direct involvement in strategic planning. But their collective expertise and their combined contribution to the realization of strategic goals requires that the efficiency of the communications link between them and their CBO be a major goal on campus. Is it on your Campus? Are their improvements purchasing might initiate to improve the transfer of information? Perhaps the information you need is available through better communications with the departments you serve.
See you in Reno in 2017? Start planning now perhaps by providing your boss with the impressive list of the workshop topics NAEP offered in San Antonio. And don’t forget the regional meetings this fall they are your next opportunity to meet with your peers.
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