By: Neil Markee
Editor in Chief-Purchasing Link
The phone across the dark hotel room demanded an answer and the digital bedside clock insisted it was 3:00 a.m. and so it was time to get up, check out, catch the 4:00 a.m. airport shuttle, and start the long flight home from Reno, Nevada. The 2017 NAEP Annual Meeting had ended the previous afternoon. I had arrived Sunday evening prior and by Wednesday night I appreciated the padded seats and carpeted floors of the large casino hotel. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I didn’t risk/contribute a quarter and my arm wasn’t tired, but my feet and butt were and my mind was digesting what I had heard.
Attendance was impressive at this largest annual gathering of campus purchasing officers held anywhere. There were about one hundred first-time attendees and most of them must have come from a distance, as there are relatively few educational institutions within easy driving range of Reno. The new attendees I spoke with were impressed with the professional development opportunities available and, I suspect, those who can swing it will be back next year at our meeting in Orlando, Florida. The dozens of workshops offered were well attended and the 100-plus supplier exhibit was always abuzz with the buyer/seller information exchange that is an integral part of the Association’s Annual Meeting experience. I stayed up late one evening catching up with old friend Brian Yeoman, NAEP’s well informed environmentalist.
Typically, the day started early with a stand-up and talk with your peers continental breakfast/information exchange at 7:30 a.m., followed by a choice of concurrent workshops, then a networking opportunity, and then another workshop, and another break, then another can’t-miss workshop etc. (breath). The biggest challenge was how to use your time. This year, the workshop series included 60-minute Impact Sessions, covering three subjects allotted 20 minutes each. I don’t know if these were aimed at those of us with limited attention spans or members who could not decide which workshop to attend, but I enjoyed the fast pace. There was something for everyone all day long and every presenter encouraged, or maybe demanded, questions from the floor. Mix in outstanding motivational speakers in general sessions, and you are guaranteed enough gray matter nutrition to keep your mental digestive system working productively for some time.
Some topics never get old, and in the world of professional procurement, ethics is front and center. I took in the Monday morning workshop titled, Ethics in Public Procurement. EPA, NAEB and now NAEP have played a key part of this ongoing discussion for decades. I ’m reminded of the legendary and hopefully fictitious legislator who is reported to have noted that while he could not define pornography, he knew it when he saw it. An odious comparison, perhaps, but just as with other moral standards, defining precisely what is or isn’t ethical in every circumstance is likely to degenerate into a discussion of what is legal and what is not. Just about every jurisdiction and business organization has felt the need to provide a comprehensive definition in legal terms and has produced an inadequate document. Ethical behavior, like fairness occurs where the rubber meets the road and generally goes without whiteness and unrecorded. There was one workshop specifically devoted to ethics, but ethical issues were part of the discussion during most of the workshops I attended.
Incidentally, I’m not sure why the workshop title included the word “public,” as I think purchasing ethics are universal within our world. As I see it, the thought that we needn’t be as concerned with ethics in private settings is misguided. Higher education’s private foundations have been the target of adverse press criticism recently. They are accused of sometimes being used as an anti-transparent mechanism to avoid public disclosure and review. To the extent that is true, I think we have earned the censure. Ethics are basic to human relations and all about responsibility, accountability, and our treatment of each other.
On Monday afternoon I took in one of the three-part Impact sessions. This one promised to cover your “procure-to-pay number,’’ and I wondered what that was. The other two topics were Public Universities and Purchasing Cooperatives and Maverick Spending.” It turned out the first topic was about the importance of average order-size, and I think most of us were surprised to learn how much could be saved by both buyer and seller via order consolidation. The speakers persuasively argued that five-digit numbers were possible at a major institution. I don’t know what the process cost might be on your campus, but given the potential net savings involved, clearly it’s worth a look.
Way back in January 1964, when I joined E&I Cooperative Services, I was instantly sold on the concept of the multi-institution, cooperative purchasing earlier envisioned by a small group of neighboring New York State EPA member institutions led by Cornell’s George Frank and put into practice by William S. Price, his first hire. Their startup went national and became E&I Cooperative Services. All cooperatives seek to reduce procurement costs by cutting process costs and increasing purchasing clout in the marketplace. Currently, there are several such organizations serving higher education and health care. But E&I was the first, and for years the only, dedicated to purchasing for higher education. As such, they have long been NAEP’s partner. The Co-op remains unique, as it is entirely owned by their higher-education members and reports to them via an elected board of directors. At the Reno meeting, the E& I Co-op was represented by its CEO, Tom Fitzgerald, and much of the senior staff. Oklahoma’s chief procurement officer, Burr Millsap, C.P.A., delivered an upbeat financial report covering the Co-op’s past year. The basic benefits continue, but computerization has streamlined the process and reduced the cost of dealing with purchasing cooperatives. Many institutions belong to several co-ops. If you are not taking advantage of cooperative purchasing, you may be missing the boat.
Several years ago, I wrote about maverick spending for Purchasing Pulse, an online publication sponsored by HigherMarkets, which later became part of SciQuest. In the article, I reflected on what I had heard from purchasing professionals who saw maverick spending as a symptom of a dysfunctional purchasing system. As the gatekeeper role of central purchasing on campus had receded, they saw maverick spending as a possible reaction where end-users had decided they could better serve their own needs by handling the purchasing function themselves. The challenge was to disprove that notion. Currently, streamlined, responsive, computerized procurement systems that allow end-users to participate in procurement decisions have largely made the point—and that’s what the workshop was about. Public or private, if you have a maverick-spending problem and haven’t taken a fresh look at why, maybe that’s overdue.
The Association’s Editorial Board met at the meeting. It is primarily responsible for the Educational Procurement Journal, NAEP’s classy quarterly publication. A few technical improvements are in the works and you’ll see those in the coming months. But the need continues for more editorial copy from NAEP Member contributors. Unfortunately, too few people are willing to take pen in hand and share their thoughts with their peers. Yet, they avidly read what some of those same peers have written. Some are convinced they just can’t write well enough for publication. Others seem sure that nobody is much interested in whatever they might have to say about happenings in their world. There may even be a few who would argue they are just too busy to write. Incidentally, I read in the Harvard Business Review recently that being “crazy busy” has gotten to be something close to the ultimate status symbol.
You write every day and could not survive as a purchasing professional if you were not well able to express yourself clearly. In any case, Burr Millsap stands ready to be the editor we all need and you can sent him your draft copy via an email attached to a message at bmillsap@ OU.com. What you and other NAEP members are most likely to read first, other than a note from your boss, auditor or the IRS, is probably an article about what’s happening in procurement and elsewhere on another campus. The essence of NAEP membership is learning by networking with peers, and that is the purpose of the Journal. Nobody is a better expert about what happened in your world last week than you. The challenges confronting business leaders on your campus are, no doubt, widely shared within higher education. Probably the best way to stretch your time budget is to work more effectively by learning from others. In addition, I have found that doing a little research and jotting down my thoughts about the issues before me is one of the most effective ways for me to develop a better understanding of what the issues are all about.
I haven’t mentioned professional obligation yet but it’s there, too. Having benefitted from what others have learned—maybe the hard way—and shared, we incur an obligation to add what we have learned to the knowledge pool. Please join the Journal’s information exchange. Just about anything being discussed on your campus or covered by the national media, involving higher education business, should be of interest to fellow purchasing officers and other campus business leaders at every level. And while you are at it, don’t forget that along with the Journal, I’m looking for copy and ideas to share online here in Purchasing Link.
Doreen Murner, her NAEP staff, and their many volunteers put together a memorable Annual Meeting. If you were not in Reno, you missed one of the most valuable professional development opportunities of the year. The cost-benefit ratio was outstanding. We are sure to have another great meeting at Disney’s Contemporary Hotel in Orlando, Florida next April. Start planning now and don’t miss it!
As ever, what’s happening on your campus?