Bid Ops Interviews Brent Maas for #TheFutureofProcurement #NIGP (Part 1)

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Edmund Zagorin: First, just a quick introduction, Brent Maas has really been the director of partnerships for NIGP for well over 13 years and has been involved with the organization, far and beyond that developing best practices, and building out the community for public procurement officers across North America and then also helping develop and support the development of local, state and regional chapters of the organization across North America. Brent, is there anything that you'd like to add to that introduction just in terms of what you've been up to for the past 20 years in the world of public procurement?

Brent Maas: You covered a substantial chunk of it.  I’m not sure I can add all that much, being involved in processes and working with procurement folks in understanding their challenges and try to apply thought and experience how to help overcome those challenges whether it through practice or tools.

Edmund Zagorin: Absolutely!  I think that intentionality and thought is huge, especially for a community of practitioners.  My first question in that spirit, what is the single biggest change as affecting public procurement over the next 10 years across the board?

Brent Maas: I think as much as anything, a capacity to recognize the value of the technologies that are being developed to support procurement and a capacity to adopt those technologies- the challenge there being many in terms of overcoming internal barriers, be they budget or staff because they either do not understand the value or otherwise are so focused on what would otherwise be process and transaction that they do not realize that the outcomes that reflect the actual effectiveness of what procurement can provide- it just misses them.  That is probably the biggest challenge or change coming in the next decade or two.

Edmund Zagorin: Absolutely.  I think that change management is definitely a theme that we see a lot whether it be getting younger folks involved in the profession or to your point,  adopting some of this technology and actually putting it to work in the procurement shop. Aligned with that, my next question is - how do you think leadership in some of these organizations is going to evolve and change to focus priorities around some of these big changes? How do you see leaders today setting the agenda around that?

Brent Maas: I think, first, to try to break down what we are talking about by leaders.  I think it is not necessarily just that individuals who carry Chief Procurement Officer or a similar title, although hopefully you would find what I would otherwise call “true leaders” in those roles.  Having said that, the challenge of leadership is that real leaders looking forward are not necessarily looking backward to compare themselves to what others are doing and then try to emulate that. Sometimes these things truly are new and innovative that they might, absolutely,  look side to side, but yet look backwards as a point of reference that can suggest things whether they be functions, activities, the quality even, that will inform what they are trying to create. All of that said, I think leaders of procurement, it's not about just how efficient and effective can we conduct the processes, but how can we influence outcomes for our organization to reflect the value that procurement brings.

Edmund Zagorin: For sure, I think that qualification of leadership is important because there are people that take leadership at different parts of the organization; someone setting the budget, for example, may set some some floors and ceilings in terms of the space that people can play in, in terms of trying out new things or being able to experiment with new technologies. One thing that we've seen in some departments is where folks have tried a technology solution once and for one reason or another maybe not had a great experience. And that can have the effect of creating a mentality where they say, “Oh, well, you know, we tried technology and now that didn't work, so we're now going where if it isn't broke we don't need to fix it.” This is the same mentality that views any technology project as part of IT, rather than seeing opportunities to leverage efficiency across tons of processes. If you see the gains that even a small change in process can make in the number of hours folks have to spend doing the type of work that nobody enjoys, the transformative benefits of these projects become obvious, whether you're at the level of the buyer/user or the C-level executive.

It's funny (this is just a very tiny digression) but I knew a couple folks who were doing local government consulting in the UK, right after Google Docs came out and they did a pretty good business that was just showing governments how to use Google Docs as a document management service, which at the time was entirely free. Google offered the service at no cost to anyone. It was just so people could play around with the idea of having their documents on the Internet and in the case of Google Docs on, on someone else's server, which at the time was a very new idea. And if you think about it, “implementing Google Docs” it’s a free service, so all these folks were doing was showing government officials how to use this free service, and making pretty decent money along the way. So you might think, “well, that's a little bit strange, since Google Docs is free” but the thing is that they were providing a very real value: change management for government administration. And at scale, for many of these governments, even using something like Google Docs for one or two projects to manage documents and collaborate on edits/revisions virtually was a total gamechanger in terms of productivity and reducing the number of meetings; it really streamlined their process.

Brent Maas: That's true, I do think there's a huge value from getting a partner that gets your organization excited about exploring new processes. It’s funny, the description of Google Docs, reminded me of early word processing, way before the dominance of Microsoft Word.  I don’t know if you’ve ever had the joy of working in that environment but that’s how it was- there were server based apps and everybody was accessing the same things from dummy terminals.  The principle re-surged thirty years later; cloud computing. We can talk about leadership and the challenges of even developing younger folks in an environment that does not give those types of things in the status quo.  It’s one of the things demographically which has already been recognized- the demographic shift that we're seeing in terms of the number of low level procurement positions that are being eliminated, yet, the incremental gain in the number of positions at the management or senior management level and what is all of that pointing to?  In my mind, it’s a reflection of the processes that can be handled by technology and a demand for the professional knowledge worker who is building their experience in the procurement environment and everything that means. The everything being not just the steps taken to go about awarding a contract or even a contract management but it’s about testing what were the outcomes associated with the process and then the actual “what did we get” and how effectively did that meet the needs that we said that we had.  And did we get any derivative benefit or on the other hand, did we pay more, in the end because there were unexpected issues along the way? Like “We needed to hire staff and pay them. We didn’t think about that.” Even more, on the front end, before processes start, based on what might come to pass. We have to ask: "Is what we’re trying to achieve substantially better than what we achieved before by virtue of doing this, and if we see the benefit then do we need to create a new position in our organization in order to be more successful?”  At least more successful than it could otherwise have been. And that is so much of what procurement is about and yet procurement has been defined, certainly, in terms of transactions. You ask:“Where are we going and how do we go about getting there?”

The other day I came across this job posting for- they did not call it a Chief Procurement Officer, but they called it a Strategic Procurement Officer. I thought that was very interesting. This was a major contract for government. They were looking for a Strategic Procurement Officer and the language they use in there, at its core, is what an ideal procurement professional looks like.  So much of it is aligned with what does a strong manager, organizational leader, look like? In terms of some of the things that they were looking for and it is outstanding strategic capability. “Yes, we need somebody with the procurement background but also someone who is analytical and is outcomes-focused. They need the capacity to be collaborative and influential. It's a total soft skill but it’s called out, it's called out specifically in this job posting. And why would that be? Because you're working across business lines- we need somebody who knows how to assess efficiency and expect to maintain to keep costs down while at the same time, maximizing efficiency and effectiveness and both the financial outcomes and the organizational outcome.  It's not so much about that you know how to put together a solicitation and can you manage a team of people who also will do that for you, no, it's not just those skills. It's really is about creating a role for folks who are extremely analytical, but also have that capacity to be very people oriented as well, at least be good with people and all the while knowing where you are going. What is it you are trying to achieve?. And it starts to blur the line between the traditional view of procurement is versus what it means to be an organizational leader.