We talk a lot about how technology will make our jobs easier. How it will help us diversify our supplier pools, increase agency transparency, provide greater accountability for spend and, ultimately, save taxpayers money. We also preach about how critical technology is becoming to our nation’s achievement of true procurement, and government, reform.

Deloitte noted recently that ‘over the past decade, the people behind the relatively vague label “procurement function” have collectively put billions of dollars into software, transformation programs, and third-party services.’ Even my colleague Jean Clark, president of NIGP Code Services at Periscope Holdings, reminded us in the February/March 2017 issue of Government Procurement that technology can provide the fundamental tools that state procurement leaders need to expedite progress in each of their Top 10 “areas for improvement” this year. But technology is not the end all, be all. It is just a vehicle by which we as professionals can accelerate buying actions, improve strategic sourcing or create a centralized procurement function.

In fact, I believe it will be impossible for us to formulate and execute an effective go-forward strategy for public sector procurement without giving more weight to the “human factor.” While technology can close staffing gaps, it is not self-sufficient. Therefore, it becomes insignificant without the right procurement talent in place. In Deloitte’s words: “Exceptional [procurement] outcomes require exceptional people.”

The Keys to Finding – and Fostering – Procurement Talent

After spending recent years trying to minimize the number of manpower resources required within to manage solicitations and contracts, it may seem counterintuitive to reprioritize talent recruitment and management. After all, budgets are still tight, and eProcurement technologies are successfully supplementing “lean” procurement teams with more automated and streamlined workflows. Nevertheless, we must start to invest in our people – commit more resources to the development and protection of our most valuable assets – if we want to advance our profession and elevate our credibility with the public sector’s equivalent of the “C-suite.” So, where should we start?

Hire Better

Selecting the “right” candidates to fill critical roles in the procurement organization, or any organization, is the most fundamental action you can take to improve organizational outcomes. In the public sector, hiring processes are often regimented; however, the structure doesn’t necessarily produce the optimal results. I am not suggesting we abandon structure. Rather, I’m suggesting that we initiate the hiring process with clarity around the knowledge, skills and capabilities that an ideal candidate possesses. And, that we leverage the selection tools that we have (e.g., interviews) to evaluate candidates robustly. I find that hiring managers often focus very deeply on knowledge and perceived skills but fail to evaluate important dimensions such as managerial bandwidth, motivation and agility. While these dimensions are more difficult to assess, they are also critical to job performance in many organizations. In summary, I’m advocating for a more sophisticated and balanced approach to hiring.

Offer More Individual Advancement Opportunities…In House

While we expect a certain level of professionalism from today’s public sector buyers, the tables are turning. Buyers are now demanding a higher level of professionalization from the procurement function as a whole. This isn’t just another job to most. Many come into government contracting because they’ve been sold on the opportunity of a long, lucrative career. They are promised the opportunity to do something meaningful, the opportunity to transition into more strategic roles and the opportunity for constant personal and professional growth. They are also expecting to access to a highly-functioning eProcurement system that’s based on industry-defined standards to drive their actions. Therefore, the minute our most talented employees feel stuck, or frustrated by the lack of technology efficiency, they become more apt to move on. In fact, career advancement is the number one reason that procurement pros leave their current organization, according NIGP’s 2016 Public Procurement Compensation & Retention Benchmark Study. While open positions are admittedly more limited as one climbs the ladder, find a way to promote deserving talent into more suitable positions as frequently as possible. As long as they are on an upward trajectory, they will likely stick around for a while.

Consider Whether It Will Pay Off to Motivate with Money

Money doesn’t always equate to happiness, but that doesn’t mean that procurement professionals will accept less than they feel they are worth. Job satisfaction will only go so far. Workers made it clear in the NIGP study that they want to be compensated for their time, skills and even loyalty. If their salary is not commensurate with experience, or they are being asked to fulfill a role for which they are not properly rewarded, they will eventually be motivated to seek more money elsewhere – especially if they can get paid more for doing the same job. While occasional bonuses may be enough to buffer lower salary thresholds in the public sector, not all incentives necessarily need to be cash-based. Employer-provided benefits can satisfy employee demands, proving very beneficial to recruitment and retention.

Mentor, Don’t Micromanage

We all know that low employee morale leads to high turnover of talent. We also know that an organization’s culture is defined at the top. That is why it is concerning to hear that more and more procurement professionals are either frustrated with their supervisor, or dissatisfied with leadership – and therefore unhappy with their organization as a whole. While blame for job dissatisfaction may be inappropriately directed at supervisors (who may be delegating more work than usual based on customer demands), perception is reality. We must find a way to foster a culture of trust, respect and collaboration among procurement professionals, regardless of title or tenure. Let’s also provide more mentorship programs for our procurement leaders so that they can become equipped with the tools and know-how to mentor up-and-coming talent. We are all going to retire at some point, right? Why not leave a legacy we’re proud of, versus leaving our replacement with a team that’s likely job hunting on the clock versus doing their job.
Encourage Ongoing Education and Professional Certification

Professional certifications often lead to stronger career commitment. People don’t really want to waste the time and money they’ve invested in themselves by reinventing their professional personas every few years. If we want to discourage career hopping, and make it easy to pursue and receive procurement certifications, we must facilitate frequent education events. Whether you host certification study sessions or conduct in-house training workshops, the resources you invest in professional development will pay off. Don’t be afraid to recruit from outside the procurement field either. There are many degrees and skill sets that transfer well into procurement. With a little bit of training, and the increased utilization of eProcurement technologies to lower the degree of difficulty associated with complex buying actions, it can be easy to on-board fresh talent.

Greg Higgins is a Senior Project Manager at Periscope Holding, Inc. With over 25 years of experience in operational, financial, and technology consulting in in public sector, he leads and manages eProcurement system implementation projects at state and local government clients.

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