Wednesday, 14 December 2011

CERN ideas for procurement

I listened with interest yesterday for the awaited announcement that the infamous Higgs boson had been detected.  Then I became increasingly frustrated as the scientists started to make statements such as 'we may be on the verge of a new discovery' - yes, they may have been on the verge of a new discovery but the scientific method is about testing and evidence, not wishful thinking, no matter how much you anticipate a successful outcome.  Now we've learnt that being on the verge of a new discovery means an announcement 'with confidence' really means within the next year.

Nevertheless I continue to be impressed with the scientific rigour being demonstrated in the search, wouldn't it be helpful if the scientists used the current media coverage to share something about how scientific rigour could help society in general and procurement in particular!

For example:

  1. In September the scientists found evidence that questioned the accepted wisdom that nothing moves faster than the speed of light.  What did they do?  They set out their argument and published among their community in the hope that others may spot a flaw in their reasoning.  Now that's risk management.  
  2. CERN is about testing theories.
  3. The team at CERN appear to be at least two separate teams both trying to solve the same problems independently, yet sharing the iterations of their findings.  The two teams are competing separately to find 'the answer' not just for their team.
  4. The team at CERN are there for the long haul - the project started in 1954 - it's a collaboration which predates the 1957 Treaty of Rome.  Some of the teams have been working for 20 years.
  5. CERN is about bringing together 10,000 scientists, from many different countries and backgrounds, to solve problems.
  6. The investment at CERN is big, billions.
  7. CERN has been the home of three Nobel prize winners.
So what could be the lessons for the procurement world?
  • Procurement has its own scientific community but what theories are emerging and being tested?
  • One of my continual gripes has been that procurement academics have been so obsessed with empirical evidence they only report what they have found through research.  Well to me that says the real scientists are procurement professionals experimenting to see what works for them;. Unfortunately though, my experience is that those same 'inventors' are sometimes quite reticent about sharing ideas.  What I would like to see would be academics floating innovative ideas in practitioner and scientific publications so that flaws in those ideas and suggestions for improvement can be spotted and then refined.  If that happened we'd start to see and progress what Peter Smith recently advocated as 'Procurement Activism'.   Now that requires some change in the status quo - we'd need procurement academics to demonstrate problem based thinking and solution generation and working with practitioners (we could learn from Brazil); we'd need a forum for the thinking (perhaps blogs and a linkage with Supply Management); we'd need procurement practitioners to pose problems and also challenge the academic thinking (role reversal!); we'd need bravery;
  • In procurement we frequently have different teams competing but not for the common good.  I would like to see more problem based teams working on how cost reduction could be delivered for example to mutual benefit.  It could be, for example, to work out the best approach to outcome specifications - there could be the suppliers team and the buyers team, then they could both come together to identify the optimum approach which would minimise the potential for legal challenge. For that to happen we'd need culture change. We'd also need to learn from the scientists that problem solving takes time.
  • Supplier appraisals and tender evaluations are frequently team sports, by which I mean one team takes certain aspects of the submissions and then come together as a team to reach a consensus.  Yet, for the most difficult, high risk and potentially contentious procurements I don't think I have ever seen evidence of two entirely different teams for evaluators doing their evaluations independently and then comparing results - would that not increase objectively and reduce risk?
  • If you want to make a big impact time is required, short-termism is counter-productive to solving the big problems.  We've had procurement consortia since 1957 and there's still some way to go before we have agreement on the optimum mix between local, regional and national procurement. But at least the people in CERN are on a journey of discovery - I sometimes ask myself why we seem so reluctant in the procurement world to say we just don't know but at least we're closer to an answer.  Can you think of the last time any procurement speaker uttered such heresy. 
  • Where is the big investment in procurement? Over recent weeks I have heard from colleagues in universities which have had an interest in procurement that they are suffering from reduced budgets, reduced post-graduate student income, and reduced public sector investment in procurement research and learning.  Of course it is only recently we learnt that CIPS had reduced its investment in university chairs.  So are we seeing procurement investment for long-term saving and delivery improvement? 
  • Where is the procurement equivalent of CERN's 10,000 scientists being brought together to solve problems, for example, recovery from the global economic crisis?
  • We've Noble prize winners for physics, economics, literature, peace, ...  Now does anyone seriously think procurement's contribution will ever be recognised, and if it was, what would it look like and would be recognise it?

Am I wrong?  Is this happening? What do you think?

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