The Real Problem With Acquisition Training

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The decades-old debate about proper training for the federal acquisition corps is threatening to erupt in a donnybrook. Lines are being drawn over whom or what to blame for the perceived lack of critical thinking, business and technical knowledge, negotiation skills and creativity among procurement professionals.

Acquisition training institutions have come under fire for failing to renovate their curricula to reflect the predominance of service contracting, the growing need to attract new vendors with innovative techniques and products, the disruptive influence of technology on acquisition and the workforce, and government adoption of commercial models such as data analytics, strategic sourcing, category management and agile procurement.

A recent ASI Government analysis shows there’s a growing gap between the perception of workforce skills held by acquisition leaders and the self-assessment of the professionals they manage. Members of the acquisition workforce have a much more positive view than their leaders.

This perception gap takes on critical importance in light of the fact that the workforce’s view of its weaknesses is used in part to set the training agenda, at least for civilian agencies. So the skills that leaders believe are vitally important and in short supply may not be seen as educational priorities.

The Professional Services Council, an industry trade association, conducts biennial surveys of acquisition leaders and young professionals assessing the procurement corps.

In PSC’s 2014 Acquisition Policy Survey, the majority of acquisition leaders rated the workforce as less than highly competent in skills such as selecting appropriate contract types, business acumen and negotiation. PSC surveyed senior acquisition executives, front-line contracting professionals, congressional staff, oversight community members, young acquisition staffers and industry representatives. The council has conducted the biennial survey for 12 years and similar results have been found throughout that time.

In contrast to the PSC survey, acquisition employees rated themselves highly on choosing contracts and business acumen and only a bit below average on negotiation in the 2014 Acquisition Workforce Competency Survey.

In response to the long-standing trends and heated debate about the acquisition workforce, Stan Soloway, PSC’s president and chief executive officer, is leading a call for “immediate, basic, sweeping and sustained change” in acquisition workforce development.

A new generation of acquisition professionals is “being acculturated and trained in much the same mode as always” leaving development gaps and “a potentially vastly different future” unaddressed, Soloway wrote in the December issue of Contract Management.

He ascribed these failings in part to training “bound to traditional models and assumptions far more relevant to a hardware-dominated, single-customer market of limited commerciality.” Equally to blame, he wrote, is that new recruits to the acquisition corps  are inducted with “some form of a Federal Acquisition Regulation ‘boot camp,’” which “tamps down critical thinking and feeds rigidity and risk aversion.”

Soloway’s article ignited an impassioned response from 40-year federal contracting veteran and acquisition expert Vern Edwards. “It is absurd to say that rules stifle critical thinking and creativity,” he wrote in the February 2015 issue of Contract Management. “Knowledge of the rules is the power to solve problems . . . people who are confident in their knowledge of the rules rarely say ‘No’ or ‘It can’t be done.’ They tend to find a way or they make one.”

And so the examination was once again taken off track by calls to overlook the genuine impact of the FAR on culture, innovation and development, distracting readers from the central question: What must we do to prepare an acquisition workforce for the future?

Fortunately, some leaders of the Federal Acquisition Institute and other procurement training organizations are alert to this new era and have begun efforts to transform their curricula accordingly.

FAI board member Jeffrey Koses has given some thought to the challenges of training and retaining millennials, for example, noting that they tend to stay in jobs for only two to three years, while fully developing an acquisition professional takes five to 10 years. Koses, who is senior procurement executive at the General Services Administration, recommends rethinking training to match the way these digital natives are accustomed to receiving and consuming information.

Melissa Starinsky, chancellor of the Veterans Affairs Department Acquisition Academy, says her organization is responding to the new generation by putting many courses online. Enabling distance learning also meets the Office of Management and Budget mandate to reduce travel expenditures, she noted in an October 2014 interview with Federal News Radio.  

Koses also wants to use more gaming and simulation in training, in part as a response to the nearly unanimous call from all quarters to increase critical thinking skills. “I prefer training that emphasizes how to think through the challenge, and how to communicate the result, rather than simply providing the technical answers,” he told Contract Management.

Koses is pushing FAI and the Defense Acquisition University to focus on “content that is better focused on how people actually buy, including more courses on task order contracting, rolling out acquisition learning seminars.”  He is challenging FAI to adopt just-in-time training by offering “knowledge nuggets,” 20-minute to 30-minute training segments through FAI.gov on such topics as industry engagement, market research, verbal presentations, and acquisition initiatives.

At the VA, Starinsky noted a 2014 spike in requests for just-in-time project acceleration workshops, which allow acquisition offices to call the Acquisition Academy to get quick diagnoses of particular challenges, along with tools to get those projects back on track.

Both Koses and Starinsky are considering ways to make university classes count toward acquisition professional certification requirements to get young people into the workforce faster. And both are convinced that the acquisition workforce must be just as strong in the soft skills and business acumen as in knowledge of the FAR.

Koses is a strong advocate of communication, facilitation and team-building, which he says are characteristic of the strongest contracting officers. The VA academy now offers interdisciplinary training for acquisition teams to learn together. Classes range from lean acquisition management to critical thinking and market intelligence—in other words, “talking to industry well before any requirement turns up,” Starinsky says.

To further those communications Starinsky is testing an education-with-industry program in partnership with the Air Force to allow acquisition professionals to spend 10 months in industry “to get a better idea of where vendors are coming from and so industry will develop a better understanding of what things look like on the government side.”

At GSA, Koses is trying to build an acquisition workforce whose knowledge is deep, rather than wide, to match the agency’s rapid movement into category management. He believes that subject matter expertise is critical, which puts him squarely in the opposite camp from those who argue that a good contracting specialist is one who is trained to buy any product or service. GSA is looking to become a clearinghouse, he says, acquiring and using knowledgeable experience.

Although those who monitor and teach the acquisition workforce don’t yet agree on a common solution for what ails it, they appear to be closing ranks on the need to build a corps of professionals using technology and methods that go well beyond current classrooms and the FAR.

This is critical if government hopes to attract millennials with their energy and unique skills, meet citizens’ expectations, and most importantly, deliver missions necessary to keep the nation strong, safe, financially secure, and in a position of global leadership.

Kymm McCabe is president and CEO of ValueStorm Growth Partners, a lifecycle growth service company that helps government contractors grow their business. Anne Laurent is director of strategic solutions at ASI Government, which provides acquisition and program management support to federal acquisition professionals.

(Image via Andrej Vodolazhskyi/Shutterstock.com)

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