A key challenge to improving acquisition is defining what good contracting really is—and the proper skill sets necessary for those working within it. There are many different views on this topic that show up in various legislation, course curricula, job descriptions, and a variety of professional certifications across public- and private-sector agencies, firms, and associations. These include large government contractors; Defense Acquisition University; Federal Acquisition Institute; colleges and universities with supply chain, contract management, and business programs; corporate training criteria; and all manner of nonprofit standards and certifications. Unlike many other professions, there is no universally agreed upon “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” that gives those working in or contemplating entry into contracting a universally adopted set of competencies for today’s acquisition manager. Instead, “good contracting” and its skill sets are defined (if at all) piecemeal, employer by employer, segmented by type and size of organization.
However, there are models in use today that could be a starting point. For example, the Volcker Alliance recently published a list of fundamental skills and experience required for those responsible for public procurement, based on interviews with procurement officials and academic experts, leveraging their expertise to develop a competency model and evaluate the current public procurement workforce against those competencies.
Very close to this model, with perhaps more depth and historical iterations, is the Contract Management Body of Knowledge (CMBOK), maintained by the National Contract Management Association. The initial compilation began with a job analysis of functions performed in public- and private-sector contracting. Now in its fourth edition, the CMBOK is a comprehensive standard that includes definitions from within the field, practices and processes, and the procedural steps applicable to contract management generally and to the commercial and government sectors in particular.
Other organizations related to the field offer certifications based on smaller standards or high-level competency models. How difficult would it be to align these models more closely, recognizing their similarities? Are the basic principles of contract/procurement/supply chain/acquisition so unique to each sector, devoid of any overlap or redundancy? Or is it simply the case that depending on where the function is performed, some competencies require a greater or lesser degree of knowledge, experience, complexity, emphasis, or prominence?
As is often the case, most organizations consider themselves unique, different, one of a kind, etc. However, aren’t the skill sets required for effective acquisition uniform, regardless of sector or employer? Leveraging the overwhelming numbers working in this field (known as strategic sourcing when involving purchasing power) could create a large, influential “market” of existing and potential professionals. This would drive competency-based education and training at the university level and offer lucrative, flexible career opportunities to entice people into the field earlier and convince them to stay longer.
At the federal level, this might limit the routine attempts to legislate competencies and skill sets only pertinent to the U.S. government, (leaving large and small organizations throughout the nation to figure it out for themselves, depending on a smorgasbord of competency models to choose or ignore).
An agreed to standard can emanate from existing competency models and professional communities, with the leadership of existing professionals in the field and existing professional organizations. It’s likely that some could view such collaboration as a threat, affecting existing business models and profit centers. However, aligning the profession together will bring far greater improvement and efficiencies to private and public sector costs of doing business, so the sooner the process begins, the sooner the fruits of this labor will be realized.
Michael P. Fischetti
National Contract Management Association