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Articles: e-Procurement

Who's buying what?

When it became clear that the scientific equipment in hundreds of labs across the University of Pittsburgh campus was not being maintained effectively, professionals in the university procurement department began looking for a new provider to do the job.

The university had long relied on a purchasing cooperative to secure favorable contracts with vendors for bulk products such as office supplies. When administrators discovered that the cooperative had established an agreement with Specialty Underwriters (SU), a provider of equipment maintenance, their search was over.

Picture the amount of paper associated with almost 42,000 travel reports and 300,000 procurement card transactions. That’s how many expense-related documents the University of Colorado’s four campuses generate in a single year. Besides the sheer challenge of filing and storing so many receipts, a few years ago there also were major hurdles for reconciling and auditing.

Increasingly, colleges and universities, like their corporate counterparts, are being asked to do more with less. Vendors can play a key role in offering expertise, reducing workload, and saving money.

As money and time grow tighter for procurement departments, interest in purchasing groups and their contracts has grown, says Duff Erholtz, manager of membership services, the National Joint Powers Alliance (NJPA), a municipal contracting agency. In fact, many institutions belong to several such groups—for example, says Bill Wheelock, Youngstown State University (Ohio) has membership in seven, including E&I Cooperative Purchasing, NJPA, U.S. Communities, and the Inter University Council Purchasing Group.

If the phrase “everything is negotiable” makes you uneasy, you’re not alone. Even though negotiation is increasingly essential for campus procurement departments, the task is often approached with trepidation. This isn’t surprising, given the past experience of many procurement professionals, says Steve Mack, director of procurement services for the University of Missouri System.

Encountering resistance to e-procurement platforms isn’t unusual, says Max Leisten, market director for higher education at SciQuest. He offers the following advice to thwart compliance issues:

As the benefits of e-procurement become more widely known, institutions are moving to incorporate these systems into their operations. And why not? As Sabrina Stover, CEO of BidSync, a provider of e-procurement systems, says, e-procurement saves time, keeps departments on budget, increases efficiencies, makes the procurement process more transparent, and encourages a more competitive bidding environment, among other advantages (including being greener).

Bill Cooper of Stanford University and Jack D. Zencheck of Yeshiva University (N.Y.), who serve on E&I Cooperative Purchasing's strategic sourcing committee, offer these examples of how their more strategic ideas and actions are paying off for their institutions:

1. Utilize group buying power.

Consider how contracts already negotiated by states, municipalities, and higher education consortia can save your institution money, says Stanley Behnken, purchasing manager at Carroll Community College (Md.). "These are things that can help you as a small school to bid with the big boys." Collaborating with other organizations also means you won't have to reinvent the contract wording wheel.


Bill Cooper didn't mince words when Stanford University officials contacted him about coming on board as their director of purchasing. "I said, 'No, I'm not interested in a fragmented function and I'm not interested in an institution that has just a director of purchasing,'" recalls Cooper, who now has an office at ... Stanford.

The South Carolina Higher Education Efficiency and Administrative Policies Act, signed into law on August 3 by Gov. Nikki Haley, is a big step for transparency in South Carolina's public institutions. The twofold law requires them to post all purchasing transactions online and eliminates portions of the timely and costly process for having new facilities or major purchases approved.

If your institution is not among those that have realized the considerable benefits an e-procurement solution offers, we have one question: Why not?

E-procurement saves time, money, labor, and paper, while increasing the service delivered to constituents.