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10 Ways to Be More Strategic About Procurement

University Business, Sept 2011

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.

2. Network nationally.

Whether it's through NACUBO or the National Association of Educational Procurement, NAEP CEO Doreen Murner advises relying on national associations to gain access to chief procurement officers and participate in knowledge exchanges.

3. Help purchasing staffers evolve into new roles.

Technology has certainly changed the abilities and role of the procurement office. "The key is to automate as much as possible so [purchasing staff] can get out on campus to provide value through broader-based cost-saving programs," says Ted Johnson, director and chief procurement officer at the University of California, San Diego. Not every purchasing officer will be able to make the transition from transactional to strategic and be able to market the value of the department, which is a huge shift. "You really have to look and say, do you have the skill sets that line up with where you're trying to go," says Bill Cooper, associate vice president and CPO of Stanford University. A gap analysis of the present workforce may reveal that, with some targeted training, the team may be fine. "In some cases, the gap is too great," he adds.

4. Educate maverick buyers.

You're always going to get people on campus with the philosophy, "It's my money. I can do whatever I want with it," says Jack D. Zencheck, CPO and department administrator at Yeshiva University (N.Y.). Recently, a scientist proudly approached him about the great deal he had negotiated for a piece of equipment. Zencheck concurred, but noted that the institution was in the process of buying three more of that same equipment and purchasing altogether from the same company would save more. Luckily, there was still time to add a fourth piece to the order. Cooper says, "Everybody wants to be a buyer and thinks they can be a buyer. I want them to be buyers, but procurement offices should be contracting offices. We've got to educate our campuses about what our role should be. We don't tell them what to get, but we should be the ones determining where they get it from. We've got to sell that message very clearly."

5. Publicly reveal the mavericks.

When Cooper was at the University of Missouri, a monthly report showing which departments were and were not using the system's contracts was quite effective in helping to boost their use. "There's not a dean in the world" who would enjoy being called out in a meeting of his peers, he says. "It's kind of hard to argue about the budget when there's a report that says you're not utilizing the budget you have very well." In many cases, he adds, "It's because they don't have the tools."

6. Influence rather than police.

Purchasing mandates don't work well in academic environments, but that doesn't mean you can't still influence purchases by guiding colleagues on why it's in their best interest to utilize a particular institutional contract, says Cooper. "Get out of the police role," he advises.

7. Be visible on campus.

Maggie Camstra, purchasing and auxiliary services manager at Central Ohio Technical College and The Ohio State University at Newark, believes it's key for procurement leaders to get involved in efforts other than purchasing. "Go out there and see what they're doing in academics. Ultimately, these things affect your enrollment and everything else. … You can't just stay in your corner and not come out."

8. Choose your communication medium wisely.

When it comes to educating people about procurement policy, sending out a mass email is not necessarily a good idea, Cooper says. "Technology is great for some things, but for other things it fails miserably. … Sending out mass edicts in a decentralized university will do you nothing." Rather, he suggests using email to confirm a message that has been communicated via a smaller, more personalized venue.

9. Reach out during procurement month and beyond.

Each March, for "Procurement Month," which is recognized by many institutions, Sandy Hicks, assistant vice president and CPO of the University of Colorado, and her team will organize open houses on each campus. The purchasing agents each have a table and people can meet the staff and discuss their individual procurement issues. At first, staff members were hesitant about getting out on campus for events such as the open houses. "Now they can't wait. They're excited about it," Hicks says.

10. Be an asset.

"My staff works really hard on doing everything they can to assist people getting where they need to go," says Hicks. That may mean, for example, helping the athletics department solve a transportation problem with very little notice so a team can get to a playoff game. Camstra explains that her team has "gone from playing catch-up to more of a customer service mode. We're going to come to you [to help] instead of dogging you for the latest paperwork."