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Negotiation – an incompetent competency

June 30, 2016

Censeo Consulting Group and the Public Spend Forum recently announced their findings on ‘the required skills of the public procurement workforce’. They discovered under-performance ‘in nearly 70% of identified competency areas’.

I am always a little skeptical about research reports from consultants. While they raise some great discussion points, there is this nagging feeling that the findings may be somewhat self-serving – essentially “Wow, we just discovered this massive problem – and it just so happens we have the services to overcome it”. And in this instance, the published data is actually close to the opposite of IACCM’s rather more extensive findings. Of course, that is not to say it is wrong, at least in the context of the 43 people interviewed, nor do I know what the objectives of the report’s authors may be. So let’s look at the broader questions that these findings raise.

Do skills and competencies matter? On this point, I think we would all be agreed that they do. And given the nature of today’s public services and their dependency on private sector suppliers, I presume there would be broad agreement that areas like negotiation, contracting and relationship management would be high on the list (though we might debate which of these is a skill versus a competency). It should be reassuring, then, that the Censeo research finds that the public sector workforce demonstrates competency in contracting and negotiation. However, anyone who has true competency in these fields may be rather shocked to learn that ‘proficiency decreased significantly for more complex skills, such as stakeholder engagement, risk analysis and problem-solving’.

I have never met a truly competent negotiator or contract manager who did not excel at stakeholder engagement, risk analysis and problem solving. These are fundamental attributes without which subsequent contract performance is almost doomed to fail. IACCM’s research into public sector skills actually shows advanced capability in problem solving and comparable competency to the private sector in risk analysis and stakeholder engagement. Where the public sector falls down is in negotiation (because they generally take the view that their contracts are non-negotiable) and contracting (because they tend to operate from templates which often reflect inappropriate forms of relationship and terms and conditions). And as we all know from the highly-publicized contract failures, contract management is an important area for public sector improvement (as a competency, rather than just a job role).

Today’s challenging business conditions certainly demand renewed focus on required skills and competencies, but pre-requisite is a coherent assessment of which skills and competencies are actually important to the future and then an objective appraisal of current gaps. Given the speed with which change is occurring, there are significant shortfalls in both public and private sector. Some of these will be addressed through training. Others may be filled by new organizational structures (redefining job roles, moving to more team-based structures) and some through automation. It is a demanding, yet exciting, time – and progress will be assisted if we focus on tangible and objective data and creative solutions to performance shortfalls.

One Comment
  1. One possible explanation to the divergent results Tim, is a different definition of what “negotiation” is.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if one definition of negotiation is just”agreeing on price between buyer & seller” this is a common perception), whereas I think your definition is closer to “moving to a point where agreement can be made” on whatever things are of interest to the parties. This latter definition requires wider skills as you point out. The former definition often boils down to simple haggling (still the preferred approach of trainees we see at the start of a negation training workshop).

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