Early Supplier Engagement

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”- 14th Dalai Llama.

Group Collection by Justin Blake (Creative Commons)

Introduction

In the procurement lifecycle many organisations engage with their suppliers to seek information on the supplier’s ability to deliver and at what cost.  This is normally achieved with the release of a request for tender or request for quote.  Such strategies may be suitable where the customer has a very clear idea of what is needed, what market conditions are like, and where procurement risks are modest. When we move to more complex and riskier procurement activities, early supplier engagement is vital. This month’s blog explores why we need to engage early with industry and how to do so.

Smart Buyer Perspectives

A ‘smart buyer’ recognises that they will not always have all the answers. Vann’s framework explores the following questions that should always be asked from a smart buyer:

  • Why buy,
  • What to buy,
  • When is it needed,
  • How much should we pay,
  • How to buy,
  • Who to buy from, and
  • What was bought?[1]

Even for the most mature organisations with substantial internal capability and capacity, these critical questions cannot be effectively answered without engaging with the market.  At what stage though should we engage with industry? The Canadian Government Smart Buyer Procurement framework lists early engagement as one of their four essential pillars or procurement and recognises that early engagement ‘should begin as early as the needs identification stage.’[2] A smart buyer recognises that early engagement can reap benefits but what are these benefits?

Benefits of Early Engagement

Early engagement offers immense opportunities to explore the art of possible, ensure expectations are realistic, motivate[3] and prepare suppliers, and ensure business cases are credible.  The following list (though not exhaustive) explores these themes:

  1. Reduce asymmetry of Information.  Customers are not omnipotent and do not have a complete understanding of what the market can or cannot provide.  Early engagement allows for industry to inform requirements, identify opportunities, and validate critical assumptions.
  2. Promote realistic expectations. Optimism bias is rife in complex projects.[4] Unless we engage early with our suppliers then our initial business cases will be devoid of realistic cost, schedule and performance estimates.
  3. Reduce Bid Preparation Effort.  Transactional approaches to procurement often involve the release of a request for tender (typically the week before Christmas) that invariable comes as a complete surprise to industry.  Early engagement allows industry to inform the customer, prepare and respond faster to the RFT, and with more credibility.
  4. Reduced negotiation effort. Where contract requirements and conditions are developed unilaterally, with no industry engagement, expect negotiations to be protracted and adversarial.  Ensuring industry can provide feedback on requirements and commercial terms will take a substantial amount of pain out of negotiations.

Pursuing early engagement with industry also sets the tone of the future relationship. In such circumstances, the customer is highlighting that they value industry input, are seeking reciprocity, and are focused on delivering value rather than seeking the lowest price.  This is far more likely to promote the collaborative behaviours we need for successful delivery.

Strategies for Early Engagement

The Canadian government offers some useful examples of early engagement, including:

  1. Requests For information (RFIs);
  2. industry days;
  3. informal discussions;
  4. online questionnaires;
  5. online collaboration tools;
  6. focus groups; and
  7. one-on-one supplier consultations.[5]

More resource intensive and interactive strategies include:

  1. Design Competitions,
  2. Exploring and trading off requirements through Cost as an Independent Variable (CAIV),
  3. Funding rapid prototypes, and
  4. Engaging in collaborative project definition studies

These latter approaches normally require engagement with industry through some form of contract prior to entry into a head contract once requirements, budgets and schedules have been set. There are no limitations on who can be engaged here and funding multiple suppliers in a competitive early development phase may be valid.  

We are not limited to just selecting one of the above strategies.  We can choose more than one to help us converge on a solution. We need to remind ourselves that the solution is not just based on requirements but also the, “terms and conditions, pricing structure, performance metrics, evaluation criteria, and contract administration matters”. [6]  For example, we may exploit design competitions, CAIV, and rapid prototypes to define requirements, then use one-on-one discussions, questionnaires and industry days to refine commercial terms. 

Challenges with Early Engagement

Early engagement can introduce probity risks, resource challenges, and competition risks.  Probity risks arise where we are dealing with multiple suppliers and there is a great risk of ‘bid contamination’.  Similarly, customers need to be wary of adopting proprietary solutions that can hinder future competition.  Resource challenges arise as funds need to be available very early in the procurement lifecycle. The UK Government makes this point clear, “with early engagement though comes the requirement for early investment.”[7] There must be a compelling argument for engaging resources early in a program.  Competition issues may arise where we need to focus our efforts on a small cadre of suppliers rather than every participant in the market.  Where we are investing in rapid prototypes, CAIV approaches, or project definition studies a decision must be made as to who will be invited to participate. This will likely involve selection on ‘non-price’ criteria which opens the selection process up to criticism. 

Conclusions

Early engagement will pay substantial dividends if managed correctly.  Suppliers are far more likely to have a thorough understanding of business practices, technologies, and market trends in their core business when compared to customers.  Early engagement allows for early adoption of innovative solutions and value creation.  Developing a suite of contracts, commercial models, specifications, and requirements in isolation to your strategic suppliers will only erode value.


[1] Vann ‘Institutional Dimensions of the Government’s “Smart Buyer” Problem: Pillars, Carriers, and Organizational Structure in Federal Acquisition Management’ (2011).

[2] Canadian Government, Public Services and Procurement Canada ‘Smart Procurement’  https://buyandsell.gc.ca/initiatives-and-programs/smart-procurement/about-smart-procurement#Engagement

[3] UK Defence Procurement Policy Research paper 03/78 (2003).

[4] Bent Flyvbjerg, Nils Bruzelius, and Werner Rothengatter “Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition” (2003).

[5] Canadian Government Opcit.

[6] Cohee, et al ‘Early Supplier Integration in the US Defense Industry’ Journal of Defense Analytics and Logistics Vol. 3 No. 1, (2019).

[7] Gansler et al ‘UMD FINAL Report LMCO An Analysis of Through-Life Support – Capability Management at the UK’s Ministry of Defense’ June 2012.

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About John Davies

John is a recognised authority in collaborative contracts, relational contracts, and novel procurement options. John has conducted extensive research into alliance contracts and governance frameworks from both the buy side and sell side. John has authored collaborative contract better practice guides, performance-based contract evaluation guides, and tender evaluation guidelines for major programs. You can find his CV at LinkedIn.