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The right skill sets for contracting

Jul. 2, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Michael Fischetti is the Executive Director of the National Contract Management Association.
Michael Fischetti is the Executive Director of the National Contract Management Association. (Jenifer Morris)

Much has been written on what is generally necessary to improve today’s contracting system, including potential changes to statute, regulation, policy, process, and organization, but what are the skill sets required individually to provide for future success?

The federal government, many state and local jurisdictions, industry, and NCMA’s Contract Management Body of Knowledge (CMBOK) specify collective technical criteria (e.g., pre-award areas such as market research and requirements development, acquisition planning and source selection, and the unique complexities of value engineering, incentive fee contracts, and cost and pricing) developed by consensual agreement within the contract management community itself, but what characteristics must an individual possess to be successful in contracting, especially given the need for innovative solutions to increasingly complex requirements by today’s government?


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The CMBOK will soon undergo another update, so acquisition leaders will comment on these “competencies” as part of this revalidation. What can we all agree on as individual competencies that apply across the community? How can we reasonably ascertain that those competencies are met by those contract managers we hold responsible for our specific needs? The following is what some of the experts are saying.

Great contract managers may be considered first and foremost relationship managers. They bring together various communities of interest in order to determine not only what, but how—and often who—the requirements being provided are intended for. For all the debate and emphasis on shortening acquisition lead times, the long pole in the tent is the coming together of the requirements community to agree on what their requirements are and obtaining the funding and internal approvals to make it happen. This is not regulated or measured, but if it were, as anyone close to the process will admit, that is where the time (often months or even years) in contract cycle time is lost. Contracting staff must be skilled in facilitating these discussions between various communities and bringing them together with a business case to move forward. The ability to work within a team environment and utilize great interpersonal skills is the greatest skill any contracting manager can possess.

Great contract managers are also project managers. Contracts are the embodiment of a project involving government and industry partners. Everyone has a role to play and responsibilities to meet. Most failed contracts are, in fact, failed programs. A contract manager is generally not the official program or project manager (although that’s not always true, particularly on small efforts), but he or she is often (sadly) the only one with business expertise most agencies and even firms need today. If his or her involvement is limited to ethical or regulatory adherence or process enforcement, only warning of pitfalls, programs will flounder through trial and error. Great contract managers, as should everyone on the team, keep their eye on the ball to accomplish the mission.

Great contract managers are business managers. They must understand and incorporate all the complexities of business processes, expertise, and external factors and develop solutions that will work in their unique environments. Understanding, awareness, and at least rudimentary knowledge of the role of current external factors—from trouble in the Ukraine to advancements in robotics, marketing and business development, financial analysis and accounting, economics, politics, human capital, new technology, etc.—all enable their ability to derive a solution to a need by considering all internal and external factors that affect the market and local environment affecting delivery of that need. This goes far beyond simply understanding and applying the Federal Acquisition Regulation, knowledge of Office of Management and Budget guidance, or experience in overseeing a source selection.

Today’s contract managers must be much more. Are they sufficiently prepared to take on this challenge? Do they have the right education, on-the-job training opportunities, internal management support, and proper incentives? Unfortunately, the answer is “no” in all too many cases. Those are the challenges many companies, government agencies, schools, universities (including government-specific schools such as the Federal Acquisition Institute, the Defense Acquisition University, the VA Academy, etc.), and professional associations (such as NCMA)—those specifically dedicated to training this workforce—are grappling with. However, if you find any contract managers with those skills, hang on to them. They are worth their weight in gold.

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