As we've written here, the contracting and procurement market is at an interesting crossroads. The current workforce is aging and retiring making it difficult to find and train incoming talent. Additionally, new technologies such as AI and blockchain are being introduced and changing daily workflow. Now more than ever, the contracting community needs ways to keep the workforce trained on tried and true processes of this profession as well as get up to speed on emerging technologies and tactics. Luckily, an organization exists to do just this.
The National Contract Management Association (NCMA) celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2019 but with the industry pressures detailed above they have no plans of slowing down. The group brought in a new CEO in 2018 to lead their growth and support for members. Kraig Conrad comes to NCMA with 20 years of association leadership and experience helping organizations evolve to meet changing member and market needs. Kraig took some time to share how NCMA is ramping up efforts to support contract professionals through their events and training.
What have you learned in your first several months with NCMA?
This is a really exciting time to be coming into the organization. NCMA is in a really strong place, things are running well and members are feeling supported, but with all of the changes in the contracting market there is a huge opportunity for us to introduce new programs, get more vocal with our thought leadership, and help our members advocate for the support they need to do their jobs. Everyone at NCMA from the board of directors to the staff is on board with introducing change so now it comes down to rolling it out to members and the contracting community at large. This is a really passionate community. They believe in the missions of the organizations they work for and see their role as critical to the success of that mission.
You mentioned changes in the market. What are the biggest challenges facing contracting professionals today?
First is all of the digital government and automation initiatives going on. This automation is not replacing workers, but it does require a different skillset and mindset so there is a good bit of reskilling that has to happen. Also, in regard to automating processes, organizations have to be careful that the process they are automating is solid. If the process is broken and you automate it, you just get to the wrong place faster. So really, with all this digitization we have to get back to basics and ensure the processes and procedures are sound and documented to ensure they translate to an automated flow.
Related to automation, we want to ensure that contracting is seen as a profession not a trade. It's an easy assumption that if it can be automated the need for knowledge workers is decreased, but that's not the case. We're seeing that these smart and capable professionals can leverage technology to better connect their work to the mission of the organization they serve.
Finally, once organizations embrace new technology and have the workforce that is ready to use it there are still huge procedural roadblocks, especially in government. Government contracting is so structured there is not a quick easy button to becoming agile and innovative. We have to help government contract professionals find a path from the traditional structure to the desired state of innovation.
What is NCMA's role in mitigating these challenges?
We're operating with a vision of being "central to the profession." What that means is being the go-to resource for people in the contracting community. One way we're doing this is by introducing a standards-based certification. With this certification it can be easier to move between private industry and the government. This could help a lot of the hiring challenges the government is facing. Additionally, we're looking to give members the right language to better represent their value to an organization to ensure they have the resources they need to be successful.
What do you feel is NCMA's greatest benefit to its members?
We are the place for collaboration between government and industry to discuss how they are supporting the American mission. At our events and in our publications, we show how industry can best serve government and what government can learn from industry best practices. This collaboration between the people who award contracts and those who compete for them is critical in making sure the government as a whole is getting the goods and services they need to serve the American people.
This December you held your Annual Government Contract Management Symposium. What were some of the big takeaways/themes from the event?
General Keith Alexander spoke at the event and he made the comment that "data is the new oil" meaning that data is a resource that needs to be protected and (in some ways) commoditized. For contracts this means we have to look beyond the scope sheet of a particular solution. We need to look at what other systems will that touch? What data will it pull in? What does that mean for security?
There was also a lot of conversation around cybersecurity and who is ultimately responsible. There is a school of thought that government should not be paying for security as it relates to private systems, but if you look at how interconnected we are this is a tough line to draw. Think about the amount of data held in a big corporation. Some of that comes from and goes to the government (social security numbers, SEC filings, IRS information). An attack on one part of the system can have implications down the line into a system that is seemingly unconnected. This is why General Alexander said he believes cyber security is part of our national defense.
OTAs (other transaction authority contracts) came up a lot throughout the event. The goal of this type of procurement is to get innovative projects up and running and begin to build IP (intellectual property) within the agency. There was a lot of sharing of how/when to use (and not use) OTAs as a way to get new development moving within the confines of government.
Your next big event is the SubCon Training Workshops. What should people look forward to this year?
This event provides a sense of community for the niche group of like-minded subcontracting professionals that don't always get the attention and guidance from government that the prime contractors do. Nor do they always get mentoring or advice from the primes. They tend to be smaller companies, so they do not have the resources for a lot of training for their contract staff. This event gives them a place to get that training and to collaborate with peers. It is a great combination of networking and deep-dive workshops. This year we've made it easier for people to curate their experience by providing a greater variety in how we present information. There are a lot of hands-on, practical approach workshops for people to dive deep into topics they care about.
One theme we expect to be of interest is third party risk management - how to follow the sourcing of materials to ensure they are secure enough and meet the right data standards for government We're also seeing a lot interest in how to comply with contractor purchasing system review. Also, knowing there are so few training venues for this group, we've included some leadership training for executives with the subcontractor organizations.