Charting a new course

It seems fitting that when the Naval Sea Systems Command sought an off-the-shelf electronic commerce solution to support its newly re-engineered procurement process, it relied on innovative thinking to buy just the right software package.

Instead of taking the better-safe-than-sorry government approach of writing an exhaustive, overly detailed request for proposal (RFP), Navsea boiled down what it wanted in an electronic procurement system to a one-page flowchart illustrating its improved business process.

Officials gave the chart to vendors and asked, "How much of this picture can you deliver and at what price?" said Kathleen Monahan, director of the surface systems contracts division at Navsea.

This approach mimicked what Navsea was doing with the services procurement process that it sought to automate using the new software: focus on the performance, not the method. By the way, Navsea officials added, vendor proposals are due back in a month, a fraction of the time traditionally required.

At least one of the software vendors found it a refreshing change from the old way of doing things.

"It was great because it allowed you to be creative and to propose a solution that accomplishes the customer's objective, and in the end, you're judged on the creativity and effectiveness of your solution," said Howard Stern, senior vice president of market development at Aquilent Inc., the eventual winner and developer of the Navsea system. At that time, Aquilent was the integration services arm of e-commerce software developer Commerce One Inc. Aquilent was spun off in March.

In comparison, old-school procurement would have dictated exactly what the system should look like, which more often than not resulted in systems that could not be built with off-the-shelf products. "If you give industry a highly detailed RFP, then they start to move away from giving us what the commercial industry is already using," said Sandy Kline, deputy director for electronic business and contract automation at Navsea.

In the end, Monahan said, all the proposals were "impressive," but the Commerce One bid provided the best combination of value, price and ease of use.

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