Contracting professionals need far more than FAR

Steve Kelman

I was reading the September 2012 issue of Contract Management — the monthly magazine of the National Contract Management Association, which represents contracting professionals in government and industry — and something struck me that I had vaguely noticed before but never conceptualized.

What I suddenly realized was how little of the magazine was about the Federal Acquisition Regulation.

It hit me because the lead article in the issue was titled “Motivating the Unmotivated? Really?” It was written by David Frick, a Defense Department contracting professional. But the article could have appeared in any magazine that seeks to give managers advice on how to do a good job. Citing various organizational behavior scholars, Frick argued that contracting professionals are knowledge professionals, and such people are generally self-motivated or not motivated at all.

The second article featured in the September issue was subtitled “The True Detrimental Nature of Multitasking.” Written by Kimberly Himes, a contracting professional at the FBI, it was also something that could have appeared in a general management magazine. It cited research on the negative effects of excessive multitasking on one’s ability to perform tasks and even on one’s overall intelligence level.

In all, there were eight articles in this issue of Contract Management. Four were about management in general, not contracting in particular. One — by Robert Graham of the Air Force, formerly a contracting professional and now a program manager — was the third in a three-part series with advice on successfully implementing business process changes in organizations.

Another article was titled “Contract Management — The Next Generation: A New Professional’s View of Contract Management,” by Wesley Dewalt, a contract specialist at the General Services Administration. It was framed in the context of contract management, but the advice was really about managing young professionals in the federal workplace in general. It included the very practical advice (from a book on managing young employees in business) that you should never have a new employee start on a Monday because urgent work that arose over the weekend will likely make it difficult to focus on welcoming the employee.

The article also recommends that young workers be given challenges rather than just tasks, and that opportunities be found to give them a “victory” every day — a message very much in line with Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile’s findings in the book “The Progress Principle,” though Dewalt didn’t quote it.

Three of the eight articles in the issue cited the FAR in footnotes. Those articles focused on managing contract changes, advising companies on how they should participate in question-and-answer sessions for draft requests for proposals, and negotiating data rights in government contracts. But even in those articles the concentration was generally on management rather than the FAR. For example, the article on contract changes devoted only one of the 15 columns of space in the article to a section called “What are the FAR Requirements for Contract Changes?”

The proportion of three out of eight articles mentioning the FAR seems about right for those who aspire to excellence in contracting. You need to know the FAR. It contains statutory requirements that reflect policy determinations, controls that help keep you and the government out of trouble, and (sometimes) useful advice and lessons about how to do contracting well.

But if that’s all you know, you will be unlikely to get very far in your career or, more important, effectively serve your agency customers and taxpayers by using contracting to get best-value products and services for achieving agency missions.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

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Reader comments

Fri, Nov 23, 2012 Steve Kelman

Thanks for all these comments. I agree! Jaime, DEFINITELY agree with your approach of emphasizing business skills, FAR as backdrop. Jaime, are you really running across a lot of contracting professionals who don't want to think of themselves as business advisors?? :( Sad if true....

Fri, Nov 23, 2012

As a Senior Contracting professional, I have to question the focus solely upon the business aspects of the contracting profession. Many of the preceding professionals were outstanding at their profession, many of whom learned on the job, often coming into the business with a mixture of degree types from technical (Engineering, Law, Liberal Arts et.). Their skills were refined over years of practice as the discipline has shifted but the general skills remain relatively constant. While a Business background has become the focus of the next generation hiring, the reason that there is a 24 credit hour requirement rather than a business degree is that the author of the Bill would not have been qualified to be hired to work under the DAWIA if it required a business degree. Find good people with good work habits that are willing to learn and mentor them into contracting and acquisition professionals. And yes, I have a Business Degree with a Masters in International Relations and an ABD in Defense & Strategic Studies.

Tue, Nov 13, 2012 SAC

Dr. Kelman: I believe your discussion furthers your findings in "Remaking Federal Procurement - Working Paper No. 3" page 49 - "The vast majority of what a good contracting manager needs to be good at are the same things ANY good manager needs to be good at." While the information cited refers more to contract administration, I still see similarities.

Fri, Nov 9, 2012

Good points made by the author. Perhaps he can write an article about the FAR for the next issue. Personally, i wouldn't know where to start. Remember, any 1102 goes through the basic contracts course and DAWIA before they get a substantial amount of responsibility.

Fri, Nov 9, 2012

As a former Army KO and then a PEO, and now a Contractor, I see the major problem as most young KOs see contractors as adveraries that then need to "extract" the most out of to the point of trying to put them out of business. My objective was always NOT to put them out of business but for them to make a fair profit and give me my money's worth. Contractors want to do a good job because that's how they get repeat business. The PM/KO's and contractors main objective can align but both have to make it happen. Just a gratuitous observation from an Old Soldier!

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