By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Then and now

Speaking recently at the procurement conference of a government agency, I asked the audience during a town-hall style part of the event if they could share with me activities involving better buying practices going on in their organization of which they were proud. This was a question I also always used to ask when doing town hall meetings in procurement organizations while I was working in government between 1993 and 1997. The question always used to elicit lively discussions and presentations of acquisition improvement initiatves the organization was undertaking.

When I asked the question this time, there was an embarrassed silence. No hands went up. Finally, one of the leaders of the organization noted that the organization had recently gotten a good review from headquarters for the internal controls on its purchase card operations.

The contrast was dramatic.

I don't blame the contracting professionals I met with. They are responding to the current procurement environment, which puts lots of emphasis on staying out of trouble and almost none on trying proactively to improve the system. The workforce shortages -- a constant topic of discussion among contracting professionals -- also of course play a role here.

Social psychologists distinguish between a focus on "promotion goals" -- achieving excellence -- and "prevention goals" -- avoiding mistakes. This is seen as a basic difference in how people organize their behavior. In an article in the current issue of The Academy of Management Review (one of the leading scholarly journals for academics who study organizations), Professors Ronit Kark and Dina Van Dijk argued that an important role for leaders was to elicit among organization members a focus on promotion goals, bringing out the best in people. We're not doing well on that right now.

Posted by Steve Kelman on May 24, 2007 at 12:08 PM


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