Can acquisition be improved through fun and games?

ASI Government's Lisa Akers argues that the real potential is in training and developing critical thinking.

Videogame Controller

NOTE: This piece first appeared on Washington Technology, in response to WT Editor-in-Chief Nick Wakeman's column on the possibilities of gamification.

I continue to find the idea of procurement as a game compelling—that is, where the government uses gaming to throw various scenarios at bidders to test their solutions and then pick the best one. Source selection and negotiations are an adrenaline rush to those of us who burn with the acquisition passion.

However, while the idea is compelling, I would instead advocate that acquisition gaming be used as a strategy for developing critical thinking in the acquisition workforce rather than in the “live” acquisition process.

We’ve been working on this for the last couple of years, and the acquisition leaders I talk with are concerned that their workforce is not given the opportunity to develop their critical thinking skills until they are thrust into the “big game,” complete with referees and a full stadium of spectators but without sufficient critical thinking plays in the certification playbook, or the opportunity to practice them.

Why does critical thinking matter in our acquisition workforce?

Our acquisition workforce faces a multitude of challenges, including complex requirements with tight schedules, growing workloads at middle management levels, less bandwidth to mentor and be mentored, accelerated career paths, increased litigation and protests due to a tightening market, increased transparency and oversight, and massive amounts of information.

Federal Acquisition Regulation 1.102-4, Role of the Acquisition Team, calls on acquisition teams to be innovative and to use sound business judgment. I know of no other government regulation that so clearly empowers federal employees to do the right thing and entrusts that they will develop new plays when the acquisition game calls for it.

Critical thinking is essential to dealing successfully with these challenges and performing these roles in the best interest of our government. Acquisition gaming is one clear way to develop the critical thinking skills our acquisition teams require.

Some observations based on ASI Government’s experience developing acquisition gaming:

Keep the User Experience Simple

It is best to keep it simple when considering multi-player versus multi-role. Choosing multi-role allows the gamer to appreciate the perspectives and goals of their acquisition workforce colleagues working in different roles. The complexity of the story line for multi-player drives up the expense, and we have found that while the federal government is intrigued with acquisition gaming, its investment has been limited. I would recommend that agencies invest in more gaming scenarios and skip the multi-player.

The “Art of Acquisition,” a Softer Side

Soft skills are of equal importance and value in government acquisition – especially in today’s challenging times. We incorporate soft skills such as communications, time management, and conflict resolution to emulate real-life scenarios, as well as simulate collaborative interaction across “Big A” Acquisition to bridge the gap between procurement and program offices. Bridging this gap is critical as our research has shown that the more effectively procurement and program organizations work together, the better the outcomes.

Gray Is the New Black

Make sure there is plenty of gray area in which the gamer can learn. Decisions are rarely based on perfect knowledge. We also incorporate plot twists into our storylines to keep them interesting. Consider mixing in some relevant and not so relevant information to emulate the information deluge and workloads many acquisition professionals experience.

Resources Are the Ultimate Score

Seed your game with plenty of learning resources that benefit gamers after the game ends, including on-lining learning clips, templates, samples, and decision support tools.

Avatar Taste on a Mini-Game Budget

Depending on your learning objectives, consider whether mini-games rather than serious gaming with avatars will meet your objectives. Mini-games or other critical thinking strategies may be especially appealing if you have a mini-budget. Speaking of budgets, consider using your acquisition workforce dollars for critical thinking strategies such as gaming, which can be offered to many employees, rather than investing in traditional training for a few employees.

User Data Not Lost in Translation

There is a lot to be gained by observing the performance, behavior, and choices made by the gamer. From frequent visits to external websites/resources, to video and audio viewing, any action the gamer takes can be recorded and synthesized into meaningful data. What are the trends when they navigate a scenario? Where do they get stuck? Where do they excel? When should the game throw them a curve ball? The data gained from gaming can show much more about the individual and the culture of the government workforce.

Interested in learning more about gaming and how to improve critical thinking? Here are some useful resources: Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking in Our Acquisition Workforce  and  Acquisition Gaming.

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