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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Blind Purchases
Why is so much procurement so ineffectual?

Can you imagine buying a house by contacting an estate agent, getting them to send you brochures, reviewing, making a choice and purchasing - all without a site visit? Or even buying an automobile through exactly the same process? You call the manufactures and garages, they send you all the leaflets, you peruse at your leisure, make a decision and you order a new car? You don't go down to the garage and take a look at, sit in or drive the vehicle.

I cannot imagine buying too many artefacts that I have not tried and tested or heard good things about. And yet throughout industry I find people who are very sensible at home, check things out very diligently before they expend their own money, but who throw money at business problems as if they have lost all reason. They seem to think nothing of spending millions on products and services based on a basic spec sheet, service level agreement or the lowest of three bids, without actually trying to understand the product or service. This may seem amazing, but many corporate purchases appear to be on the basis of a near clueless decision process.

It seems that all organisations are now dying in a sea of paper, bureaucracy and processes that have been put in place to ensure they get good value for money, are covered legally and take absolute minimal risks in everything they do. Somewhere along the line someone seems to have lost sight of the fact that no amount of paperwork, regulation, guidelines, processes and procedures can counteract human stupidity.

I encounter people who virulently complain about the IT and software they have purchased who don't even have a personal computer. What are they doing? It turns out that most of them have little or no tech training, knowledge or understanding. You might as well go to some as-yet-undiscovered tribe in South America and employ one of the members to become the chief of purchasing.

Mistakes are very expensive and very often difficult, if not impossible, to repair. Attention to detail up front on any form of purchase or contract is absolutely essential. But the modern world seems to be going in the opposite direction. We now have embedded in our culture - from the very early stages of schooling right through to university - an over reliance on paper studies and specification. Physical experimentation, testing and trials seem to be frowned upon and discouraged, mostly engendered, I suspect, by the concept of risk free society and the threat of litigation.

The notion that you can specify everything that you require, draw up a contract and then get exactly what you want is, unfortunately, mostly untrue. It is not unusual to have to buy components and build and test a prototype before you can actually formulate a sensible specification.

It is not always obvious or indeed evident that something can be done at a given price, for a given performance, without building a prototype first. I always remember one particular story of Thomas Edison, of which stories are legion. One day he handed a flask to one of his mathematicians and asked him to find the volume. After a week the mathematician was still hard at it with reams of paper trying to complete all of the integrals necessary to calculate the volume of this complex shape. In his frustration Edison took the glass out of the mathematicians hand, filled it full of water and then poured the contents into a measuring jug and read off 125ml (or whatever).

I'm afraid we seem to have too many of the former and too few of the latter in industry and education today. I think we are in dire need of more hands on, rather than more hands off.

It is seldom the case that there is only one solution to a problem or one approach to providing some service or product. To be narrowly prescriptive and define just one route - a one size fits all; single procedure - for every single form of contract from a pencil to an aeroplane is madness. We have the tools and technologies to be far more sophisticated in the way we define products and services, make choices and purchases. Many of the components and products that we are likely to need and use are available, in whole or in part, and are well known and documented. So it is often possible to build systems on the screen or on the bench to test before we buy - the prototype, the virtual prototype, the emulator.

The excuse list for getting IT (or anything else) wrong is getting shorter by the day and there really is no need to make so many big mistakes. Product reviews, user groups, individual tests and trials are old tools that people should still search out and consult. Building prototypes and emulators, getting an existence theorem that, yes, it can be done, it is possible, it will work, it just requires a little more effort are essential.

Until managers rise to this challenge I can only imagine the project overruns and customer disappointment are only going to rise. And no doubt managers will continue to slag off technology and the technologists in an effort to hide their own incompetence and errors of judgement.

And now for total heresy! The most obvious thing to do is to ask the end user what it is that they want. Is there an existing product or specification? Could they help in the selection process? How about inviting them down to test and check out the prototype? Or, even better, embedding them in the build team? Imagine the improvement that could result at reception desks, points of sale, websites, emailers, computer interfaces and so on. We could have a revolution in the making - quite literally!

Dictated whilst driving Ipswich to Cambridge. Typed and received by email the next day. Revised at the Heathrow Sheraton over a large coffee and biscuits and despatched to from the ABC London Conference via a free company Wi-Fi service very close by.