Procurement… is no war story

Procurement… is no war story!

Not all memes involve cats playing the piano. Paul Rogers explains how war stories can be used to share tacit knowledge and promote in-house learning.

Let’s start with a story about the Vietnam War. The average age of the US combat soldier was 23, compared to 26 in WW2. The tour of duty was 12 months, and as new recruits were disproportionately likely to be killed in action, soldiers tended not to socialise with the new platoon member, in order to minimise the emotional trauma of dealing with the injury or death of a close friend.

So what?

There are a number of implications from this story;

  • 23 year old men have fewer life skills than older men, so the young soldiers were more dependent upon others to guide them
  • 23 years old was the average age; some were younger. The amount of military training each conscripted soldier received would have been comparatively limited
  • the most experienced soldiers with the most survival skills were shipped home, and were not available to share insights with more inexperienced men
  • as new recruits were not engaged in social routines with soldiers in their new platoon, there were limited opportunities to learn from other soldiers.

Now procurement may sometimes be tough, but it is hardly a war! However, we can learn from this story. How do more experienced practitioners share insights with green recruits? How do we socialise the “know-how” that isn’t written in procedure manuals or textbooks? And how do we capture, store and share the accumulated wisdom of our team?

The diagonal nod.

One approach that I like is the war story. Like all memes, it can be passed on, and it can stimulate thought and discussion about current and future issues, not just about past challenges. Let’s take an example from my past as an example. The human resource department had enjoyed a great working relationship with their preferred recruitment agency over a number of years. The procurement team met with their HR colleagues in order to secure stakeholder engagement for the development of the category plan for recruitment agencies. The stakeholders were comfortable with the approach and signed off on the category plan.

When the agreed selection criteria were applied to the recruitment agencies, the incumbent agency did not make the shortlist to be included on the panel. Crisis! The HR team objected and insisted that the incumbent be re-instated. “But you agreed to the process!” was countered with “Yes, but we didn’t realise that this might involve severing a valued relationship!” So the incumbent agency was added to the panel on the proviso that the HR team at least try some of the other panel members, and did not automatically give all the business to the incumbent.

What happened next?

What happened next is that the HR team experimented with other providers, and realised the value proposition from the newer panel members was at least equal to, if not superior to, their “preferred” provider.The previous provider remained on the panel, but the volume of business that they received diminished through time.

Anatomy of the story.

The story has the following attributes:

  • it is short
  • it is repeatable
  • there is no confidential information
  • there is a payoff, or conclusion

The Christian Bible use parables to convey messages, and this is because short stories are easy to understand, and can be shared orally. What good war stories do is make explicit the answer to the question, “so what?” Here are some potential learnings from this war story about HR and recruitment agencies:

  • Securing commitment occurs at multiple levels, both cerebrally and emotionally; we need agreement from stakeholders to participate and a licence for change
  • Stakeholders are not always agnostic about their providers; they have a degree of loyalty to service providers with whom they may have developed a close relationship over a period of time
  • Emotional intelligence is needed to empathise with stakeholders who enjoy a strong person to person relationship with incumbent suppliers. Spreadsheets won’t easily overcome loyalty
  • Stakeholders often have a fear of the unknown. We need to accept this and manage change in a sensitive way, not just by issuing emails and expecting compliance
  • Category teams might run some “what if?” scenarios to test stakeholder acceptability of different outcomes before the agreed market approach is executed
  • The governance of category strategies needs to ensure that if the agreed strategy is revised, that the reasons for the change are captured and evaluated to learn from the experience
  • Category benefits often come from change, and while the sourcing process creates potential benefits, it is the role of the category manager to drive behavioural change that harvests the potential benefits from the sourcing process

Transferable learning points.

The learning points that I have derived from the war story have the following attributes:

  • they are general, not specific to the category
  • they are transferable to other situations
  • they are solution focused, not problem focused

The point about war stories is that they convey a message, and stimulate thought about tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is “what they don’t teach you in the text books”, and so the value of war stories is in:

  • allowing more experienced colleagues to reflect upon real life experiences and what they mean
  • creating a window of opportunity for us to think about problems and opportunities
  • sharing individual experiences so that the broader team can benefit from the collective experience of the whole team
  • facilitating a dialogue about “what might we have done differently?” or “next time, what should we do?”
  • enabling learning in the workplace, online, in our own organisation (rather than on an offline course or conference)


Contemporary perspectives on learning include discussion of the 70/20/10 principle; the belief that learning about our jobs is derived from various sources:

  • about 70% comes from on-the-job experiences, tasks, and problem solving.
  • about 20% comes from feedback and coaching and/or mentoring
  • about 10% comes from attending formal workshops, ‘offline’ courses and conferences

The implications of 70/20/10 are that the vast majority of learning occurs in the workplace. And yet the contemporary workplace is not a conducive environment for learning! We are all busy doing, not thinking. We are stressed and focused upon today’s priorities, not personal growth or development. So the reality is that unless we squeeze time into our schedules for reflection and learning, the constant torrent of emails and meetings and phone calls will ensure that the 90% of learning that should be occurring in the workplace is displaced by operational tasks.

Play him off, keyboard cat.

You can make war stories one mechanism for workplace learning by:

  • creating a semi-structured forum monthly with your peers or team
  • inviting each attendee (or one nominated attendee) to bring a war story, with or without transferable learning points
  • discussing the ‘so what?’ from each war story
  • generating ideas for future actions
  • socialising the options and ‘take aways’

Stories are memes, and the best memes are easily shared with a reward for the teller and the listener. Resist the temptation to create databases of war stories or embarking upon elaborate schemes to codify tacit knowledge. Instead, start small and low key, and focus upon people talking to people. Remember, it is a jungle out there!

Free Capability Audit