Fostering Better Industry Engagement: Transforming market research from a box-checking exercise to a core critical practice enriches every aspect of the contracting lifecycle.

By Dr. Kirsten R. Hawley, Rebecca D. M. Quint, and Lisa M. Hartman

Have you ever received a requirements package with a draft requirements document from your program customer and immediately fired off a sources-sought notice? For years that has been the go-to response for checking the FAR Part 10 market research box. But is it adequate for best value contracting on behalf of federal agencies and taxpayers?

The Air Force Installation Contracting Center (AFICC) Acquisition Center of Excellence (ACE) says no. To improve competition and increase small business opportunities we must better align requirements, contract structures, and pricing arrangements with industry standards and practices.

The first step in this process is to do our own homework delving into available secondary data resources before we engage with industry. While it’s not always easy for already task-saturated acquisition professionals, it is vital if we are to strike the best arrangements with the best suppliers.

As acquisition advisors in AFICC ACE, we noticed that interactions between acquisition teams and potential industry partners were plagued by disconnects between the methodologies used and the data needed to support sound acquisition approaches. Frustrated industry participants told us they were addressing questions the government easily could have answered without their input. This was adding vexing, unnecessary time and expense.

Our observations and companies’ feedback drove us to find a way to help acquisition teams develop more meaningful targeted questions for suppliers and similarly situated buyers. The solution we adopted seeks to change the very culture of market research.

Engagement Workshop

Knowing how many tasks contracting professionals must accomplish on any given day, we decided the best approach to culture change would be to provide practical and accessible training in the form of an AFICC ACE industry engagement workshop. It is called, “Getting Outside the Fence Line.” It’s designed to help teams effectively use business intelligence (BI) processes to hone market research. We believe the methods and lessons of “Getting Outside the Fence Line” can help every contracting team and professional perform more effective, productive, pertinent, timely, and fruitful market research.

The workshop provides an overview of strategic sourcing and key research topics and introduces acquisition teams to basic industry engagement principles – the why and how of industry engagement. Participants experiment with business intelligence tools. They receive hands-on training and tutorials to develop necessary skills in collecting and analyzing BI data prior to engaging with industry.

The workshop is broken into two parts to allow teams time to collect and analyze their findings. Teams share their findings and identify assumptions, hypotheses, or information still needed to refine requirements documents and acquisition strategy.

Teams discuss the importance of engaging with industry during market research. This goes beyond the FAR Part 10 mandate to conduct market research on all acquisitions. The workshop focuses on meaningful market research.

As the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) “Mythbuster Memorandum”[1] series suggests, substantive market research can identify relevant emerging industry and technological trends for inclusion in the acquisition approach. Using meaningful market research uncovers best practices used by similar buyers. Along with customary commercial practices, meaningful market research helps leverage industry standards to maximize competition; obtain rate, process, and demand savings; and reduce risks.

Market Research Misconception: Before a potential procurement starts, it is not valuable for government personnel to engage with industry representatives to discuss substantive agency strategic and planning needs.

Fact: To maximize market research efforts, agencies are encouraged to engage vendors early in the planning process to learn about market capabilities and ways that industry may fulfill requirements in non-traditional ways.”[2]

Industry engagement is an essential method for learning techniques from suppliers, as well as similar types of buyers, to improve performance on future contracts or task orders. Gaining a better understanding of the marketplace also provides insight into the extent of competition – an indicator of buyers’ leverage in a market. And, it furthers public policy goals regarding small business participation (including socioeconomic set-aside options). Market research helps fortify acquisition strategies against successful protests by demonstrating that an acquisition approach aligns with customary commercial practices and industry standards.

Teams must slow down to speed up when it comes to market research. Taking time to deeply understand the capabilities of the market and companies and build a data-driven acquisition strategy will save time throughout the immediate contract lifecycle and beyond.

Acquisition teams often are unaware of the challenges their “fire and forget” requests for information and sources-sought notices create for industry partners. Likewise, capability briefings and industry days add little value to requirements definition and acquisition strategy development if a team has not developed thoughtful, targeted questions. How buyers engage with industry matters. Every hour a vendor spends responding to questions is time they could have billed to another revenue-producing project.

Well-planned industry engagement ensures that information requests reach the correct audience. The goal is not to interact with vendor marketing or proposal writing teams, but rather to reach subject matter experts who can provide technical insights to refine requirements and processes.

The better prepared an acquisition team, the more willing companies will be to provide their experts and the more information they will share. Well-planned and well-organized interactions foster trust and respect. Meaningful engagement demonstrates that government teams value suppliers’ time and input and will thoughtfully consider their feedback. The quality of industry engagement affects the value of the data we receive to improve requirements and contracts.

All acquisition and contracting teams can use the tools and techniques we employ during our workshops.

Using Time Wisely

Meaningful market research takes time – from a few weeks to a few months depending on the requirement. Research for a strategic enterprise acquisition requires greater depth with a focus on a systematic and holistic approach for meeting future needs over the long term, including accounting for the total cost of ownership and reducing supply chain risk. Meaningful research involves:

  • Devising assumptions and hypotheses to guide information collection
  • Significant initial research
  • Application of business intelligence tools
  • Synopsizing and analysis of data to:
    • Document research assumptions and hypotheses
    • Identify knowledge gaps
  • Research to fill gaps and refine assumptions
  • Targeting of experts within companies and similar buyers for engagement
  • Critical thinking and careful crafting of targeted questions for industry engagements
  • Initial engagement and capturing of responses
  • Analysis and refinement of information sought
  • Issuance of request for information to confirm or refute interview findings and assumptions

Initial Research

Teams often are only cursorily familiar with different types of research. That is why we discuss quantitative and qualitative techniques and distinguish between the types of data and questions each requires. Teams will use qualitative research more often.

Workshop facilitators work with teams to document research results and collate what’s been learned to date. All findings are categorized to reveal knowledge gaps and identify research assumptions and hypotheses. Research summaries include:

  • Purchase history:
    • Previous contracts and pricing arrangements
    • Historical and forecast spend
    • Functional requirements data
  • Stakeholder analysis
  • Risk assessment and management plan
  • Existing contract vehicles
  • Survey data from current users or stakeholders
  • Pertinent pending regulatory changes to:
    • The Federal Acquisition Regulation and supplements
    • Air Force and Department of Defense instructions
    • National Defense Authorization Act provisions
  • Market trends:
    • Industry structure
    • Market segmentation
    • Supplier base
    • Vendor sizes
    • Socio-economic make-up of the market
    • Buyers’ leverage in the market
    • Supply chain and associated risks

Research Review and Analysis

Reviewing, collating, and synopsizing the results of initial research allows the teams to document what they have learned about the industry and marketplace and identify gaps where more information is needed. Research also reveals initial hypotheses and assumptions that the team can then test during industry interaction.

In the ACE workshop, the facilitator collaborates with the team to categorize research findings, capture initial assumptions, and consider possible solutions to challenges using question prompts. For example, question prompts on rising commodity prices could include:

  • Could the requiring agency adjust processes and procedures to curb or control demand and consumption for increasingly costly products and services?
  • Which processes or policies could increase or decrease effectiveness, efficiency, and potential costs and risks?
  • Can the requiring agency employ any industry best practices or emerging technology?
  • What does industry say about how the market is segmented: who are the other buyers and how does industry market or package its product or service, how is it different for government versus private sector buyers?
  • What terminology, credentialing, or equipment is common to the industry?
  • What types of prime and subcontracting arrangements are common in the industry?[3]

Engagement Targets and Questions

The review of the team’s initial research and information gleaned from business intelligence tools become the basis for developing targeted questions for suppliers and benchmarking with similar buying organizations.

Consider who the audience should be when crafting questions. Are you trying to reach an industry partner or a buyer of similar supplies or services? Is your target an industry subject matter expert (SME), someone in the user community, other private or public sector buyers? Frame questions accordingly to improve the quality of the interaction and the information provided.

Market Research Misconception: Bring business development and marketing staff to meetings with government technical staff.

Fact: It’s far more valuable for companies to bring subject matter experts to the meeting rather than focusing on the sales pitch.[4]

To best prepare the team members to begin crafting questions they can use in interviews, focus groups, or requests for information, the facilitator spends time discussing question formats and targeting the right audience.

Teams are introduced to two types of questions: closed and open-ended. Closed questions allow respondents to select from pre-populated choices in a multiple choice or check box format.[5] Open-ended questions permit responses in the respondents own words.[6] The facilitator also discusses what to avoid and to strive for when crafting questions:

In developing questions, avoid using:

  • Leading questions that are infused with opinion.
  • Absolutes such as always, never, all.
  • Double-barreled questions or requesting feedback on two or more separate things.
  • Government-centric terms or jargon as they cause confusion – use commercial language.[7]

In developing questions, strive for:

  • Keeping answer choices balanced (neither positive nor negative).
  • Having questions/survey reviewed prior to sending out.
  • Using industry/commercial language and aligning questions with common language and terms used in the market.[8]

The following tips for developing open-ended questions can help improve readability and responses:

  • Using active voice.
  • Being as genuine and transparent as possible.
  • Asking questions related to why, how, or what.
  • Inviting contribution.
  • Challenging your assumptions.[9]

To help with critical thinking and careful crafting of targeted questions for industry engagements, consider the following:

  • Recording information gaps and topics that need to be addressed in broad terms.
  • Writing rough draft questions to address the gaps or topics.
  • Discussing and documenting which entity or individual (often by technical title rather than by name) is most appropriate to answer the question.
  • Considering the methodology most effective for reaching that group, entity, or individual.
  • Refining the questions for publication/use and audience.

Questions developed for suppliers can be used for industry days, focus groups, interviews or surveys. Questions for in-person or live interactions need not be as precise as those for surveys because follow-on questions can yield additional data. For industry days or interviews, we recommend teams draft an agenda and consider logistics requirements.

Pro Tip

Consider using a three-step approach for validating findings and assumptions. First, interview a limited cross-section of suppliers. Second, adapt questions based on interview feedback. Finally, publish a request for information to confirm or refute the interview findings or assumptions.

Conclusion

ACE industry engagement workshops offer acquisition teams an opportunity to build a foundation for industry interaction. Teams leave the workshop with tangible results that can be fielded through interviews, focus groups, industry surveys, requests for information, and industry days.

The ACE supports acquisition teams in fostering meaningful information exchanges that lead to improved requirements documents and acquisition strategies grounded in research and industry interaction findings. This culture shift has resonance beyond just acquisition and contracting organizations. Our industry partners and the warfighters using the products and services will feel the effects as well.

Any acquisition team can apply the techniques outlined here to transform market research from a box-checking exercise to a core critical practice enriching every aspect of the acquisition lifecycle. Meaningful market research builds teams’ business acumen, enhances industry engagement, and deepens buyers’ understanding of markets and suppliers. It also creates foundational knowledge and experience which, if kept current, can inform and improve all acquisitions in the same and similar markets. CM


Dr. Kirsten R. Hawley is an Air Force veteran who served as a heavy-aircraft instructor navigator. She is a procurement analyst and acquisition advisor with the AFICC ACE, presenting at training summits on market research and industry engagement. She has been an unlimited warranted contracting officer, team lead, supervisor, and section chief during 25 years with the Air Force.

Rebecca D. M. Quint is lead procurement analyst and acquisition advisor for the Air Force Installation Contracting Center (AFICC) Acquisition Center of Excellence (ACE) supporting strategic initiatives and leading development of training and workshops for more than 750 acquisition professionals whose portfolio exceeds $9 billion. As a supervisor, unlimited warrant contracting officer, and clearance advisor, she executed and administered contracts for small systems, construction and environmental remediation, enterprise services, and software development and sustainment.

Lisa M. Hartman is a procurement analyst with the AFICC ACE at Joint Base San Antonio in Lackland, Texas. She provides guidance for AFICC strategic sourcing and enterprise-wide contracting across the Air Force. She entered government service in 2004 and has held positions as a contracting officer with an unlimited warrant, supervisor and section chief.   

ENDNOTES

  1. Office of Federal Procurement Policy, “Myth-Busting #4 -Strengthening Engagement with Industry Partners through Innovative Business Practices, Attachment 1: Addressing Misconceptions and Facts on Innovative Practices During the Acquisition” April 2019, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/SIGNED-Myth-Busting-4-Strenthening-Engagement-with-Industry-Partners-through-Innovative-Business-Practices.pdf.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Material in this section paraphrased from Air Force Installation Contracting Center Enterprise Solutions Support (AFICC/KA) (a). (2021, August). Category Intelligence Reports Explained: IT Asset Management CIR; and Air Force Installation Contracting Center Enterprise Solutions Support (AFICC/KA) (b). (2021). Guide for Strategic Sourcing Projects: Step 3 Market Research.
  4. Office of Federal Procurement Policy. (May 2012). Myth-busting #2: Addressing misconceptions and further improving communication during the acquisition process. Retrieved from https://business.defense.gov/Portals/57/myth-busting-2-addressing-misconceptions-and-further-improving-communication-during-the-acquisition-process-1_0.pdf?ver=2017-12-05-154445-617×tamp=1512506695496.
  5. SurveyMonkey (2022). Surveys 101: Design surveys, collect responses, and analyze the data like a pro. Retrieved from https://www.surveymonkey.com/mp/survey-guidelines/.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.

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