Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Justifying Collaboration in Complex Programs such as Federal Acquisitions

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

I’m researching how to justify investments in collaboration-supporting technologies (e.g., blogs, wikis, and private social networks) when the business processes they support are numerous and spread across multiple participants who may not always share common goals. Examples are applied R&D and Federal acquisitions.

One question is whether collaboration-supporting technologies should be viewed as business applications or as part of the IT “infrastructure.” In my experience, generating a business case for a business application tends to be simpler than for a change in infrastructure. Why? It’s usually easier to link investments in technology and changed business processes to specific business costs and benefits than it is with more general infrastructure investments.

The situation is certainly real. In addition to the current Administration’s focus on “open government” and “transparency” that is rippling through so many different Federal agencies, agencies such as the GSA are also experimenting with the use of collaboration tools not only for “general purpose” collaboration but also in “live” acquisition settings, as shown by the Better Buy Project and its pilot wiki.

While I  firmly believe in the value of collaboration and sharing information and expertise in any complex project management setting, it’s still necessary to look objectively and analytically at the costs and benefits associated with applying collaboration technologies and processes to complex government sponsored acquisition programs. A basic question is whether the effects of introducing collabration tools and techniques are worth the costs.

To help answer this question I’m developing a “procurement collaboration concept map” of the main issues that such an assessment could address. I’m also interviewing procurement experts about this model.

The top level of this concept map is shown in Figure 1. Note that in the interest of clarity not all “nodes” in the map have been expanded:


Overall, the acquisition process (pink) “drives” (red arrow) selection of the Collaboration & Communication Methods (yellow). Use of these methods in turn “generates” (green arrow) outcome Metrics (green box).

I put parentheses around both “drives” and “generate” since I’m also researching the mechanisms by which these three very broad classes of variables interact.

Individual Variables

Examples of these variables, which are described in more detail in a password-controlled “mind map” that underpins the Figure 1 graphic, include:

    • 1A. Participants. Major classes of participants include large and small vendors, acquisition managers, customers and users of the products or services being procured, and other stakeholders in the procurement process (e.g., policymakers, other agency personnel, legislators, etc.)
    • 1B. Phase. The definitions and phases provided in this node are based on the Better Buy Project, a joint project of the National Academy of Public Administration and the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council in conjunction with the General Services Administration. These phases include:
      • 1. Market Research and Requirements Definition
      • 2. Pre-Solicitation Phase
      • 3. Solicitation Phase
    • 1C. Target. The “target” of the procurement is the product or service being procurred and its innovation or newness (e.g., is it being purchased “off the shelf” or is R&D required?)
    • 1D. Regulation. What is the regulatory environment like in which the procurement is taking place? For example, is it stable or is it constantly changing?
    • 2A. Engagement Style describes how the different participants in the process communicate with each other during the procurement process, e.g., are one to one or group meetings used to exchange information, are web sites and emails used, are social networks or collaboration networks used for discussion, etc.
    • 2B. Engagement Characteristics refers to the transparency and interactivity of communications, e.g., is information exchanged about vendor capabilities restricted in distribution, are technical requirements published and discussed openly among potential vendors, etc.
    • 2C. Media Usage refers to the specific channels used for exchanging information, e.g., web sites, letters, printed documents, email, webinars, etc.
  • 3. METRICS are tools that measure the potential effects of using collaboration technologies to support the acquisition process.
    • 3A. Process Metrics describe how the procurement process is managed from begining to end.
    • 3B. Outcome Metrics describe how well the acquired product or service satisfies its target objectives.

In discussions so far with experts about this topic I have heard opinions ranging from “I’m a small business and can’t afford to give away any information to possible competitors” to “The more people who help develop a requirements statement the better off everyone in the process will be.”

As with any large or complex process, it seems clear that how you evaluate costs and benefits will depend on your own goals as well as the nature of your own participation.

If you are interested in sharing your thoughts with me about this topic, please let me know.

For a follow up article see Geography and Innovation: Additional Metrics for Assessing the Impact of Collaboration on Federal Acquisition

Copyright (c) 2010 by Dennis D. McDonald. Contact Dennis via email at or via his office phone at 703-549-1030.

This article was revised May 7, 2010.

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