Federal Contract Law: Feds should use market research to refine IT plans

Bob Dickson

Government and industry have a lot to learn about market research for federal performance-based acquisitions.

Each has an important role to play, but so far the ground rules have been sketchy. With the Office of Management and Budget's 2005 target of 50 percent of all federal contracts being performance-based, it's time for everyone involved to learn more about how market research can help.

Companies have a lot to offer but are concerned about how to get invited to federal market research sessions and what to do if they are. Government has a lot to gain from these discussions and can help by developing and sharing market research expectations. Working as partners in the process, government and business can improve the way requirements are developed and results will be delivered to the American taxpayer.

In its simplest form, market research is information gathering. At this stage, all involved must recognize that the procurement process has not begun. Government is seeking the information necessary to lay the groundwork for a future acquisition. It's at this point that information about new technologies or business methods is of particular interest. Therefore, to the maximum extent possible, agencies should seek input from different types of companies. The goal is to explore the universe of possibilities and analyze alternatives.

Companies that want to get invited to market research sessions should be able to articulate what differentiates them from the rest of the pack. Are they recognized as being at or near the head of the class in their industry? Have they recently introduced a promising new technology? Do they offer a combination of business process and technology tools that would be of particular interest to an agency? Differentiation is the name of the game.

Agencies should focus their time on companies that offer unique perspectives. Interviewing many businesses with similar profiles and essentially equal capabilities is of little value at this stage.

Businesses should seek recognition as value-added participants in the market research process. Those who are able to add insight increase their chances of being invited to future market research sessions and, just possibly, future competitions.

It is often of particular interest to government to understand how a business process has been managed in the commercial sector. If a company cannot demonstrate commercial experience, it's important to demonstrate a thorough knowledge of both the government and commercial marketplaces and how that knowledge relates to an agency's area of interest.

Government agencies should include a diverse array of companies offering different perspectives. Small or small disadvantaged businesses should be included; their participation will add another dimension to the process. The guiding principle should be the potential value of a company's participation, as an agency seeks to increase its knowledge and ultimately accomplish its mission.

During market research, the government will not have established its objectives, so it is far too early and explicitly inappropriate for a vendor to go into a market research session with a proposal and a sales pitch. The government should limit the amount of time set aside for a detailed discussion of the company, how it's organized, its product lines and so forth.

Remember, the primary reason for being there is for the government to learn about the marketplace, new technologies, best commercial practices, performance measurements and how knowledge in these areas might help bring its objectives into sharper focus.

Finally, participating in a market research session is no guarantee that a company will ultimately have a chance to bid on a specific requirement. The government may choose to go in another direction or select a contracting vehicle that does not include all the companies that took part in the information-gathering process. Still, industry has the opportunity to expand government's understanding of the marketplace.

In-depth one-on-one market research will help agencies understand the dimensions of the marketplace, then appropriately define their objectives, helping raise the bar for federal acquisitions.

Bob Dickson is a principal with Acquisition Solutions Inc. of Oakton, Va. His e-mail address is bob.dickson@acqsolinc.com.

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