Sharing Procurement Wisdom Through War Stories

Team helping each other through shared wisdom

COVID-19 has turned many events on their head. Birthdays, anniversaries, even a walk in the park seem strange, discombobulating activities. And ANZAC Day 2020 hasn’t been spared. The moving, sombre atmosphere shared with hundreds of silent, fellow Australians at the Dawn Service isn’t to be, and it feels like the entire event has receded to the background. Usually, it’s front and centre at this time of year, but nothing seems able to steal the limelight from COVID-19.

But war teaches many lessons, plenty of which are pertinent to the procurement industry, and the opportunity to learn something valuable should never be missed. In this article, Paul Rogers illustrates how war stories can be used to share tacit knowledge and promote in-house learning.

There is a place for procurement war stories

The average age of a combat soldier in the Vietnam War was 23, compared to 26 during World War II. A tour of duty lasted 12 months, and the fresher the recruit, the more likely they were to be killed or seriously injured in action. As a result, experienced soldiers avoided building relationships with new platoon members in order to isolate themselves from the emotional trauma of dealing with the death of a friend.

So, what effect does this have?

There are a number of conclusions to draw from this:

  • 23-year old’s have fewer life skills than their more experienced colleagues; younger soldiers are dependent on the veterans to guide them and offer valuable (often life saving) lessons.
  • 23 was the average age; many were younger. The amount of military training a conscripted soldier received before facing active duty was limited.
  • Experienced soldiers who had adapted to battle conditions and developed vital survival skills were often shipped home after 12 months, when their tour of duty ended. Their experience and leadership were lost to the raw recruits.
  • New recruits were not included in the social activities of the more experienced soldiers, limiting the opportunity for them to learn how to navigate a complex and dangerous environment.

What has this got to do with the procurement function? We can learn from this story. How do more experienced practitioners share insights with green recruits? How is the unwritten ‘know-how’ passed on? How do we capture, store and share the accumulated wisdom of the team?

The diagonal nod

One approach is the ‘war story’. It can be passed on to educate and stimulate thought and discussion about current and future issues.

Here is an example.

A human resource department has enjoyed a great working relationship with their preferred recruitment agency over a number of years. The procurement team has been tasked with developing a category plan for recruitment agencies and met with their HR colleagues in order to secure stakeholder engagement for the proposed changes. The HR 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 for inclusion on the panel. Crisis! The HR team objected and insisted that the incumbent be re-instated. When procurement argued that HR had agreed with the process, HR’s response was that they hadn’t anticipated that the loss of a valued relationship would be the outcome. Eventually, the incumbent agency was added to the panel, on the proviso the HR team would at least try some of the other panel members, and not automatically give all the business to the incumbent.

What happened next?

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 they received diminished.

Anatomy of the ‘war story’

It has the following attributes:

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

Parables have long been used to convey messages, because short stories are easy to understand and can be shared readily. Good ‘war stories’ make explicit the answer to the question, “so what?”

Lessons from this story about HR and recruitment agencies

  • Securing commitment occurs at multiple levels, both cerebrally and emotionally; agreement from stakeholders ensures participation and licences change.
  • Stakeholders are not always agnostic about providers; they have a degree of loyalty to them when they have developed a relationship over a period of time.
  • Emotional intelligence is needed to empathise with stakeholders who enjoy strong relationships with incumbent suppliers. Spreadsheets won’t easily overcome loyalty.
  • Stakeholders have a fear of the unknown. Acknowledge and accept this to manage change sensitively, rather than sending emails and expecting compliance.
  • Category teams model “what if?” scenarios to test stakeholder acceptability of different outcomes before the agreed market approach is executed.
  • The governance of category strategies must ensure that, if the agreed strategy is revised, the reasons for change are captured and evaluated so that the experience can be learned from.
  • Category benefits often come from change. While the sourcing process creates potential benefits, it is the role of the category manager to drive behavioural change that harvests potential benefits from the sourcing process.

Transferable learning points

The learning points derived from the ‘war story’ have the following attributes:

  • they are general, not specific to a category
  • they are transferable
  • they are solution, not problem, focused

‘War stories’ convey a message, and stimulate thought about tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is also known as “what they don’t teach you in the text books”, and the value is in:

  • allowing more experienced colleagues to reflect upon the meaning of real-life experiences
  • creating a window of opportunity for thinking about problems and opportunities
  • sharing individual experiences so the broader team can benefit from the collective experience of the whole
  • facilitating a dialogue about “what might we have done differently?”
  • enabling learning in the workplace


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

70/20/10 implies the vast majority of learning occurs in the workplace. Yet the contemporary workplace is often not a conducive environment for learning! Everyone is busy doing, not thinking. We are stressed and focused on today’s priorities, not personal growth or development. The reality is, unless we squeeze time into our schedules for reflection, sharing of knowledge and learning, operational tasks will displace the learning that should be occurring in the workplace.

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

  • creating a semi-structured monthly forum with your peers or team
  • Nominate an attendee to bring a war story
  • discuss the ‘so what?’ from each war story
  • generate ideas for future actions
  • socialise the options and ‘take-aways’

So, if your training budget has taken a hit, there are other ways that you can keep the team battle ready. If you want more ideas about low-cost ways to develop capability, why not get in touch? Contact Comprara today.