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Diary: Tender by triage


diaryThis week Tom Boydell is tendering for work. Or to be exact, he is tendering to be invited to tender, to submit a tender...

Much our work is in health, social care and the voluntary sector. That being so we find ourselves involved in a number of competitive tenders, especially at this time of year - perhaps because budgets have to be attained!

From time-to-time there has been discussion about tendering on TrainingZone – the consensus seems to be that it may be a necessary evil but that there is quite a lot of room for making it more effective and less of a bureaucratic chore. I have been particularly struck by one pre-qualification questionnaire (PQQ) for a framework agreement that we were invited to complete three weeks ago. For those who are unfamiliar with the terminology this is a tender to be invited to tender to be allowed to submit a tender.

"I could be, say, a plumber who always delivers on time etc and has great written policies, and I would get through handsomely with a possible 80 points even though I had no related technical competence at all!"
This particular PQQ showed the points-scoring scheme that the assessors will be using. To win through to the second round we have to score 65 points. Twenty of these are the maximum that could be awarded for extensive evidence, including details of past projects, and referees, in consultancy projects related to business development, OD and HR. At the same time, 62 points are available for evidence that we complete projects on time, within budget and to specification. A further 18 points were gained for ticking boxes to say that we have policies on quality, safety, equal opportunities, and environmental protection.
Who on earth concocted these weightings? I could be, say, a plumber who always delivers on time etc and has great written policies, and I would get through handsomely with a possible 80 points even though I had no related technical competence at all! Very odd.

When not grappling with tenders much of my time this month has been spent running action learning sets of various types. The traditional approach to action learning, as created by Reg Revans, involves about six members of a group or “set” who meet together every four to six weeks. Each member works on tackling an ongoing problem – that is, a challenge or initiative that has hitherto not been solved, has remained “intractable” as Revans put it, for which there is no pre-existing solution available to draw upon – through processes of taking action, reflecting and sharing. During the set meetings each has an hour or so to talk about their problem, what they are trying to achieve, what action they have taken so far, what they are going to do next. They are helped in this by the other members who support, challenge, share their own experience and, above all, ask questions. Between the meetings they act – do what they committed to doing – and when they meet next time they reflect and report back on that action - what happened, how they felt, what they learned - and then continue the process as before.

However over the past few years the label “action learning” has been given to many other processes. If we see these on some form of scale, then next along from the traditional form is one where, as well as working on their ongoing problems and challenges, members identify a number of themes around reflecting, creating questioning insight, problem solving and the like; time is allotted to exploring these.

Moving a bit further from the original concept is an approach whereby themes arise - identified by the participants during the course of working on their problems - but now these are not around problem solving and so on but on professional or technical issues. About half the meeting time is given to discussing these themes, the other half to working on problems.

Next we often see so-called action learning where there is a detailed syllabus - usually of a technical and professional nature - announced in advance. The meetings consist of inputs by experts on these themes, followed by discussion of how they relate to the participants’ own experience. This may be interesting and useful, but there is no action in the original sense. With due respect to Humpty Dumpty 'When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less' – I have to feel that here the term action is being misused – or even abused.

I’m writing this diary entry as a break from preparing yet another competitive tender bid, which calls for action learning with 25 members of each group. Now there’s a challenge...

Tom Boydell is director of Inter-Logics, a training consultancy with some 75% of its clients in the public sector.

Read Tom's previous diary entry
Learning organisations.


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