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How education procurement got creative in 2020

Creative problem solving is in procurement teams DNA, they just need the tools to achieve the impossible."

Biologically it is impossible for elephants to jump. Yet, education communities managed the impossible this year. In this blog, we take an inspirational look at how education procurement teams and their partners learned to adapt during an immense period of change. In other words, they’ve learned to jump.

Procurement teams and purchasing departments have undoubtedly encountered challenges this year as their campuses shuttered and new processes for teaching and learning were put into place. Institutions had to source materials in bulk that had never previously been required. At the same time, procurement teams had to reconsider how and where to make deliveries–often to employee or student home addresses across different states and countries.

It has felt like an impossible mission at times, but procurement experts have one thing in common: their ability to problem solve. Typically a procurement department might experience a few surprises during an academic year. A research lab might require a unique purchase to conduct an unusual set of experiments, but surprise has been the hallmark of 2020.

Unique solutions to unique problems

One of the new areas of challenge across education has been the urgent need for PPE. After careful research at the start of the year procurement officers discovered the ‘N95 Mask’ best met specifications. However, they were presented with the problem of where to source such a mask when all known or recommended suppliers had sold out. They needed the N95 to ensure safety of students and staff to resume on campus operations.

The alternative was to shut the school and cause disruption in people’s livelihoods and education. Vendors couldn’t provide information on when this crucial PPE would be restocked and waiting wasn’t an option. Western Washington University (WWU) experienced this challenge and through innovative thinking seized upon the idea of using their 3D printers to create masks. They were able to meet the demand needed and also fulfil the requirement quickly. A unique solution for a common procurement problem.

Surgical gloves became part of the PPE requirements resulting in high demand. Unsurprisingly stocks sold out fast and it became difficult sourcing gloves from the obvious vendors such as medical suppliers. It became an impossible task. One University told us how they got creative and turned to automotive and tattoo suppliers to fulfill these needs. Demonstrating that there is always a solution to a problem. Once they had thought of the idea, sourcing from previously unbeknown suppliers was easy through their online marketplace. They were able to source new suppliers quickly, with full visibility of communications and most importantly anyone involved had current information on the date of delivery.

Interestingly vodka became an item on a procurement offices list. It was required by their University’s theatre department. Much like masks and gloves, disinfectant became a previous and difficult to source commodity. Procurement teams sourced vodka to help meet the theatre departments need of sanitizing their costumes. This allowed the students to continue having the full teaching experience that they were used to. This served to provide much needed reassurance to the students as well as their teachers and concerned families that measures were in place for their wellbeing.

Adjusting to remote working on the fly with eProcurement

The shift to remote learning has been a hurdle, especially for students who lacked internet access or laptops. Universities therefore sourced laptops to help these students continue their education there. Many institutions grappled with how to deliver laptops quickly and safely. Additionally, deliveries needed to go to home addresses.

However, institutional policy prohibited this. Once policies were adjusted to make exceptions for these constraints, laptops, course books and even lab equipment could be sent directly to students. Unfortunately, issues were experienced with damage on delivery or lagged delivery times. Buyers were able record these issues, with information made visible for anyone associated with the purchase, which allowed them to seek alternatives and find reliable and speedly suppliers. This enables future buyers to see historical interactions with suppliers and avoid experiencing the same problems.

Nowadays a private supply of hand sanitizer at home and in a backpack is as essential as the need for its provision in public areas. By having the ability to scan through existing vendor catalogs for hard-to-find items like hand sanitiser, Joliet Junior College was able to save hours of search time and was able to compare pricing quickly. This meant they were able fulfill this requirement quickly before vendors sold out.

Some institutions, of course, have unique requirements. At one agricultural institution, a small handful of students stayed on campus early in the pandemic to take care of livestock. The institution was able to manage the needs of these on-campus students as well as those scattered around the country and the needs of their animals. Managed by the ability to handle bids and solicitations online. Vendor questions could easily be answered even from home.

These examples serve to demonstrate procurement and innovations teams ability to achieve the impossible. When items were unavailable, or suppliers were unknown and needs were urgent buyers were successful in meeting difficult requirements. Original and resourceful thinking has allowed teaching and operations to continue with safety at the forefront of the institution.

Had someone said to buyers and procurement teams that they would need to equip each member of their institution with PPE, relocate and facilitate remote teaching within weeks or months they would’ve said it was impossible. Yet much like our innovative elephant they adapted and learnt how to jump.

Institutions with eProcurement solutions found it easier to source and deliver goods at speed. Having the eProcurement foundations sharpened the procurement process to be able to deliver timely solutions, shifting time spent on administration procedures. Creative problem solving is in procurement teams DNA, they just need the tools to achieve the impossible.


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