Proposal Reflections: A Look Back In Time
Being a part of the APMP NCA Chapter Mentor Protégé program this year was such an invaluable experience. I learned so much from my protégé and from the other mentors in the program, many of whom have been instrumental in the growth of APMP. As part of our end of year white elephant gift exchange, I received a copy of the Spring 1999 edition of the Journal of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals, which in today’s technology driven world has evolved into the online publication of Winning the Business. What is so special about this particular journal edition is that it looks back on the history of our profession—from the vantage point of 1999!
The 1950s and 1960s: The Age of the Secretary
As I read through the journal, I was fascinated by the proposal practices of the past, particularly those called out in one article, “A Personal Look Back…at Events, People and Organizations That Shaped the Proposal Development Profession,” by Tom Boren.
Boren’s article chronicles the secretaries of the 1950s using manual typewriters to type on blue backed carbon paper. Of the 60s, Boren describes literal cutting and pasting of RFPs to generate outlines on the war room walls. He recounts secretaries still being relied on to support the poor, helpless engineers: “We now had typewriters with correction paper (not the Correcting Selectrics), but at least hand held correction paper). We still didn’t have a typing resource, so we had to call all the secretaries to see who could work overtime, or whose boss was out of town so they could handle some typing during the day.”
The 1970s: An Explosion of Changes
Boren labels the 70s as “an explosion of changes.” The profession evolved from responding to shall statements to discriminating ourselves from the competition and articulating the benefits of our approaches. The 70s also saw the introduction of word processors and mainframe computers, along with a new emphasis on competitive intelligence. Interestingly, Boren stops emphasizing the reliance on poor secretaries in his reflection on proposal trends of the 70s.
The 1980s: The Dawn of Proposal Centers and Proposal Outsourcing
The 1980s saw a trend toward 10,000- to 20,000-page responses, as well as multiple concurrent proposals, which brought about a movement for outsourcing proposals to entire proposal consulting teams. Orals started becoming a major portion of proposal preparation. Personal computers and enhanced computer applications supported more streamlined proposal operations. And the concept of proposal development centers entered the scene, where collocated teams brought on a “new level of efficiency, improved communications, and created a truly “Team” attitude toward competitive proposals.” The then innovative LAN-based networking enabled real time reviews of in-process drafts and provided proposal teams with access to electronically-available databases of forms, previous proposals, past performance data, RFP requirements, and other related documents.
The 1990s: Teaming, Growing Technologies, and Continued Outsourcing
The 90s seemed to see a trend of teaming and an increase in collocated proposal development centers. Supporting technologies continued to evolve, video production systems for orals entered the scene, and “proposal automation tools” started to become more prevalent. Because proposal professionals were constantly faced with new government initiatives and new electronic requirements for proposal submissions, outsourcing entire proposals continued to be a norm. Interestingly, this continued outsourcing seemed to create a fear of proposal consultants taking over the world (or at least diluting the overall effectiveness of proposal responses). Boren questions, “Is outsourcing the long-term solution, or just another step toward next year’s or the next decade’s way of competing?” He further writes, “It seems to me the people from within our companies, who have worked so hard and such long hours just because it was their company, will not be around in the future. I fear that we may lose that company or corporate memory that has helped us move from proposal to proposal.”
Also of note about the 90s is Boren’s commentary on women in the proposal field: “the growing number of women that have found a meaningful career in proposal development. If there was ever a male-dominated profession, Proposal Development was it…In the 60s and 70s, if there were 100 attendees at a [proposal seminar or workshop] session, there might be one woman. As women have moved up in the ranks of engineering and management, and as we added more specialties to the profession to meet the needs of automation, we have seen greater and greater female participation.”
Reflecting on Then and Now
Reflecting on the changes in the profession from the 50s to today, it’s interesting to note what has changed and what has stayed the same. We still emphasize competitive intelligence in our opportunity pursuits, a trend that began in the 70s. We still strive to identify discriminators and customer benefits and articulate those messages in our proposal responses, another trend from the 70s. And we still continue to leverage available technologies to streamline our proposal processes, though it seems most of those technologies have continued to change and evolve as well.
Consultants Have Not Taken Over the World
The trend toward outsourcing entire proposal efforts of the 80s and 90s has waned, with consultants more frequently playing a supporting role. In many cases, we have lost those individuals who maintain that corporate memory that help companies move from proposal to proposal. However, contrary to Boren’s prediction, it’s not the evil proposal consultants who have driven this shift.
With employment trends changing in general, requiring individuals to move companies in order to advance in the leadership ranks and earn meaningful salary bumps, we likely have lost those internal individuals that Boren revered, who worked hard, long hours on proposals just because they felt a commitment their company. In today’s corporate cultures of “we must do more with less,” companies often see employees as expendable, and operate on the mindset that everyone can be replaced. When companies are not loyal to their employees, laying off large numbers of long-tenured employees after the most recent merger or acquisition, companies can no longer expect employees to be loyal. And unfortunately, this lack of loyalty is a trend we are seeing across businesses today.
Females Play a Dominant Role
Perhaps the most startling change in the last 20 years is the shift in dynamic away from proposals being a male-dominated profession. When I entered proposal the field in 2007, the profession still seemed to skew male-dominant—if I had to guess, I would say 60 – 70% male and 30 – 40% female; however, I couldn’t find any real statistics to support that memory or observation. Based on recent APMP Compensation Reports spanning from 2016 to 2018, we could conclude that the profession is now trending female-dominant. Although the numbers could be skewed based on who is more likely to respond to such a survey: the 2016 report from Australia and New Zealand reported 52% of respondents to be female; the 2017 report from the United States reported 69% of respondents to be female; and the 2018 report from the United Kingdom reported 51% of respondents to be female.
Our Fears Have Changed
Another interesting change in the profession are the trends that are causing us fear. Today, we don’t seem to fear consultants taking over the profession (clearly us consultants would have taken over the world already if that was going to happen). I would say that if we fear anyone or anything taking over, it’s technology! With more advanced proposal automation tools, and technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning entering the scene, proposal professionals are having to adjust the ways we approach, think about, and manage proposals. And this is scary! More commonly we hear the question, “Will AI take over my job?”
I have been lucky enough to see demos of many of these available and/or developing AI tools. I am fairly confident in saying that with where we are in the evolution of proposal automation technology and AI, I don’t think AI will completely replace proposal professionals in any of our lifetimes. There is a certain human element that AI can’t currently replicate—that strategy element of the 70s that is still holding on strong.
However, I do believe that the AI tools of our future will ultimately empower our proposal teams. But to be more effective, AI must become a seamless part of our established processes—it must be flexible and integrate with our existing tools and workflows. We are not there yet, but we are getting there. In the future, by leveraging AI effectively, I believe we will increase the efficiency of our overall proposal processes by focusing on the right opportunities, at the right time, with the right strategies.
Interestingly, though many things have changed from the 90s, the points Tom Boren offered as the Keynote Speaker at the first Annual APMP Conference in May 1990 still hold true today: “We are prone to forget the limitations of yesterday. Too often we take today’s capability for granted. Seldom do we foresee the path to the demands of tomorrow.”
We can learn so much in analyzing the trends of the past to understand what has stuck and what hasn’t. The need for competitive intelligence and solid proposal strategy has held strong for nearly half a decade—and I don’t see that need going away. Technologies continue to evolve, and they continue to make our lives easier; for example, co-authoring and collaboration enabled by Microsoft Office 365 and similar technologies support streamlined draft development and color team reviews. As we move forward, evolving proposal automation technologies, including AI, will continue to enhance our effectiveness and efficiency in responding to solicitations.
In addition to supporting more effective proposal processes, technology has further opened up communications among proposal professionals across the globe, enabling us to easily share best practices and learn from one another. I am hopeful that we will all continue to learn and grow together—so we are better prepared to meet the proposal demands of the future. Cheers!
Written by Ashley Kayes, CP APMP
Senior Proposal Consultant, AOC Key Solutions, Inc. (KSI)