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PIANOo-desk; a network of practice on public procurement (PIANOo-desk)

Published on: 01/06/2009

On this platform, with almost 3,000 members, government buyers exchange information by asking questions to each other and give each other answers. This can be done worldwide, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. What makes PIANOo-desk stand out is that PIANOo never used the concept of a knowledge centre, where experts tell the stakeholders what the “truth is. On the contrary, PIANOo used always the concept that knowledge is to be found in the community of its main stakeholders (people involved in public procurement all over the country). But this knowledge is, so to speak, hidden in this community and PIANOo has to make it visible. This is done by intensive use of ICT. PIANOo-desk helps to find colleagues who can answer specific questions, and to receive relevant information based on metadata such as tags, topics or popularity. PIANOo-desk offers extensive options for interactive development of ideas and sharing knowledge. The «Discussions» and «Polls» features make gathering information and opinions easy and orderly. These features are also ideal for time-independent and location-independent consultation. Colleagues can discuss matters and exchange information in a structured manner.PIANOo-desk exists for more than 4 years now and we are convinced it is a successful example of the use of internet technology for daily work.

The essence of this concept is that knowledge is not (only or mostly) present with the spider within the network (PIANOo) but rests with the practitioners and scientists. PIANOo sees it mainly as its task to organise the information streams and to translate the information into knowledge. As the national success was huge and recognized in other countries we are now supporting the European Public Procurement Laboratory, a kind of PIANOo-desk on a European scale. Other European initiatives on public procurement, like Sustainable Public Procurement are joining this network.

Policy Context

Target groups of PIANOo are all organizations that have to apply the Brussels rules on public procurement (Directive 2004/18/EC).

Description of target users and groups

Target users are people from public organisations involved in public procurement from all over the country: municipalities, provinces, water boards, ministries, police, schools, universities etc.

The largest part of the users stems from municipalities (38%) and central government (26%). About 30 percent of the users are female. Everybody in public organizations who has something to do with purchasing is welcome at PIANOo-desk. An analysis learned that about 180 different functions were filled in. Aggregation of these functions shows that about half of the total population is directly related to procurement. Other large groups are management (about 10%), policymaking (5%) and juridical (5%). 

At the moment we have about forty communities or subgroups. Each subgroup has its own moderator who is responsible for the acceptance of new members and the content within that group. Ten are related to the background of the organization (e.g. central government, municipality, water board), which is the first cluster of groups. The second cluster of  fifteen groups concerns co-operation between organisations. Mostly geographically clustered  municipalities use PIANOo-desk as their virtual office. They inform each other of tenders to come and invite others to participate. Information about ongoing tenders is shared. The third cluster of fifteen communities is thematically of nature. Examples are eprocurement, jurisdiction, Works, ICT, and so on.

Description of the way to implement the initiative

The challenge for PIANOo is to influence or even manage the coordination of the informally shared knowledge at PIANOo-desk by monitoring and coordinating the knowledge sharing, but with the acknowledgment of the informal nature of the community of practice. That is why we chose to act basically as a moderator. We maintain the online platform of the network and manage the common issues within the platform.

Besides functioning as a moderator we also take the role of stimulator. In this role we share knowledge to stimulate the members to participate. The final goal is to encourage the knowledge sharing within the network. We do this by contacting people who asked a question but received no answer within a week. We ask if they received an answer in another way (by mail or phone). If they indeed received a satisfying answer we then ask them to put the answer on PIANOo-desk so that others can learn from it. If there was no reaction we search for someone who can answer the question, based on our knowledge of the members of the network. If even this won’t work we give an answer ourselves although this is seldom necessary.

Frequently Asked Questions are bundled by PIANOo and made available on the Internet portal through the so-called subway map.  People with specific expertise will be invited to speak at meetings or will be interviewed in our magazine. We also see this as a form of remuneration for the provision of time and knowledge.

In order to deal with difficult matters PIANOo set up two expert groups, one on legislative aspect and the other on economic aspects of public procurement. A professor of one of our universities is appointed as a chairman and members are approached by PIANOo on the basis of their knowledge of the subject matter and their ability of conceptual thinking. These expert groups are fed by discussions of practioners  on PIANOo-desk. Discussions which keep coming back or discussions with a lot of pros and cons; both indicating that a definite answer is difficult to give. The experts dive into the matter and come up with their vision on the matter. This vision is translated in understandable Dutch and published on paper and on our portal (reward) as well as on PIANOo-desk to give the practioners the possibility to further improve the document.

Technology solution

Technology choice: Mainly (or only) open standards

Main results, benefits and impacts

In many organisations knowledge management is primarily focused on making knowledge explicit and promoting sharing knowledge by means of ICT tools. Many projects start energetically but most projects die in an early stage. In this chapter we try to explain the reasons for the success of PIANOo-desk. In our opinion there are three intangible indicators that contribute to the success of PIANOo-desk.

The first factor is the growing interest in management for public procurement. PIANOo was founded as a direct result of the detection of fraud in the building sector. At the same time the Ministry of Economic Affairs published an in-depth research on the compliance of contracting authorities with the directives on European tenders. Results were such that it was concluded that professionalisation was needed. Also accountability, the necessity to obtain an auditor’s approval (which included public procurement) raised attention. The other managerial aspect is savings. More and more managers have discovered that you can save money (reduce costs) with professional public procurement.

Secondly, we must not forget that public procurement is a relatively new area of interest. Up to some years ago public procurement was mostly given to a junior employer of the facilities department as an additional task. Fortunately, public procurement is more and more seen as a full time professional job and as a profession in itself. As little information is currently available people tend to cluster together to gather and share information. In this situation sharing knowledge is a natural process because it leads to keeping up or improving their situation or position. Both the growing interest of management and the development of the work field create the common necessity to share knowledge.

Thirdly, we are very strict to keep PIANOo-desk an enclosed and trusted society. Only users with an e-mail address that relates to a contracting authority are accepted. This creates an environment where users dare to freely give their opinions and views on the different topics. As all the users are known by their real names and not by aliases you know to whom you transfer your knowledge and the receiver knows who you are. You know why you transfer knowledge and what the other will do with it. At the same time you use knowledge from others. In this way a social network from users who work together and share knowledge has been created.

In the last four years PIANOo-desk has grown from 1,700 to almost 3,000 active users. In 2008 PIANOo was evaluated and PIANOo-desk scored an impressive 7.4 for user satisfaction.The second tangible indicator is the frequency of visits per user. We may be proud if we say that we have 3,000 users, but if they never visit the site the number is meaningless. On average PIANOo-desk is visited by 190 unique users per working day. About half of the community visits PIANOo-desk at least once a month. So, there is not only a high penetration rate, the users also visit the platform regularly.

The third indicator is the amount of questions and answers. In our common group (all users can access this group) on average 30 questions a month are presented and 120 answers are given. Mostly the first answer is given the same day or the day after.

Return on investment

Return on investment: Larger than €10,000,000

Track record of sharing

As the national success was huge and recognized in other countries we are now supporting the European Public Procurement Laboratory, a kind of PIANOo-desk on a European scale. Other European initiatives on public procurement, like Sustainable Public Procurement are joining this network (as a result of the Ecoprocura meeting in Iceland). Also the Europaean Public Procurement Network (for policymakers) is using the platform.The European version currently has over 150 members from about 30 countries.

Lessons learnt

1) Different levels of knowledge

The level of knowledge in such a large diverse community is very diverse. Answers to questions are ripe and green, very practical or legal. ] This means that a beginner in this field of knowledge has a serious disadvantage. In fact, members ask us to summarize discussions, to draw conclusions or to intervene if we notice that answers are not according to law. They tell us that they do not have the knowledge to judge the qualities of the answers. Especially in discussions with many pro’s and cons they turn to us for an expert opinion.. But to complicate matters the frequency of visits differs. Some people visit PIANOo-desk on a daily basis as they are full time professional buyer, some visit it  once or twice a year because they seldom buy something and they visit PIANOo-desk only when the need arises. Others are only interested in certain products or services. In order to match supply and demand the idea was launched to indicate different types of users and provide information accordingly.

2) Trust is important

As PIANOo-desk has become the largest centre of knowledge on public procurement in The Netherlands, interested parties outside the government ask to be a member of this enclosed network. Mostly it concerns advisors and private consultants who want to tap this wealth of information in order to fulfil their task for a certain governmental organisation or who want to see ‘the market’ for their acquisition activities.

They claim they have a right to be part of this community or they claim access on the assumption that all the knowledge is gathered with taxpayer’s money; they are taxpayers and thus have a right to access PIANOo-desk.

For us however the password protected environment is one of the main factors contributing to the success of PIANOo-desk. What is more democratic than to freely express and share your ideas with peers? A place where you can freely speak without fear of criticisms, that prevent you from freely speak or without the presence of persons with commercial interests in your problems and issues?

This has to do with the social capital of our community. This is the extent to which the members know from each other who they are and how accessible they are. This factor also has a positive influence on the extent to which knowledge is shared and added to the network. This is explicable, because if they know who the members are, it is easier to assess whether there is something interesting for them. Simply put: sharing information is based on trust.

3) change from network to community

Our task to professionalize knowledge and the obligation to give authoritative statements forces us to assume several characteristics of a technocracy (knowledge is developed on the basis of advice from experts in areas) and a meritocracy (where the position of each individual is based on his or her merits). The evaluation of PIANOo last year proved that this concept was remarkably well accepted by the members of the network and given the continuous rate of growth a successful model for the professionalization of knowledge.

We also conclude that the shift from a network organisation to an expertise centre was a fluent one. Crossing the boundaries between Practice, Law and Science was already under way in a natural way and even asked for by our community. What started as an experiment by giving practioners a tool to exchange information results into an organisation who collects that information, enriches it and unlocks it. Next, the knowledge is given back to the community by means of presentations, courses, papers, and Internet articles.  Now that the first results are visible and reactions are very positive we can safely say that, by the merge of Practice, Law and Science, we have made the change from a Virtual Network of Practice to a Community of Knowledge.


Scope: International, Local (city or municipality), National, Regional (sub-national)