Preliminary market engagement

Preliminary market engagement, sometimes also known as 'soft' market testing, can be a very useful first step before you enter into the restrictive environment of a formal tendering process. In simple terms it means an informal process of fact-finding and thinking about possible options.

If you haven't come across this term as part of a procurement process before you are not alone. This type of engagement is very underused even though current procurement regulations specifically allow for it.

The reason the approach is underused is probably to do with an overly conscientious approach to ensuring even-handedness and parity. You do not want your procurement process to be unduly influenced by the behaviour of suppliers during this fact-finding phase. However, you will be able to write a better requirements specification and tender documentation if you have a good understanding of the market.

Remember your PIN

PIN in this context stands for Prior Information Notice. This is a notice that you place in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) to inform suppliers that you are planning a procurement process within the next 12 months.

It is not compulsory to place a PIN but it can be beneficial in various ways:
  • it can provide you with market information to help your planning;
  • it can help ensure that all relevant suppliers participate in your procurement process;
  • it can reduce the timescale between publishing your invitation to tender (ITT) and receiving responses as shown in our diagram OJEU Process Chart;
  • it can act as a call to competition replacing the pre-qualification questionnaire (PQQ) stage.

We recommend that you gain an understanding of the market before you begin a formal procurement process and you should take advice from your procurement specialists as to whether or not issuing a PIN is the best way for you to approach this.

Get suppliers to come on campus and have conversations prior to thinking about the specification requirements and how you structure your tender process, so you give a fair crack of the whip to all contenders and there isn't this unconscious bias to your own incumbent system.

Richard Walker, Head of E-Learning Development,
University of York

The University of Sussex began with a soft market test prior to going into a formal procurement process. At this stage there was no commitment to procure - it was an information seeking opportunity and a chance to ask questions.

A range of suppliers expressed interest in coming to present to the University. To ensure consistency each supplier had the same amount of time and the same brief to give them a flavour of the university's areas of interest but they had a lot of freedom to deliver a 'sales pitch' as they saw fit.

David Walker, Head of Technology Enhanced Learning, told us that this preliminary phase was extremely helpful in terms of determining the final requirements specification.

The University had been used to local hosting and it allowed them to ask questions about SaaS from an IT perspective and also questions about potential integration with existing on-campus systems.

It also helped academics think about the functional specification and in particular areas such as supporting group collaboration and assessment, marking and feedback topics such as electronic submission and online/peer assessment tools.

The University of York conducted a VLE procurement process in 2013. They used a restricted procedure and had 39 initial expressions of interest.

A pre-qualification questionnaire (PQQ) eliminated a number of suppliers who were not felt to have a sufficient track record or financial standing. Fourteen suppliers were invited to submit tenders and only five did so.

Richard Walker, Head of E-Learning Development at the University of York, was surprised that some major suppliers did not participate in the process. With hindsight he feels that an important lesson learned is to engage widely prior to going out to tender.

Be proactive and give a heads-up to some of these companies that you are going out to tender and welcome expressions of interest. Our whole process was entirely open. We started from ground zero again with a new PVC but some companies make assumptions that you have a particular frame of reference and the quality of alternative visions for learning management systems that we got wasn't as strong as it could have been. Don't be complacent and assume that the market will come to you - it won't.

Richard Walker, Head of E-Learning Development,
University of York

We recognised that it is difficult to think about the future and see how you might do things differently so we did a lot of reading and research about the market. We also got a number of companies to come in and do demonstrations and talk about their roadmaps before we began the procurement process.

Sally Jorjani, Head of Customer Service and Business Change,
Edinburgh Napier University

Top tip

If you are interested in considering open source products you may need to think creatively about how to solicit relevant tenders. Some institutions have had in-house teams with relevant expertise submit bids.