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Why It’s Important to Distinguish Intake and Orchestration

Orchestration vs Intake

To paraphrase Mugatu from the movie Zoolander: “Intake and orchestration. So hot right now!”

But here's the thing about coupling the terms “intake and orchestration” in the procurement technology space: it’s confusing. Are all intake solutions also orchestration solutions? Do all orchestration solutions do intake? When evaluating orchestration solutions, should organizations include vendors that do intake but not procurement orchestration more generally? Do intake and orchestration require two separate technologies? Or just one?

The analyst community sees this confusion and is working to provide clarity. In a recent post from Spend Matters, for example, we hear that “intake sits at the front end and tracks progress, and orchestration (which may include intake capabilities) delivers enhanced workflows to execute processes effectively.” Read in isolation, one might interpret that intake is separable from orchestration and that, to the extent that orchestration platforms include intake as a capability,, it's something that they do in addition to orchestration but that does not involve orchestration itself. 

But there’s more. If we continue reading, we find that Spend Matters affirms that intake is itself, not just a capability, but also a process. If intake is a process, and orchestration involves coordinating processes, then intake is just one process among many and should simply be considered an orchestration use-case rather than something that happens outside of, and in addition to, orchestration.

So what is the relationship between intake and orchestration? Should we consider them as different technology categories? Or the same one? The answer is neither.

What I'd like to argue is that intake by itself is not a process to be orchestrated.  To the extent that intake simply involves the collection of information in order to initiate a process, intake is just a form. It may be a process step, but its not a process and so no orchestration is required.  However, where you have a process (like those we have in procurement) that involves several systems and sub-processes, some kind of general intake experience is required, which Gartner refers to as 'intake management.' In contrast to intake by itself, intake management involves collecting, enriching, and coordinating data across multiple systems and, in fact, usually involves automating the completion of every separate intake form required by individual stakeholders (like submitting tickets to IT, or requests to Legal).

Many organizations today are confused by the relationship between intake and orchestration.  Indeed, many vendors use the two terms in the same breath as if they are one in the same.  What I hope to do in this blog post is to clear up this confusion by clearly distinguishing intake from intake management and, in so doing, demonstrate that the idea of a dedicated intake solution doesn't really make sense.  If we are talking about intake, then we are talking about data collection via a form.  If, on the other hand, we are talking about intake management, then we are not talking about a technology category that is separate from procurement orchestration, but rather a process that requires orchestration. In other words, most organizations don't need intake because chances are that they already have it built in to their existing applications. They do need intake management, however, and for that they don't need an intake management application. They need an orchestration platform capable of intake management.

What is Intake Management?

Intake by itself is a pretty easy concept: If you want to make a request, you have to provide details about the things you are requesting.  To that extent, intake is necessary but kind of uninteresting.  It's just a form. 

Intake management, however, is something else.  Naveen Mahendra defines intake management expertly in the “Hype Cycle for Procurement and Sourcing Solutions, 2023”:

Intake management solutions provide a single contact point for the rest of the organization to request procurement support from. Requests are routed to either the correct endpoint application or person to be fulfilled. Intake management solutions also have the ability to track request status, so that requesters and procurement know thestanding and disposition of any request.

Where intake involves submitting a form, intake management involves much more.  Where a process involves submitting similar information to different departments using different tools, efficiency is lost and error is introduced as a result of manually duplicating effort. Beyond this, to the extent that sub-processes involved in a request happen in different systems, it becomes impossible for a requester to know what's involved in their request, how long it will take, or where there might be a delay. That's where intake management comes in, as a way to coordinate intake across various systems, teams, and sub-processes so that a requester can provide information once and participate in an effortless and unified experience with full process visibility. Intake management, then, is a process. And as a process, it is only possible through procurement orchestration.

What is Procurement Orchestration?

Procurement orchestration is process orchestration applied to procurement use cases. As I said in a recent post for Spend Matters:

… orchestration is a way to connect and coordinate people, processes and systems across an organization. It goes beyond performing discrete transactions to facilitate the efficient flow of tasks and information over time and across agents, including people and systems (i.e., digital agents). This includes facilitating each step in a given process, even if that step is in a different system or department, allowing teams and organizations to get work done faster and without frustration.

So procurement orchestration involves the automated coordination of people, processes, and systems in order to achieve well-defined business outcomes. By aggregating data across multiple systems, enriching that data, and then using that data to drive efficient workflows, orchestration has the power to create effortless user experiences. When applied in procurement to things like requisitioning, supplier onboarding and management, and risk assessments, the promise of orchestration is to decrease cycle times, improve visibility and compliance, and increase data integrity.

Bringing Intake and Orchestration Back Together

Procurement orchestration involves the automated management of procurement processes.  Intake management is a procurement process. Hence, any procurement orchestration platform worthy of the name will do intake management in addition to any other procurement process. It is not just a matter of collecting request details.  It's a process that ensures that business users only need to provide information that is not already in another system and that they only need to provide details that are required, as needed, and once.

I recently heard an opinion that Intake is rapidly accelerating down the road to commoditization. In light of its value and hype, most S2P, Contract Lifecycle Management (CLM), and other procurement software tools either have an intake module or have it on their roadmap. In fact, some tools even offer an intake module at no additional cost.  I think this is half right.  Yes, it is true that most applications require intake.  But that's a trivial observation. Where a tool requires a user to input information in order to initiate a sub-process you have intake. That's essentially ticketing. What can't be done by everyone is the kind of orchestration necessary to manage intake across every system and sub-process in order to achieve a business outcome.

 What are the necessary conditions for intake management?

  • The ability to easily connect to any enterprise system. The best intake management solution will not live in a walled garden, and it will not privilege any given technology ecosystem over another. In order to avoid demanding information from a requester that they don’t know or that already exists in another system of record (contact details, department, GL code, commodity, and category codes, etc.), the solution needs to integrate with your ERP, S2P, and HR systems. In order to track processes from beginning to end, it will also need to integrate with myriad other best-of-breed solutions as well.  And in order to avoid data entry errors and unnecessary duplication of work, it will feed the application-specific intake forms required by dependent sub-processes.
  • The ability to seamlessly initiate any procurement process based on user input. A user should not have to switch to another system with a different user experience depending on the nature of their request. Instead, the intake experience should seamlessly triage and route a user into the appropriate process while maintaining an uninterrupted experience. If every process is orchestrated with a common system, then the user will experience an uninterrupted and intuitive process flow regardless of process, sub-process, system, or business outcome.
  • The ability to track the progress of a request through to completion. Remember that Gartner lists the ability to track request status as an essential feature of an intake management solution.  The ability to track is something that only comes with orchestration because only by integrating and coordinating activities across multiple systems can you provide full visibility into every stage and step in a process. Moreover, because intake management is meant to be a single front door into any procurement process, this kind of tracking can't just apply to one process, but it has to apply across every buying channel and every process from supplier onboarding to risk management.

In summary, intake and orchestration are often confused. And when they are confused, buying decisions become hard.  In clarifying what we mean by these terms, however, we discover that intake and orchestration are not the same, even if they are related.  

If you are looking for an intake solution, ask yourself if you are looking for intake or intake management.  Because intake by itself only involves data collection, chances are that your existing suite and best-of-breed solutions already include some kind of intake feature.  But if you are looking for a way to coordinate procurement intake across all applications, processes, and sub-processes through a universal front-door experience, then what you need is intake management.

Intake management is a process.  And as a process, intake management requires orchestration.  In order to provide the best possible experience for end users, its important that the intake management process is orchestrated using the same orchestration platform as the rest of your procurement processes. Otherwise, you are working at cross purposes, introducing unnecessary complexity and uneven user experiences when these are two important issues that intake management and orchestration more generally set out to address.  

So lets stop talking about 'intake and orchestration.' And let's stop trying to think of 'intake' or 'intake management' as a separate and distinct procurement technology category.  Instead, let's talk about procurement orchestration and think of intake management as just one of many high-impact processes that would benefit from an orchestration platform approach.