We shouldn’t have to say this. It should be very clear by now. But given that a number of vendors are using the terminology interchangeably, possibly to convince you they have the right solution, maybe it’s not clear. But it needs to be. Because procurement automation is NOT the same as automated procurement and while procurement automation, properly done, is the best investment an average over-burdened and under-resourced Procurement department can make, on the flip side, AI-driven automated procurement is the absolute worst. To put things in perspective, downgrading Excel to Lotus 1-2-3 would be a better move. But let’s back up, and start with some definitions.
Procurement Automation is the process of automating certain procurement tasks that can be best accomplished by machines and procurement automation technology is the technology that automates the tasks that can be best done by machines. In simpler terms, it automates the “thunking” by doing all of the tactical, almost mindless, work that is a waste of a senior Procurement professional’s time.
The Source-to-Pay cycle is full of tasks that are best done by machines when appropriate rules and boundaries are defined. For each major area, we’ll outline some of these tasks as an example.
Procurement Automation will analyze the request, identify similar requests made in the past, identify the actions used to resolve those requests, identify the suppliers considered and selected, the products and services used, and other information. It will present that information to the buyer, including the suggested actions, and allow the buyer to one-click initiate any of the suggested actions, which might include a sourcing event, contract renegotiation, catalog purchase, etc.
Procurement Automation will, when a user kicks off a sourcing event for one or more products, automatically bring up the suggested suppliers, automatically suggest the appropriate questionaries and forms, automatically suggest the appropriate Ts and Cs to insist on up front, automatically send the RFP to suppliers, automatically analyze the responses to make sure they are complete, in the correct format, and in an expected range; automatically compare the responses to find deviations from the norm; automatically highly the lowest and highest costs, CO2 factors, etc. and present all that information to the buyer.
Procurement Automation will, when a supplier is selected, automatically handle the onboarding; monitor the data for changes; monitor the performance metrics; monitor the OTD; monitor third party financial and risk metrics; and alert the buyer to any issues and performance changes that are detrimental or may indicate forthcoming problems.
Procurement Automation will, when an award is selected, push the award into the Contract Management system, automatically generate the draft contract, send it to the supplier, highlight any redlines the supplier makes when it comes back and automatically inform the supplier if any non-negotiable terms and conditions (including those they agreed to when they responded to the RFP), and automate the generation of the response email when the buyer does their redlines.
For catalog buys, it will automatically generate the POs, route them for necessary approvals, distribute them to the suppliers when approved, automatically match the ASNs when they come back, alert the buyers if ASNs are not received in a timely basis, and match the invoices when they come in.
When the invoice comes in, it’s automatically matched to the purchase order, it’s checked for price accuracy, identified as partial or full, verified to be non-duplicate, and if any checks fail, it’s bounced back to the supplier with a description of the issues and a request for correction and resubmission. If the resubmission deals with the problems, it’s queued waiting for goods receipt/confirmation if not present, or matched if present. If the match is made, then it’s automatically sent down the approval chain, and if it’s not made within a certain time period, an alert is raised.
In all cases, it’s automating the tactical tasks that don’t require any decision making and only involving the human when necessary.
In contrast, Automated Procurement is the process by where entire procurement processes are handed over to the machine to fulfill instead of the human. In other words, when an intake request comes in and the buyer marks it for sourcing, an Automated Procurement solution will handle the entire event up to and including the award and auto-generate and distribute the Purchase Order(s). The buyer is completely bypassed and the right inventory showing up at the right time at the right price is left entirely up to the machine. Sounds good in theory. Looks good in practice when it actually works, which it will some of the time. But grinds the company to a halt when it fails.
A machine that pursues lowest cost will select an unproven non-incumbent supplier for a critical part when the suppler, who has not supplied that particular part to the company before, outbids the incumbent. It will not detect that the bid was made in an desperate attempt to help the financially struggling supplier stay in business, that the bid is not sustainable, and that the supplier is not capable of producing the part at the indicated level of quality. Then, when the first shipment is mostly defective, and the promised rush replacement order never arrives because the supplier goes out of business, the production line for the 75K luxury car folds all for lack of a single control chip. (A similar situation has occurred in the past. Recently, chip shortages stopped Cherokee production in 2021, and that wasn’t the first occurrence. Or even the second, or third.)
Machines are not intelligent. Not even close. And expecting them to make a good decision every time with no logic whatsoever (as modern Artificial Idiocy algorithms just stack probabilistic equations on top of probabilistic equations almost ad infinitum) is lunacy. So while you should invest in the best Procurement Automation tech you can get your hands on, you should steer clear of any and all Automated Procurement Solutions those fancy new startups try to sell you. While those solutions may work 90% of the time, that last 10% of the time, they won’t work that great. And, in particular, that last 1% of the time they will fail so miserable that the disruptions and losses that result will more than cancel out any and all savings and efficiencies you might get from the 90% of the time the tech worked in the beginning.