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Thoughts on Oracle Open World 2014


I’m not sure quite what to say about Oracle Open World 2014 that I didn’t already say in my tweet stream. That won’t stop me from trying, though. It’s my job, and it’s also fun trying to make a picture from all the jigsaw pieces we were handed.

There’s been a lot of talk about “the changing face of Oracle,” with efforts apparently being made to soften the notoriously hard-edged tech monolith’s public image. Whatever you may choose to make of it, there was certainly some of this attitude on display this past week. Not only were executives more numerous and available, they were more present—meaning they seemed to have real interest in sharing their plans with the public, and getting feedback from the 60,000 customers, partners and analysts in attendance. For some of them, this isn’t a change; Steve Miranda, EVP of applications development, has always been an exemplar of what a public-facing exec should be, and now that Meg Bear, group VP of Oracle Social Cloud, has joined the company, he’s not alone in that. You can keep your Safra Catz and Mark Hurd (as long as we can still use the puntastic “herding cats” imagery)—these are the sort of people I want to talk to, and who need to be heard.

Larry Ellison has stepped down as CEO, which should be news to nobody at this point. With him free to focus on technology (at least when he’s not doing chairman stuff), it feels like discussions about Oracle tech are going to be a lot more fun from now on. It’s clear that he likes talking about it, evangelizing, and tossing barbs at the competition, and I get the sense he will be less restrained now. While this means more opportunities for crotch-punching among all those industry leaders—as evidenced by the utter lambasting of SAP HANA this year, in front of the former SAP exec who championed it—I guess there’s the hope that it’ll feel less official coming from the chairman, CTO, and largest non-institutional shareholder.

Another factor is that Oracle is truly starting to embrace cloud computing as a fundamental part of their business. They’ve even stated that moving customers to the cloud is a matter of when, not if—though of course they also say that nobody will ever be forced to give up on-premises deployments. Nobody was forced to give up horses either, but how many people still ride?

The technology on display this year was fine. Nothing groundbreaking in my opinion, unless you happen to be a VAR, in which case you had better make sure the rug hasn’t just been pulled out from under you. Specifically, users now have the ability to move their Oracle apps to and from the cloud by more or less pushing a button or two, and those apps will be modernized and updated automatically, all without having to alter existing code. Furthermore, Oracle claims to have built social, mobile, and analytic support directly into the database, so adding those functions to apps should be much easier. If this works as well as demos have shown, a lot of systems integrators out there will be scrambling to learn new tricks.

Despite seeing the word “innovation” in a lot of presentations this year, I think it’s misleading. What we’ve seen is smart continuation of existing efforts. Oracle is taking all the neato things that are possible with today’s computing power and making them commonly available. Former Oracle senior VP and general manager Anthony Lye was fond of saying the company was not necessarily an innovator, but a fast follower. This is fine by me. I’m getting the sense that there’s enough wisdom in the company to know that it’s not just about providing the hardware and software, but about understanding why their customers want it and how they want to use it.

I’m looking forward to hearing the responses from other vendors in the coming days and weeks—Dreamforce is right around the corner, after all—and watching it all play out in the coming year. I close these after-action reports with some variation on the above every year, but this year it seems more true than ever before.


Open World 2014, open


So it’s official: Unless something bad happens, I will once again be in attendance at Oracle Open World this year. This is the second confirmation on my summer/fall conference list. (The other, CRM Evolution, was set months ago.) More to follow as they come.

Open World 2014 is the last week of September into October, so Big Red isn’t exactly waiting for the last minute or anything. This year’s AR/PR team has some new faces mixed with the veterans, and I know the experience, if not the same, will be just as good. Oracle has traditionally done a very good job with the cushier aspects of making potential critics feel welcome.

I’m looking forward to the conference, as usual, and figure now’s as good a time as any to ask readers and followers if there’s anything specific they’d like me to look for while I’m there. For my own part, I want to see a summary of how the half-score of Cloud initiatives launched last year have fared. Call me lazy—I do it all the time—but while I know how several of them have done, I want somebody to help out with broad context.

For another thing, I have to admit I am still excited by the Big Data and in-memory computing products that were on display last year. Big Data is tired and even a bit inaccurate, as buzzwords go, but the concepts behind bringing supermassive analytics to business users still astounds me. That and in-memory computing really appeal to the geek in me, even though I’m not competent with hardware.

Most of all, I will get to share thoughts and arguments with some of the finest minds in enterprise computing. I always come out of these things energized and enlightened, so I can pass on what I’ve learned.


Tech Term Convergence at SuiteWorld 2014


I recently attended SuiteWorld 2014, the annual conference hosted by ERP cloud vendor NetSuite, and it was a good experience. Spending time with NetSuite almost always is, really; the applications are like Goldilocks’ porridge—not too sparse, not too overloaded with gadgets, just right. Your mileage may vary, and this is as much a personal assessment as it is a professional one.

If you’re looking for highlights of the announcements, see my Twitter stream. For me though, the big takeaway was not what had been added to NetSuite’s back-office capabilities, nor its front-office ones. Rather, it was a new set of questions about the nature of labels like CRM and ERP, and of what goes into them.

In his keynote, CEO Zach Nelson compared what NetSuite does to what CRM vendors claim to do, and suggested that customer experience and satisfaction were driven more by ERP functions than by CRM. When you contact a company, some of the most common reasons are to inquire about a bill, check on an order, or make a purchase. None of those things can happen unless the customer (or the service rep) can access data from the warehouse or the accounting department. ERP is what tells the company where your merchandise is and where the money is. From a transactional point of view, ERP is CRM.

Just as ERP fills a CRM role sometimes, so does CRM manage corporate resources. Marketing and sales materials need to be created, refined, and distributed while being tracked against budget and time. You’re planning what to do with those enterprise resources, and you wouldn’t turn to an Accounts Payable clerk to do it. Reputation and brand identity, two of the most important assets a business has (though admittedly somewhat abstract and not traditional resources) are likewise governed with technology we call CRM.

It’s wrong to say that ERP is better at CRM functions than the apps we think of as CRM, nor vice-versa. The problem is that both sides can claim to perform functions they don’t actually do. ERP is not about building relationships, anticipating needs, or managing demand, and CRM is not about getting orders packed, shipped, and paid for. Each may have some elements of the other, but they can’t replace one another in most cases.

I’m not the only person who started thinking about this. Several enjoyable conversations later, with the likes of Cindy Jutras, Laurie McCabe, and Denis Pombriant (who clarified the issue for me as only he can), I came to the conclusion that the labels are artificial, and often distracting. At some level, it’s just a matter of convenience to use those terms, some jargon that provides a rough overview of what’s in the topic.

The issue isn’t front office and back office, or CRM and ERP. It’s system of record and system of engagement. It’s where you imagine the heart of your business to reside, and how your connect it to the other parts. Multiple systems of record makes little sense—one version of the truth is enough for anybody except politicians. Multiple systems of engagement used to be acceptable, even necessary, but no longer. Presenting a unified face to the customer, and being able to server them equally in whatever channel they choose to engage, is the new norm.

Without an effective system of record, a business is chaos. Orders can’t be fulfilled, payments can’t be made or received, and there is no answer to questions. Without an effective system of engagement, you’re a shop with locked doors and windows. Customers don’t know what you offer, and you don’t know who wants to buy. Both systems are necessary, and both must work together. Whether all the applications come from one vendor, or they’re integrated from multiple sources, the result has to synergize.

I’m not going to erase the CRM and ERP labels by thinking this way, and I’m not sure I want to. What I want is for vendors, analysts, journalists, and consultants to look beyond the labels, look beyond the limitations they falsely suggest, and consider enterprise software as an ecosystem instead of a bunchasystems.



Aligning Marketing and Sales Still Matters


Marketo has just released a new white paper, titled simply, “Marketing & Sales Alignment.” I’d like you to take a look at it for two reasons. The first is entirely self-serving: I’m quoted right at the top of the article, which is an honor I’ve only rarely had.

The second reason is more appropriate to why I write about things like this in general: It addresses a salient point for CRM users in a clear and helpful way. It has to, because the problem of getting sales and marketing to work well together is still a problem. After all this time, the same old territoriality remains.

The ancientness of the marketing-sales divide is pointed up, possibly unintentionally, by the paper’s first subheading, “Sales Is From Mars, Marketing Is From Venus.” That hoary, white-bearded metaphor, alluding to those somewhat sexist advice books I’m sure you remember, is entirely appropriate. Just as the books accent outdated gender roles, this white paper shows us the outdated professional mindsets that are still so prevalent in organizations today.

Marketo’s solution to the problem begins with the corollary statement, ” They’re Still Orbiting the Same Sun.” This ties in well with the other solution—the tool set Marketo’s application provides—in lighting the path toward better alignment. You’ll need to judge for yourself if Marketo is the right tool box for you, and there are handy demo and trial offers at the end of the document if you want to go that route. Whether or not you like the product, the thought behind it is spot on.


After-Action Report: Oracle Open World 2013


So, I’m a few days back from Oracle Open World, and have had time to put my thoughts together. Overall, I can say it was effective in showing what Oracle can do with server technology. Its application prowess could be inferred, but wasn’t given enough spotlight.

You’ve probably heard this from me before, and from any number of people who cover business applications like CRM. The fact is, Oracle is a company with a lot of things going on, and it seems that most of its money and staying power comes from the hardware end of things. As such, I can’t be surprised that the keynotes were focused on server technology—like the powerful new SPARC M6-32 in its various flavors—and the databases that let them use that power. I’m not a hardware guy in any professional sense, but the nerd in me gets excited upon hearing what the newest and bestest can do. Larry Ellison is at his best when talking about servers and databases, and while this wasn’t his finest hour, he got the point across very effectively that the big cabinets with the blinking lights could deliver some serious computing.

While computing power translates into applications power, the connection isn’t explicit. Deeper discussion of how the servers and databases and in-memory computing drive more effective software was needed, but largely absent. David Vap gave us part of the story in regard to CX (that’s both customer experience in a generic sense, and Oracle CX in particular), and Steve Miranda led a Wednesday session  that I had to miss to catch a plane, most of what could be said about CRM-related topics was left unsaid. Breakout sessions by partners and acquisitions covered some of the gaps, but that spreads the message a little thin.

Speaking of partners, Microsoft was a very noticeable presence this year, sharing the stage for a keynote to show off the freshly minted partnership between the two sometimes-rivals. In a nutshell, Oracle will certify and support its product line—applications, middleware, database, Java, and Oracle Linux—on Windows Server Hyper-V and Windows Azure. Microsoft, in turn, will offer Java, Oracle Database, and Oracle WebLogic Server to Windows Azure customers. This is a fairly big deal for infrastructure fans, though it expands existing relationships rather than diving into completely new territory, but again the applications story is left untold.

I understand that the stuff that interests me can’t always be front and center. I would have appreciated a little more of it, but I was mostly content with what I saw. Big computing is the heartbeat of Big Data—a major buzzword for the past couple of years—and Big Data lets businesses better understand and predict customer behavior on both macro and micro levels. Hammering the point home a little harder, maybe with some practical demonstrations of Big Data-injected CRM in action, would have been great.

The thing that was lacking, in my opinion, was vision. As I mentioned before, Larry Ellison shines when he can wax rhapsodic about technology. He absolutely crushes it when he talks about what he wants to develop, and what the future holds through use of his company’s many products. The excitement he can bring to the discussion was not as evident this year; he was more like a proud parent than a supercharged futurist. It was good Larry, but not great Larry.

I’ll mention, but not dwell upon, the fact that he skipped his second keynote to watch Oracle Team USA’s final victory over Emirates Team New Zealand in the Americas Cup sailing race series. It’s a huge deal for sailing enthusiasts, and he’s nothing if not that. It was disappointing to miss him, and some attendees were outraged to one degree or another, but when your personal net worth is greater than some nations’ GDP, sometimes you can do what you want.

Thanks to the OOW event staff, and especially to the analyst relations team, for making my time at Open World enjoyable, productive, and busy. Same time next year?


Evolution 2013, First Day


Another CRM Evolution conference is upon us, and Monday (the first day) was the usual whirlwind of catching up with friends and colleagues we haven’t seen since the last industry event. Or longer, in some cases; I got to renew my connection to a few people I haven’t seen in well over a year. Tuesday will be hard brainwork—presenting our sessions, attending others, taking briefings, and generally cramming as much new information into our noggins as possible.

CRM Evolution is one of my favorite industry events because it’s so focused on the exchange of ideas, not just business cards. Vendors are here, but they’re participants in the process, and they all get equal focus. OK, the sponsors and Market Awards winners get a little more, but that’s only fair. This is where thought leaders come to confab, and we all get our paychecks from somebody.

Trade shows like this are one of my favorite working environments, no matter how much I might complain about fatigue, schedule conflicts, or food. Whether we have a product or not, we’re all knowledge workers here, and we’re operating in a rich intellectual soup. The challenge of taking it all in and keeping it straight, forming opinions and making plans based upon them, is the almost purely mental exercise on which we thrive. The importance of physical exercise becomes clear here as well, because conferences can be brutal endurance events.

The thrill isn’t just an academic one, watching sharp minds at the top of their game. What we do here, we use to change the world a little bit. I know, we’re not the heroes who keep folks safe, or provide care to the sick, or stretch the bounds of science. We grease the wheels of economies, and put in place the tools that let the hero types do their wonders more easily and effectively. We help businesses make life a little less annoying, a little more fulfilling. We deliver the concepts that let altruism (and well-intentioned greed) expand worldwide and reach new places. We find new ways to solve old problems.

We make sure there’s an app for that. You’re welcome.


A Simple But Brilliant Plan

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Took a briefing the other day, regarding Elastic Intelligence’s new company/product, Connection Cloud. About a third of the way through it, I had one of those moments. You know, the one where you say aloud, “Why hasn’t anybody done this yet? Why haven’t I done this yet?”

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself a bit, which means you have no idea what I’m talking about. Let me back up. Connection Cloud is a service that answers a question that users have made since the birth of software as a service: “How do I keep control of my data?”

In theory, your data is always yours, and you can move it around or feed it into disparate BI and reporting applications however you like. In practice, data is resident in the platform on which the business systems are built, and connectors must be coded to have those apps talk to each other and report on the same data, not copies of it.

Connection Cloud fills the role of middle man—or middleware, if you prefer—by being a data switchboard with connectors available for everything. It can pull info from any cloud application or group of applications into the reporting system of your choice, and refresh as often as you like. Build a report in any app, whether Excel or any SaaS vendor’s product, and you can populate it nearly instantly with live data. Not a static dump, not a preconfigured subset. Choose the fields you want and make your report happen.

I am very enthusiastic about Connection Cloud, which is strange because my focus is usually on customer experience and the use of social media, not running reports. The fact is, though, businesses run on information. They need to understand more than just what’s happening at the point of service, and that means detailed reporting of operational data. Anything that provides more access and easier management to that data makes it easier for businesses to operate with confidence, and without fear that working with a SaaS provider is a one-way street.

Am I being horribly naive about this? Have I missed something in the past several years? Let me know in the comments, because I think Connection Cloud is dead clever, and it’s doing something necessary and (so far) unique.

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Reintroducing Myself, Again


I just had one of those sinking feeling, Vertigo shot, “oh, crap” moments, as I tried to log into the admin panel for this site to delete some spam comments. I couldn’t load the page at all, and when I tried to ask the WordPress forums for help, my username wasn’t recognized. For a little while, I feared my blog presence had evaporated into the aether.

Now that I’ve solved the problem, I have to address another one: to wit, my blog presence has more or less evaporated anyway, as I have not been posting over the past several months. Unforgivable, I know, and the reasons for my absence aren’t relevant to most readers. But watch me spin this into a useful post anyway.

Have you ever heard of blogfade? It’s a phenomenon that started to show up in 2009, once the first blush of blogging had worn off. Essentially, any blog, no matter the motivations for starting, runs out of steam now and again. Sometimes it’s temporary, other times it’s permanent. It’s hard to come up with new content all the time, even when you’re an ace writer like me.

It’s not just individually owned blogs (and Twitter feeds, and YouTube channels, and Tumblrs, etc.) that fade; many businesses start blogging with the best of intentions, only to slowly wither. Maybe the person who started the blog left the company and those remaining didn’t see the urgency in keeping it updated. Maybe corporate shut the project down. Maybe nobody was reading it, or there weren’t enough things to say that weren’t already in press releases. Whatever the excuse—blogfade.

A policy on blogfade should be built into anybody’s (or any company’s) rules of engagement for social media. “Thou shalt not abandon thy blog without an explanation, or at least a goodbye.” The reason is simple. Looking for updates that don’t come is frustrating at first, which is bad. Over time it leads to apathy, which is worse. Producing or curating social content is a responsibility once you decide to do it.

Nobody likes to be left hanging. If you’re going to say goodbye, say it. If you need to take a break, say so—or explain your absence once you come back.

Here’s to the return of the Third Idea blog. Let’s see if I can live up to my punditry.


SAS Analytics and Why It Matters to Customer Experience


I just got back from a brief but intense conference with SAS. Followers of customer experience, social CRM, and other related topics will know SAS from … well, they might not know SAS very well at all. This is both understandable and a shame, but more on that in a moment.

On display at the the SAS Premiere Business Leadership conference were everything from customer stories of how high-powered analytical tools get them closer to their customers, all the way to computing clusters that eat terabytes of data in seconds and spit out detailed reports and predictive models in near real time. I got to watch a live demo of SAS Visual Analytics, a program that makes what used to take an advanced degree to create and turns it into a drag-and-drop tool with as much granularity and complexity as you want. It’s not just a dashboard, mind you—detailed reports with multiple variables and axes (the plural of axis, not the plural of chopping tool) can be built on the fly, several levels deep. The kicker? It’s all processed server-side so you can run it on a tablet as easily as on a PC.

Those servers aren’t necessarily budget-breakers either. SAS has been putting a lot of effort into working well in Hadoop clusters, inexpensive distributed computing environments operating under the Apache Hadoop open-source framework. There’s nothing to stop a company from running SAS on something like an Oracle grid (except maybe Oracle preferring you run Exalytics), but it doesn’t have to. Tremendous power is working its way into the hands of smaller and smaller businesses with each advancement; trickle-down theory doesn’t work in economics, but it works like crazy in computing.

SAS also talked bout products for information management, fraud detection, and hospitality/entertainment businesses (complete with their relevance to the average person), most of which are already in the wild or will be available by December.

An example of that relevance: Imagine a credit card company running multiple loyalty programs for cash back, discounts, etc., across multiple cards, each with a number of messages and contacts for customers. Customer X only wants a small number of contacts per day/week. Analytics can optimize and decide which messages to send for best results. It’s a very complex analysis that could take 4-6 hours. With the new system, running the same SAS interface, the company can do it in 2-4 minutes. Similarly, a retailer can manage pricing across thousands of SKUs and hundreds of shops on an individual level, rather than by region.

If you’re wondering at the amount of attention I’ve been devoting lately to high-end hardware, middleware, and enterprise software that the typical customer will never see or even know exists, let me explain. As much as I love the intimacy and immediacy of social CRM, customer experience, and all things SMB, it doesn’t happen ex nihilo. Businesses can track your preferences and history, make decisions about you as a customer, and provide compelling offers only because of advanced analytical engines running on powerful computing backbones. While it’s nice to imagine a team of elves personally interacting with you and evaluating your account, the fact remains that those elves are actually massive computing resources digesting millions of lines of database entries every second. Unstructured data—the kind that comes from social tools—is especially hard to manage, and the amount of it is growing at a rate that has storage vendors drooling.

Analytics, grid computing, in-memory operations—these are how the sausage is made, and the more advanced it gets the better the sausage tastes. Understanding what’s happening behind the CRM suite and the social platform makes me that much better at my job.

Besides, all that metal, silicon, and Big Data feeds a deep-seated geek desire in me for tech porn with MOAR POWAH! Petrol heads and overclockers know what I’m talking about. The possibility that all this face-melting power will make my life more science fiction than it already is sets me all a-quiver.


Oracle OpenWorld, Part 3: The NetSuite Addendum


Oracle OpenWorld got me reacquainted with SaaS ERP and CRM provider NetSuite, as part of a week that was all about making clear that which had been a bit foggy for a while. I hope you’re not expecting me to be writing about how NetSuite has re-emerged, because they never went away. The fault is all mine for not providing more coverage of the company the past couple of years—I let the San Mateo-based company drop off my radar because their primary focus is ERP, while mine is not.

There are two reasons this was a mistake (three, actually, but only two of them matter to you). The first is that NetSuite’s CRM prowess, while not the thing that brings most customers to the door, has been consistently excellent over the years, good enough to rival any CRM vendor’s offering. Second is that the company has found a way of making ERP relevant to customer experience, which is no mean feat—more about that in a moment.

The third reason is that the NetSuite team is composed of some of my very favorite people in the industry, and I’ve done them a disservice by not staying in touch. It has nothing to do with the lovely dinners and bottles of liquor they’ve bought me in times past, not the CES-level swag that often accompanies their conferences and other gatherings. I mention that because it’s always a good idea for people like me to disclose what might serve to bias us in a company’s favor. It takes a lot to bribe me, though; I’m perfectly happy to pee in a vendor’s Cheerios if I think there’s something wrong with their products or strategy, no matter how nice they’ve been to me; the best they can hope for in such a case is that I’ll try not to be mean about it. Fortunately, NetSuite has given me no reason for any cereal micturation.

Here’s what got me back in the business of observing NetSuite. The company showed off a very snazzy e-commerce engine that runs directly on top of the two-tiered ERP system that’s part of NetSuite OneWorld. I say snazzy because there’s nothing basic-looking about it; you get a highly polished front end for the minimal required work of setting a few parameters and telling the system what colors and logos it should use.

The two-tier ERP concept is pretty clever in its own right; the system allows users to run NetSuite OneWorld ERP at subsidiaries and satellite offices, while maintaining the value of its existing investment in on-premises ERP software (in this case Oracle’s) at the home office.

I am probably assuming facts not in evidence, but the sample we were shown seemed superior to anything I’ve used as a consumer—uncluttered, sensible, and minimalist, yet vibrant and friendly enough to draw the user along the buying process. I haven’t had a proper demo—as I said, we’ve been out of touch—but I plan to rectify that ASAP and let you know what’s going on with NetSuite behind the pretty face.

I will caution you not to take my initial enthusiasm as anything more than that; because I have recollections of NetSuite products from just a couple of years ago, and am impressed with what little I’ve seen, I am inclined to think the company’s offerings are still strong. However, I also recall a notable lack of redundant data centers just a couple of years ago, and it appears they still only have the one. It should also be noted that there’s a good reason for NetSuite to be present at an Oracle conference: Larry Ellison owns a consiberable stake in NetSuite, and in fact his money is what founder Evan Goldberg used to get started in 1998. If Oracle wants to buy itself some new toys, NetSuite is always a possible target—and that has to factor into any assessment I make.