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NetSuite World 2015

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NetSuite’s annual shindig is just winding down now, and I wanted to put my thoughts together before they become stale. They are likely to be the only stale thing about the experience. I plan to either update this post with more specifics or (more likely) write another to cover them.

First, I have to confess a bit of failure on my part. I arrived at the show a day later than I’d planned, so I missed a lot of the opening news surge and had to catch up as best I could. It wasn’t quite good enough; I did my best posting the highlights of what I heard and saw, but I was always on the losing side. NetSuite is a company that engenders tremendous love among its partners and customers, so there’s always a lot to take in when they throw an event. This one was big enough that it was possible to miss a lot while staying busy, but not big enough that trends were easy to spot.

NetSuite remains one of the most vibrant ERP vendors in the world (more impressive than it sounds) and provides the operational and financial technology backbone for a large variety of companies. Despite the ERP focus, NetSuite continues to look and feel from the outside rather like a CRM vendor. To be fair, this is because it includes, overlaps with and ties into CRM by design, and in fact is a sensible choice for companies seeking a combined front- and back-
office system. The NetSuite environment is one that lets its users create a great customer experience.

Maybe it’s my personal and professional bias towards CRM and customer experience, but most of what I encountered here was that sort of thing. From the Bronto acquisition (email marketing for e-commerce) to the application updates to the keynotes, everything revolved around ways to improve the customer experience. I am obviously all for this, but it always strikes me as strange that an ERP company doesn’t try a little harder to focus its message for the back office. Maybe that’s confidence in the product, or maybe it’s a gap in the messaging. NetSuite is fairly successful, so it’s likely more the former than the latter.

Every so often, somebody asserts that CRM is dead. If that’s so (and it isn’t, at least not in the sense that those people mean), it’s because of companies like NetSuite and its competitors. They provide such a broad range of interlinked applications that it’s
sometimes hard to say where CRM ends and something else begins. This is OK for those of us industry watchers who say CRM is as much about attitude and strategy as it is about technology, and it’s easier for us to describe our expertise simply as enterprise software.

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SugarCon 2015

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Just got back from this year’s SugarCon, and I did tweetpromise you a more complete writeup than the snippets that emerged from my phone. Here goes, though this is going to be kind of brief as well. I obviously haven’t blogged here in a while, so I need to get back into the habit while not overextending.

First, Let me say that the overall feeling I got from the execs, employees, and partners was one of confidence and satisfaction. It wasn’t boiling exuberance, it wasn’t smug self-congratulation, it was more like, “Things are going well. We’ve got this.” Take that for what you will; a lot of people will find this assessment meaningless, but it says a lot to me. It means Sugar is where it wants to be in the market, is moving forward on the things it needs to, and doesn’t have to present a false face. Ya go to enough of these things, you start to be able to tell when a company is trying to distract you.

sugar15roadmap

That said, Sugar acknowledges the need to improve in some places. One is Fit and Finish, which amounts to quality control, bug squashing, app handling and streamlining, and similar issues. Sugar developers tend to be  code enthusiasts to some degree, so any problems could always be rectified or worked around at that end—but it’s never a good idea to leave things like that up to somebody else. Sugar is making it so there’s no cleanup work to do before a dev starts creating.

One of the themes of this year’s SugarCon was positioning SugarCRM as “the engine of customer engagement.” On the one hand, it’s good to see a vendor taking customer experience seriously, and Forrester’s Rick Parrish delivered a session that emphasized the importance of seeing the relationship from the customer’s point of view. On the other hand, it’s not really saying anything new. If you care about customer engagement and experience, and you use CRM, those things are going to meet in the middle somewhere.

As to the devs themselves, there was a lively bunch of partners this year, representing a wide variety of interests. In addition to cruising around the partner pavilion, I got to take a closer look at some of the best ones as a panelist at the annual SugarCRM App Throwdown. The participants covered everything from mobile collaboration to relationship mapping to personality assessment via digital body language. That’s one of the things I love about Sugar—the sheer breadth of what creative minds can do with it.

In fact, SugarCRM is so good at partnering and collaboration that you might occasionally wonder what the product itself is good for. I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it, though; the CRM part of SugarCRM is as strong as anybody else’s, and the company would be sunk if that were not the case. CRM is a mature industry, and none of the major players in the CRM market have serious gaps in their functionality. More than ever, the distinction comes from what you can do with the app after you have it. Partners, developers, and other creative types need a canvas on which to paint masterpieces, and Sugar is extremely good at working with them. I’m looking forward to seeing more.

 

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Thoughts on Oracle Open World 2014

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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.

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Open World 2014, open

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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.

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Tech Term Convergence at SuiteWorld 2014

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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.

 

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Aligning Marketing and Sales Still Matters

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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.

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After-Action Report: Oracle Open World 2013

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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?

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Evolution 2013, First Day

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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.

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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

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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.

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