Modern ERP is about serving your stakeholders - Oracle customers make the case for a different kind of ERP, and how AI fits in

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed October 17, 2023
Generative AI is the fall event headline, but at Oracle CloudWorld, a different theme emerged: redefining ERP (and HCM) to serve stakeholders better. But how do you measure that - and how does AI fit in? That sparked fruitful conversations with TrueBlue and Providence St Joseph Health.

Steve Miranda interviews Providence Healthcare's Frances Chao at Oracle CloudWorld 2023
(Providence Health's Frances Chao at CloudWorld 2023)

Some events are, alas, a bit low on the customer stories diginomica is obsessed with documenting.

Oracle CloudWorld 2023 had the opposite problem. The notable use cases linger - with lessons worth surfacing. Our CloudWorld 2023 archive has a number of those, but there are more stories to tell.

I press this question in almost every use case interview: how has this project helped you serve your own customers better? That's an obvious question at a CX show - but with a cloud ERP or cloud HR customer, that's not always the easiest question to answer. But if you can't answer it on some level, then perhaps your project needs a rethink. In this economy, we can't afford the internal, navel-gazing transactional projects of old.

Now there is an obvious follow-on question: AI. To what extent do you think AI will help you on this mission? Do the AI plans/roadmaps of your application vendors stack up with your needs - or will you be looking at other options, e.g. AI specialist firms or internal development? I asked those questions of several Oracle customers; one of those is already published (How Northwell Health is using Fusion Cloud HCM to move from the years of pandemic survival to "years of innovation")

"How do we reduce the administrative burden on our caregivers?"

After her CloudWorld keynote appearance with Oracle's Steve Miranda, I asked Frances Chao, GVP of Enterprise Business Systems at Providence St. Joseph Health, those same questions. For Chao, it starts with a shared mission: 

When I talk about an organization that truly believes health is a human right, those words are so powerful to me. When we talk about how everyone should have access to health care, regardless of their inability to pay, that's deep in our history and in our culture. We've been investing in communities for 165 years. 

To me, it correlated so well with our program because their focus was: how do we reduce the administrative burden on our caregivers, so they can just focus on providing quality care. There's not a single person In this role that isn't touched by health care, especially the last three or four years. And so that's why, when I think about our organization and really trying to tackle health disparities, I get passionate about what we do.

Chao's project scope is as ambitious as the mission itself. Through a series of acquisitions, including St. Joseph's in 2015,  Providence was dealing with 15 different ERP systems. Taking advantage of advanced technologies like AI, machine learning and IoT was out of the question on such disparate systems. Moving it all onto Oracle Fusion Cloud ERP and HCM, while supporting 119,000 caregivers at more than 51 hospitals, is no small undertaking. But Chao sees a direct tie in between this project and their mission:

Initially when I joined the company, you wonder, 'How does an ERP [connect to this]? How am I really impacting health care?' But when you see the struggles of our caregivers trying to do simple things, whether it's logging their time, checking their payslips, changing their bank deposit, or better yet, procuring supplies, making sure that our part inventories are stocked, these are the systems that as seamless as they become - and we are far from that.

But we will get there. That is when it becomes seamless. This reduces all that burden off of them, and they can truly focus on what they were meant to do. And that's focusing on patients. And so that's where I get passionate about, how can we reduce that burden off of them?

Can modern ERP change how we serve our constituents?

Chao concedes that the ERP of yesteryear would not have been up to this challenge. But it's her contention that modern platforms like Fusion Cloud change what's possible:

Historically, ERPs have always been to the benefit of the larger organizations, right? It's about, "How do you make your shared services function better.' It was not about the actual employee or the caregiver experience. I think with everything going digital, where we're starting to modernize the actual experience, the ease of use of everything, it's all catered now to the employees. And that, to me, really helps with retaining employees, inspiring employees and developing employees, especially as we look at talent management functionality within Oracle itself. It starts to become more about the employee and the caregiver.

Providence St. Joseph Health went live on Oracle, "big bang" style, on July 5, 2022, with finance, supply chain, HCM, and a consolidation of workforce management systems (this go-live also spanned nine months of rollouts to all the ministries and clinics).

"With every technology project we do, I insist on really clear metrics" - TrueBlue's story

Derrek Gafford, CFO, TrueBlue faced a different situation - but arrived at a similar goal: he wanted to make sure their Oracle project delivered on the outcomes defined, specific to TrueBlue's goals in financial services and investment advisory. This is not as simple as one might think; too often, customers allow vendors to define all the "customer success" metrics. As Gafford told me:

I had never put in an ERP. And so I asked all over, 'What metrics do you use?' You know what I walked away with? Most people don't measure - [even] big companies with big spends... We had to create it on our own.

That didn't work for Gafford:

With every technology project we do, I insists on really clear metrics. I believe it's not just about the business value measurement. If you come up with metrics that matter, it just makes for more success because then you know what's important.

Gafford's team ensured that their project had a positive impact on their "internal customers," via in-depth satisfaction surveys. As a stakeholder group, employees absolutely matter - especially when we consider the internal reach of modern ERP systems, as Frances Chao described. But the impact on external customers matters also. What did Gafford see there?

The thing that we really like about Oracle is I feel like Oracle's one step ahead of us in many respects... We close our books in four days now. The faster we get information to our operations, the more of a chance they have to make an impact, before that issue is over.

The impact on analytics has had a rollover effect - from employees to external customers:

The integration of the products does help us get the analytics clearer, faster and cleaner. In business, simplicity helps a lot... The quality of some of the information we were providing was not very good, whether it's company, customer, or employee performance. We've really taken the number of sources of information, and consolidated it in a way that allows our internal customers and our operating folks to get the data that they need, that's relevant to customers, faster - in a much more self-service oriented environment.

Gafford says that for serving external customers, a stable, self-service oriented system can't be underestimated:

Nobody wants to call for an answer, say, 'How do I get A, B and C? Just tell me how to go get it myself. I don't want to call you. I just want to go get it.'  And stable... If you had been through what I've been through, having the systems running and being able to count on them, it's a big deal.

How does AI fit in? Oracle customer reactions

Now back to the question du jour: customer perceptions of AI. Can this tech-du-jour help with these external-facing goals? What does Chao think of Oracle's AI strategy and news?

I'm excited to be honest...  I know everyone's like, 'Oh, we've always had traditional AI machinery,' I know that - but to see the use cases and being able to use the use cases now, that's what's exciting, right?

Chao is well aware of that risk versus innovation balance. We'll need that in the next AI phase:

I'm a very risk averse person if you really get to know me. So when I hear the concerns, I get it, but at the same time, I was like,  'This is a disrupter. This is a challenger. This is going to challenge is how we work.' And what's the right balance?

For example? Chao cited Oracle's HCM AI news:

When everyone saw the performance reviews with a goal reviews generation, I was like, 'Oh, I'll never have to do one again.' And I said, we are we really serious about leaping in with this. I am a huge component of lean forward, lean in and try things. But I said, all joking aside, we're going to generate it, and then no one's going to have meaningful conversations around their career.

But if one of our fundamental workplace goals is reducing administrivia, and upping our time for the most (humanly) impactful work, then perhaps machines have a huge role to play:

Instead of being afraid of that, I think what's interesting is: it's gonna challenge us as leaders to think, 'How are we going to make those conversations more powerful? How are we going to actually be engaged in those conversations?' But I think it does, because it frees up time for us to think, versus type something up. And so I'm excited about it, because I think the possibilities are endless.

And what is Gafford's take? How will Oracle's AI plans impact TrueBlue? In the financial services arena, Gafford sees a distinction with generative AI, where the use cases are new, and more "traditional" AI, where the technology is already in heavy use.

I love generative AI; there's going to be some use applications for it. But the money, no doubt, it's in traditional AI. There's been a lot of great things with AI, automation and machine learning - anywhere from bank account reconciliations to many others.

We're in the middle of a procure-to-pay optimization effort right now... There's some great machine learning in there to continue to reduce the amount of time that it takes, not just in our AP department, but how many people are touching it in the field as we continue to automate things. I think Oracle has done a pretty good job in this area. When it comes to generative AI,  that's something Oracle's certainly working on, as many people are. There's some good applications for that in finance, too. Not as much as with traditional AI.

Part of the challenge with generative AI and banking? Today's LLMs have limitations with math and numbers. But Gafford does see an emerging role for generative AI here:

Over here in generative AI, we're mostly in personal assistant modes for using that...  I'm not a technology guy by heart, but from what I can see, the frontier is bringing it to scale with your current systems - and it's still a little bit of the wild west.

Whatever plays out in AI, Gafford says Oracle has made a good case for a seat at that table:

We're always going to go first with Oracle... We were making that decision back in 2018 - so things have come a long way.

My take

I'm out of space for now, but these three elements - customer-designed metrics, stakeholder-focused ERP thinking, and the impact of AI really do come together. I had excellent chats with both Gafford and Chao on measuring results: what should we be measuring, and how should we get there? In terms of metrics that matter, the reduction of administrivia and the elevation of strategic/customer facing work is an area of measurement we need to bear down on.

As I see it, the metrics customers own and evaluate create the best context of AI deployments. At minimum, AI should support those existing goals. Pushing beyond those goals in unforeseen ways is what should make 2024 a fascinating year.

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