We are normally critical about customer panels at tech vendor events largely because you can easily tell that they've been rehearsed to come within an inch of banality or are too vague. At worst they are self-serving to the point of being a long run advert. Oracle didn't fall into those traps at this year's OpenWorld.
Instead, it chose to walk attendees through a history of Oracle's SaaS apps, hint at the future and then illustrate how that comes together with customer vignettes. It was cleverly done and held my interest for the entire session.
It helps that the session was led by Steve Miranda, EVP Oracle applications product development. He has been a constant in the Oracle apps space for many years and readily convinces about the importance of keeping the customer at the center of what Oracle does.
History lessons at tech events can be excruciating but thankfully, Oracle kept that opening segment concise. There was just enough to convince that Oracle has made progress and its investments are considerably broader than might be supposed. As previously noted, Hearst, Ferrari, IBVI and Hilton Hotels were the main attractions. I won't talk about IBVI or Ferrari in any detail since these have been covered in detail by our team.
The Ferrari case caught my attention for several reasons. We often debate personalization. We have 466 references for the topic so far. It is easy to understand that in Ferrari's case, its ability to not only get close to every customer but also offer a consistent AND personal experience across its dealer network is vital. How that scales, and to what extent in other markets remains to be seen. But it is clear that the central tenet of customers 'buying a dream' informs the outcomes Ferrari desires for itself and its customers. The same goes for IBVI in the sense that it understands in great detail what its users need and has pushed that into the solutions it uses. My sense is that a continuing and relentless focus on outcomes makes all the difference to what happens. These are the kinds of example that amply demonstrate how outcomes can be supported by the smart use of technology.
Doing the needful
At a more mundane yet familiar level, Hearst talked about how its sprawl of 360 businesses, many of which were acquired, needs a consistent approach in the finance function, rather than each business unit being left to their own devices. The complexity that comes from financial reporting across multiple systems is a nightmare in many businesses so this practical example of an everyday reality struck a chord. I particularly liked the way Steve Hovstadius, SVP finance at Hearst described the judgment calls finance makes in how and when to impose change. Implicit in those efforts is a heavy focus on how change management proceeds. In addition, Hearst talked about the differences in the business models between consumer and B2B publications but with the common thread of a move towards digital publication. Finally, it was helpful to learn that in 'ripping off the25-year-old systems Band-Aid' provided Hearst with the opportunity to both modernize and simplify HR, finance and EPM activities in step-change fashion between 2016 and the present day.
Sex and sizzle
All tech vendors want to talk about sex and sizzle. Oracle is no exception so it was inevitable that AI and machine learning came into the presentation. Here, Oracle pulled off the rare feat of weaving together a compelling story that talked about how those technologies come together to provide advanced capabilities. It is best illustrated through the following image:
In doing so, Miranda made a couple of bold statements in an effort to demystify AI:
We believe very strongly that you can incrementally improve your applications and build brand new applications using AI. [It's about] doing this in a very pragmatic, very effective way. You'll notice that as much as we're talking about autonomous technology, we're not talking about autonomous applications. These are machine learning-driven applications. Ultimately you still have people driving business decisions.
In illustrating how these advanced technologies come together, Miranda talked about 'a single digital assistant with multiple skills.' Outcomes? Check the numbers below:
These results are impressive by any standard but as a finale, Miranda brought on stage Kellie Romack, VP digital HR and strategic planning, Hilton Hotels and Resorts. She made a point we have argued for many years that:
We want our team members to have the same experience as our guests.
At a practical level, Hilton is using virtual reality as a way of teaching team members about Hilton's own connected room technology without needing to find a demo room. On the AI front, Hilton is currently in development mode, taking the top 60 requested items in the HR function. Hilton discovered that many of those items are repetitive in nature and so well suited to a conversational/bot approach. But in addition, Hilton understands that mobile delivery is key to success.
95 percent of our team does not sit at a desk. Everything is on the go serving customers, so we want them to bring their own device. The enterprise is on that device....At some point, we think we should be able to operate everything in HCM with our voice.
This session was one of the most compelling I've seen in many years. Yes, it was rehearsed. Yes it was slick and yes, we're talking abut very large businesses. But the narrative flow made sense.
I've had the opportunity to observe how Oracle is shaping the future for its customers in SaaS applications over many years. It's not been a smooth path. However, as I reflect on what I saw in this session it is clear that Oracle now has both a complete picture and message for how it can help customers remain or become competitive across a broad range of industries and not think of themselves as restricted to core ERP. That's a very different and compelling argument to others we hear.
The only caveat is that customers who buy into that story will inevitably buy into Oracle's complete vision. The extent to which that leads to unintended lock-in with all the financial consequences that go with it has yet to be seen and understood.