CRM Watchlist 2019: The big engines that could (Part 2A, Oracle)

Oracle, one of the winners of the CRM Watchlist 2019, is a gigantic company that's been in the public eye for decades. Now they are realigned and ready to travel to new frontiers and engage a new breed of customer. Are they ready?
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

Needed to say (if it were needless, I wouldn't say it), I've gotten my reviews of four of the thirteen 2019 Watchlist winners done.  I've had a lot of kudos which I appreciate and one complaint that one of the posts was too wordy – and the content was insufficient – which I would have appreciated if there had been anything constructive in the complaint – meaning, for example, what content would that person have liked to have seen – but there wasn't, so I didn't. Verbose is what I have always been and will continue to be, like it or not. But I do take complaints about lack of content seriously – and I need more feedback than that to understand what is missing. So, the one useful thing sparked by that gentleman's complaint is that I am asking you to please let me know what content you would have liked to have seen if you think I am missing something. Please. You are welcome to either put it in the comments area, in the comments area on the LinkedIn share or email me at paul-greenberg3@the56group.com.

So, like it or not, here are the (wordy) posts on the four winners so far.

Now on to the next mega-giant – Oracle.


Originally, this post was going to cover both Oracle & Microsoft. Once again, I either changed my mind or reneged on my promise – depending on how kind you want to be toward me.  The reason is that this particular post is very long, and it was, as simply as it may read, incredibly complex to piece together. It also has taken me more than two weeks to write. So, I decided that rather than wait another two weeks plus, it would be wise to get this one out.  That also allows me to focus exclusively on Microsoft for however long it takes me to write that one.

And once again – a caveat. This is a post on why Oracle won the Watchlist so, while it will be as always entirely honest, it, like all the Watchlist winner posts, is slanted to the good – they WON the Watchlist – and there were good reasons for that.  I presume I can't be any clearer. So please don't waste cycles calling this one sided. It is. Its positive even when it's critical. They won the Watchlist. Won it. Didn't lose it. Won…it.

Oracle's Submission

Let's begin this with some kudos, huzzahs, hoorays, and congrats. Oracle actually sent me what I consider the most complete and best written questionnaire submission in the history of the Watchlist. Over the more than a decade since I began the Watchlist (12 competitions over 13 years), I only had awarded one company an extra bonus point (or partial point) for the brilliance of the submission. That was Ernst and Young. This was the second one – and it surpassed the other one in its completeness, attention to detail, and just quality of the writing.  So, thank you Oracle for making what I do better. The submission was an A+++. 

Evolution to Victory

In order to understand Oracle's present success, it's necessary to understand in some detail, Oracle's past.  It isn't an entirely pleasant past – to put it nicely but it also will show you just how far Oracle has come – especially in the last two years or so.  It also was what it was – and regardless of what was bad and good about it – it shaped a lot of what Oracle is as a company.

So, here is the (unvarnished) path Oracle has taken to get to the impact it had in 2018, is having in 2019 and will have beyond.

Oracle is Oracle. It is a nearly forty billion dollar mega-company with a dramatic presence in the technology world, who's most visible presence is a larger than life guy who is one of the world's richest human beings. On the yin side of the yin-yang, It has been an incubator (of sorts) for companies like Salesforce and some of the most important, influential business leaders in the world launched their careers in its ranks. All to its great credit.

However, on the yang side, it has been an historically difficult and very complex company and, in the past, equally difficult to work with. For many years it seemed to be charting a course that was more aligned to its own legacy and needs than the markets that it was supposed to address and the new markets that it had to address. It also seemed like they didn't give a damn what people thought of that either – and proceeded to act accordingly. Even with the world changing at the pace it was, at the time, Oracle wasn't.  To be clear, please note I'm using the past and past perfect tenses.

Despite the sharp, sometimes acrimonious nature and history of its culture, there were two things that Oracle could always do really well.

  1. Most important, build products that competed with anyone's in the market – and were as good or better than those they competed with.  Oracle Sales Cloud and Service Cloud – natively built (with acquisitions tucked into the solution) – had some of the strongest feature sets and tight integration of any company's I had ever seen. I remember a few years ago seeing the mobile treatment of their Sales Cloud applications. At that time (3 years ago), it had the best navigability I had seen in a sales mobile app.
  2. Second, acquire companies with products that were equally as good – and not only competed in the market but were market leaders (Eloqua being a really good example of that).  

But in the last several years, as Oracle began to grasp the cloud and its increasing ubiquity, it began to change and shake off decades of dust and grime and reinvent itself a bit at a time.  Even as some of the sharpness of its culture persisted, Oracle still could build products – competitively strong cloud-based products – and they made acquisitions that were very well aligned with what they needed to do to foster that alignment. Acquisitions from 2011 on such as RightNow (2011), Collective Intellect (2012) Eloqua (2013) Compendium (2013), Responsys (2013), Big Machines (2013) BlueKai (2014), Maxymiser (2015), NetSuite (2016) and DataFox (2018) are great examples of acquisitions that provided them with the technology they needed to foster cloud-based ecosystems.  That only touches on what they've acquired. For example, Eloqua was the foundation for the Oracle Marketing Cloud. That offering was extended by Compendium and Responsys, giving them a Marketing Cloud that competes well as one of the best in the market in 2019.  Collective Intellect and Blue Kai were among the fabrics stitched by the incredible Tara Roberts (currently VP of Adaptive Intelligence) into the Social Cloud which serves as the core social communications layer across Oracle CX clouds. (For a general list of Oracle's acquisitions and some detail on what they were for, here is the Wikipedia entry)

This goes to the heart of one of Oracle's greatest strengths – their "middle management" – the only terms I can come up with for the people at the level of management that is getting what Oracle does done well.  They are the ones who came up with the varying cloud-based products such as Sales Cloud, Engagement Cloud (more on this later), Service Cloud, Marketing Cloud (nee Eloqua), CPQ Cloud (probably not really a cloud as much as part of one) and even Social Cloud (again, probably not a cloud as much as a communications layer that rests cross-cloud. More on why that in a "platform-not- stack" strategy later).  I can literally name about 20 people at Oracle who are for the most part VPs to EVPs who have been producing competitive and even superior products for years, despite the at times toxicity of the culture and the insular yet combative defensiveness of the company.  These folks still kept Oracle CX in the game as a true competitor and influential company. They are under the aegis of the often under-estimated but industry insider well esteemed EVP of Applications Development at Oracle, Steve Miranda, who has been outstanding in his job – and is a truly nice human being – for the last nearly 27 years.

But even with this, Oracle had been crippled by their legacy – however successful it had been. They had been masters of the (relational database) universe for years and their customers attested to the value their product provided.   But business applications, due to a long development time with Fusion and some misplaced priorities at the company on the global level, were not as prominent on Oracle's public stage. Plus, they marketed and messaged as an infrastructural product company –  so CX and the ERP applications took a back seat to the Oracle database products and to their hardware and later on to their Cloud offerings per se. 

Yet the markets and world were evolving and due to the communications revolution of now two decades, the demands and needs of customers were changing and what that did to the technology market was force a dramatic change in how customers and companies engaged.  Customers controlled the conversation. Oracle's CX technology stack, as much as it was a stack, still was the kind of technology that business leaders needed because, if seen and applied properly, it could enable outcomes.

Value of Outcomes

So that we are clear on what is important in enabling outcomes, and because I am slightly lazy, I'm going use an excerpt of from my new book "The Commonwealth of Self Interest: Business Success Through Customer Engagement"( see below for details) on outcomes:

"When it boils down to it, the customer doesn't care about whether your product is a good product or has a plethora of uses for a lot of different kinds of companies. What he or she cares about is how does it help their company and, equally if not more importantly, how does it help them get the outcomes that they need to reach whatever their goals are. To illustrate the point, several years ago I was at a party with a very senior executive of a big company who made some of his company's larger buying decisions. I asked him about a software selection, since he seemed to be particularly savvy when it came to technology. I said, "If you were down to two choices, one which had a  100 percent benefit to the company and none to you and the other  which was 80 percent beneficial to the company but had some benefit to you, which would you take?" His answer, with literally no hesitation was, "The second one." When I asked why, he said, "It has some benefit to me." This isn't terribly surprising. Like all other human beings, your customers or prospects need to see how the products and services you provide are going to help them achieve the outcomes that are relevant to them. To that end, one of the smartest efforts at product marketing I've ever seen was done in its earlier days by the sales optimization business software company Lattice Engines. Their customer testimonials weren't just about how the software benefited their customer companies, but instead were testimonials from individuals on how they got promoted because of their success with Lattice Engines. The sales approach means show the customer how it gets the outcomes that benefit the business and the individual buyer."

In the last two years and especially with the ascension of Rob Tarkoff as EVP of Oracle CX about a year ago, Oracle realized this, and, along with other revelations, it led to important shifts in the company's perspective, vision, mission, product strategy, marketing and, most importantly, culture.

I began getting hints about the cultural shift roughly two years ago when more than one Oracle senior leader who I was chatting with told me if I am boiling it all down into a single conversation – "Oracle is changing the way that we have dealt with customers over the years. We realize that we have been both too arrogant, assuming that we are always right about what we are saying and also too anxious to sell to them rather than provide them with what they need. So, we've got (institutionalized) initiatives going that are designed to accomplish two things. First, actually listen to customers and second, be willing to say no to unrealistic requests – meaning those that we can't actually accomplish. There is nothing wrong in letting our customers know that we do want to do what they need but don't want to promise what we can't do." 

Of course, that is a distillate of multiple conversations with group of people with a wide variety of organizational responsibilities – which is what made me think it was more than a just public posture or an isolated condition.   There was a fundamental change in the culture of Oracle underway.

Fast forward to 2018-2019, and the culture change is starting to actually show roots.

Aligning with the Market

Oracle has always wanted to be #1 in whatever it does – like any other company I've ever known (with one exception). That hasn't changed and probably won't.  but in looking a bit more carefully, in Oracle's particular case they are so intertwined that I'm going to just go ahead and describe it all in one giant gulp Though to pre-empt the musical literalists amongst you, in Oracle's case, they are doing it by not doing it alone.

Originally, I was going to show you the transition and the roots of the change via breakdowns of the following:

  1. Mission & Vision
  2. Strategy – Overall and Product
  3. Product releases
  4. Marketing, Messaging, Naming – "The Experience Economy"

but in looking a bit more carefully, in Oracle's particular case they are so complex and intertwined that I'm going to just go ahead and describe it all in one giant gulp.

It begins with their primary vision, framework and message – The Experience Economy. If you're interested in the longest version of this, watch this YouTube video that Rob Tarkoff delivered at Oracle Open World in 2018. This is the studio version of that speech.

For those of you who might be unaware of it, while Oracle (and SAP) is emphasizing the Experience Economy, they didn't create the concept. The term and the framework which has marked the contemporary landscape was actually created in 1999 by major league (Yankees-level) thought leader Joe Pine and his business bud, James Gilmore.  ""=""> which transformed the way that businesses looked at their interactions over time with customers. One of the great services that this book and its 2nd edition written in 2011 did for the business world was identify what I call "consumable experiences" – created experiences that can be monetized and at the same time would impact customers to support their good impressions on a larger scale of the businesses that they were interacting and transacting with. Effectively, though this might sound a bit strange, it introduced the right brain into business thinking – meaning how customers were enticed to behave and how they felt actually mattered for the longevity of the relationship between the customers and the company.

For several years after the initial impact the power of the emotional in business was lost under the weight of process and "agile" and efficiencies and black belts in Six Sigma. But with the communications revolution, the demands of the customers got personal – and the responses needed to be personalized.  Thus, once again, right brained activity became paramount to business success and thus the world of CRM expanded to customer experience and customer engagement as foremost on the mind of corporate strategists – and the practitioners who wanted to see it in action – via programs, culture and technology among other things. Thus, Oracle and "The Experience Economy" – in a very compacted overly simplified nutshell of an explanation.

But this is also how Oracle was (and is) able to transform their culture to a more customer-centric one – still a work in progress – as are most companies at this point.  They felt the upward pressure from customers to personalize the interactions and at the same time had the support from the leadership due to that pressure, so the adjustments occurred.  This impacted the culture to the point that when defining Oracle's mission and vision, this is how it was described in the Watchlist entry on how they communicate it and evolve their products:

We have shifted our public facing Oracle CX Cloud communications over the last 3 years from Oracle's prior focus on technical product superiority to our current focus on customer benefit of our solutions. We have integrated this approach in our conferences, blogs, social media, press releases and press interactions, analyst communications, keynote speeches, website, etc.

It is at the core of our product development and go to market efforts. Oracle is a business that itself is in transformation (from on-premise and CIO buyer to cloud and LOB buyer). Across Oracle CX Cloud and Oracle itself, there are multiple initiatives (e.g., simplified buying, field integration, digital sales, one cloud operations, etc.) moving forward to better serve our customers.

This has also dramatically impacted their product strategy too. One story should suffice.

Two years ago, at Ray Wang's always awesome Constellation Connected Enterprise (CCE) event, I had a discussion with Melissa Boxer and then still at Oracle, Jack Berkowitz about their strategy for AI. I asked if their approach was similar to Salesforce's – making their AI a part of the platform. At that time, I was told "no, it's going to be an add on for our existing solutions." In the earlier part of this year, I had another discussion with one of my organizational favs Melissa Boxer and asked her if the AI strategy of solution add on is still the same. The answer was "well, it's going to be both part of the platform and a solution add-on."

This might not sound like much but it's a big deal. It reflects a change I see all across CX at Oracle. Historically CX was a tech stack with no particularly strong story line for its purpose though, as always, there was a solid group of solutions in the stack. Now if you look at it, it looks much more like what Oracle needs to compete – a platform and an ecosystem (though with individual solutions still out there). Oracle is metaphorically moving from the vertical to the horizontal.

There are countless indicators.

For example. On June 5, 2019, Oracle announced a partnership with Microsoft to integrate Microsoft Azure with the Oracle Cloud to better serve enterprise customers. In the past, this strategic partnership wouldn't have been even a thought much less a reality. But when you are thinking about platforms and ecosystems, rather than merely tech stacks and the ordinary behaviors around old fashioned competitive activities, this kind of alliance makes sense because it serves the needs of the customer – providing an enterprise level company with the cloud infrastructure it needs to function in a unified way – rather than disparate systems trying to communicate.  It also is curated. In this case, that means practically both Oracle and Microsoft are sitting down and figuring out what in their systems already communicate effectively for the present and the future and what they will need to work on to make the communications more effective or at times even initially effective at all.  But they are working together to make this happen. (More on the partnership initiative side of this in the Microsoft section of this post below.). In the past Oracle wasn't devoid of partnerships but at the same time, they were a "go it alone" company for the most part – and Microsoft was more on the "go at it" list than the "go with it" list.

Overarching – Ecosystems

The customer-engaged ecosystem starts from the premise that the customer is seeking both direct and, if possible, related value from the brand they are interacting with. Is that an ironclad premise? No. A company needs to work with their customers to find out what the customer expects or, if not expects, would like from the company.  The customer-engaged ecosystem is working from the outside in. It is a business that is defining its strategy around  the idea that the customers of the company need to be engaged with  that company and trust that company and, most importantly for the purposes of thinking around an ecosystem, get what they think they need from that company, even if the company doesn't produce the products or services directly that the customer is seeking. I say that with a major caveat, though. The model has constraints. The most important one is that no one company can provide everything that a customer thinks they need. No ecosystem built around customer needs is built around all of them but, instead, is built around what the company that parents the ecosystem believes that they can provide—when it comes to both the resources and the company's narrative.

Breathe in, Let it Go

Let's stop for a second and take a breath. I hope that I've established what a significant thing that this $40 billion entity has done by aligning itself with the markets, the world at large and the people it serves.  It's impressive. Making a realignment away from their own internal legacy to a more customer-focused effort,  gives them an opportunity to have impact at levels that they haven't had to date – despite their formidable history – but of course that is dependent on making some tweaks and doing a few things that they haven't done yet.  Before we get to some of them, though, we need to talk about the Oracle CX product portfolio – in part.  There are two that I am going to focus on that are interestingly strategic, for different reasons.  Some of the missing pieces will be pointed out in the Three Things to Consider part.

The Products are the Platform?

A blanket statement. Oracle's release of CX Unity shortly will be their most important CX release in the last several years.  

To understand why I would say that, take a look at the Oracle CX portfolio organized "platform style."

Source: Oracle (thank you)

Now imagine all of THAT interspersed with a customer intelligence platform -  their description for CX Unity.  The elements of CX Unity that are important is its dynamic profiles (or as both Thunderhead and SAP call it somewhat more accurately "adaptive profiles") that allows the company to see increasingly rich individual customer data in real time, allowing for a more personalized interaction.  While this isn't particularly revolutionary as an idea or as a product, it is, for Oracle, an important part of their platform – and the very fact that it is a part of a platform, not just another piece in a stack of technology pieces, is of significance. It is part of the shift Oracle is making from stack to platforms & ecosystems. Thus, there is value as a "product" and strategic value in that if reflects the state of mind of the company and its direction. BTW, without going into either detail or a rant – to be entirely clear -CX Unity is NOT a CDP (Customer Data Platform), so please don't go there.

Design and Delivery

Aligning with market needs is also a matter of cultural alignment. That means in the case of technology companies, the alignment of 'tastes" and "likes" and "dislikes". Alignment with the things that attract people to them, within the extant constraints.  At tech companies, more often than not, this takes the form of the user experience and the design – the look and feel – of something.  The man in charge of Oracle's designs, SVP of User Experience Design, (and very funny, apparently prominent Lego dude) Hillel Cooperman, has done a brilliant job in reimagining Oracle CX's interfaces, navigation experience and the overall look and feel of Oracles business applications. Two examples:

Source: Oracle (Thank you)
Source: Oracle (Thank you)

See what I mean. Genuinely attractive and simple to use – yet with a lot of enterprise level power behind it. This is contemporary "art" in the technology world in 2019.  This can't be underestimated as to its power. Keep in mind, UX in an enterprise world isn't just about look and feel but also about usability which in contemporary terms is equated with "simplicity."  It goes to the heart of the most important thing a company can provide to a customer when it comes to a customer's experience – and that isn't delight. Its convenience. Simplicity supports convenience in every way. Here is a good article by a company that sells Enterprise UX design services called Justinmind. If you can ignore the obvious self-interest in the article you can learn something about what it takes to build an enterprise-ready UX.

Cooperman's design theory and practice is reflected well in this LinkedIn article he posted on Medium called "Creating a Design Culture One Artifact at a Time." While its purpose is recruiting for Oracle, he gives you a good idea of his working practices as the key design thinker for the company.  For example, "Helping everyone work simpler and smarter…" While this is a principle of great value, the philosophy reflected in the statement and in the job description are important for understanding Oracle's dramatic makeover. It goes to the constantly recurring theme of this post and Oracle's victory in the Watchlist – alignment with the markets and the cultures of the present-day customer.

Three Things to Consider

Get the Narrative Together  – Oracle's transition from inward out to outward in and from a product based IT company to an ecosystems and platforms (I'm going to call that E&P from now on) company requires a major change in the framework, the content and the flow of their CX and corporate narrative.  Up to and including how they tell stories, communicate messages, and name products. For example, CPQ Cloud is not a cloud, it's a feature or at most a solution but doesn't deserve a separate cloud.  Oracle Analytics Cloud is not a cloud nor is Social Cloud a cloud – they are layers in a platform. They are horizontal not stacked vertically. Thus, part of the narrative is to fix the naming. Do away with the CPQ Cloud, Integration, Analytics Cloud, and Social Cloud.  CPQ is a feature not a cloud. Integration, Social and Analytics are either a layer in or intertwined with the platform.

But they need to do more than just name and rename products. They need to normalize the corporate narrative. At the recent Oracle MCX (Modern Customer Experience) conference in Las Vegas in March, multiple analysts there including me, took notice of the unevenness of the narrative throughout the conference. It was reflected in the way that the keynotes were done – which to make it truly short – went from concept to product demo to big idea to product to product to outcome to product. You get the idea. The narrative needs to become outcomes-focused, visionary and mission driven and at the same time show continuity over time so that the evolutionary string of the narrative isn't broken. You lose customer trust when they can't understand not how you evolved, but why you did.  Oracle still has work to do there – though they are on the path. 

Thought leadership – Normally, I would be advocating for thought leadership that is internally derived since most companies do engagements with external thought leaders who provide them with validation via the white papers, webinars, videos, podcasts, and other content that supports the concepts that drive the company and its vision and mission. In this case, if they are focused on the Experience Economy, as is SAP, then Oracle needs to engage the external thought leaders such as the father of the Experience Economy, Joe Pine (who SAP via Qualtrics is engaging) and others to support the concept since it is both time honored and constantly evolving. Plus, they need to provide some intellectual meat behind the idea from their perspective internally.  As an example of genius in this regard, use what Tien Tzuo, CEO of Zuora has done as the paradigm for owning a space. He created the idea of the Subscription Economy and then went and built out the thought leadership with an intellectual framework, programmatic thinking, ongoing institutionalized news/content, and strong public presence (his own). He now owns the concept which is ubiquitous enough (just enough) to get itself lower cased – i.e. the subscription economy.  Oracle doesn't need to provide all of that – Joe Pine and James Gilmore did that already. But they need to own their own ideas and content related to it. They are starting to. Rob Tarkoff's keynote at Oracle MCX on "The Value of Time in the Experience Economy"  is a reflection of that. But they have a LONG way to go to be able to own it.

Missing journey orchestration in platform – To understand why this hole in their portfolio needs to be filled, I'll use Oracle's own explanations and definitions. First, let's start with their definition of customer experience:

"Customer experience (CX) refers to how a company engages with its customers across every aspect of the customer journey―from marketing to sales to service and every point in between. It's the sum total of all interactions a customer has with a brand. However, the most important thing for you to know when it comes to your customers' experience is what they feel about it (PG note: emphasis mine). You have important decisions to make at every touchpoint on the customer journey, and those decisions can influence how your customers view your brand and how successful your business will be as a result."

Then we move to their discussion of what they see as the purpose and value of understanding the customer's digital journey:

"Digitization has completely upended the traditional customer journey model. Customers are now more in control than ever. For example, digital capabilities and the personalization that they enable―and that customers expect―require brands to understand purchase history and offer the right products and services at the appropriate time. Brands that want to please customers must also offer self-service options that allow customers to quickly and easily purchase products and services and resolve issues.

Savvy brands understand the importance of "digital body language" and the insights they can glean from a customer's online activity―which allow these companies to provide customers with a personalized and relevant digital experience. Offering a user-friendly, connected ecosystem that allows customers to enter at any point and receive a tailored and seamless experience will leave customers with a great impression of your brand."

Before I get into the suggestion, let me just make the point that both these definitions are quite good.

That said, they lack customer journey orchestration – the ability to track the journeys at scale or individually in real time and to identify and/or anticipate customer behavior in order to optimize the communications between the company and customer – again, in real time. There are companies out there like Thunderhead (Note: a client of mine) and Kitewheel (in touch as an analyst) that handle that. There are companies with products that handle an historical version of that – real time interaction management like Infor Omnichannel Campaign Management (born and raised as Epiphany) – but Oracle lacks it in any real sense, and given everything they are doing around what they call Smarter CX and are evolving toward Real Time CX that will emerge as Oracle CX Unity is released screams customer journey orchestration, it's time to fix it.

This was a very complex victory post.  To understand why they won the Watchlist, I had to clarify:

  1. The evolution of their culture which had been entrenched for decades and
  2. The Successful (still a work in progress) alignment of their strategies, programs and products to the market
  3. AND finally their ability to institutionalize that in a way that actually shows that the impact that they are having in this new way is sustainable.

I think I've done that. At least I hope so. But Oracle's victory in the Watchlist in 2019 wasn't just because they were big and already having an impact all these years – which they were but instead because they were changing and continuing to have an impact – even though they have changed and thus the nature of their impact has too – and will continue for years to come. 

Next up (for real): Microsoft ONLY.

Note: If you are interested in participating in the CRM Watchlist 2020, please email me at paul-greenberg3@the56group.com and ask for registration form. Remember, you will have to qualify to participate. There are criteria. Also, if you are interested in reading my new book on customer engagement, The Commonwealth of Self-Interest: Business Success through Customer Engagement (2019), please click here.

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