Oracle OpenWorld 2009 - Social CRM Technology Rears an Actual Head

I am almost always in awe of Oracle OpenWorld.  The scope of this conference is spectacular.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

I am almost always in awe of Oracle OpenWorld.  The scope of this conference is spectacular. Can you imagine an event that the attendance is down to 37,000 attendees?  Actually, that puts me in awe of their event planners more than even the event. How in the name of whoever can you put together something of this magnitude?

Back in 2007, I was also thunderstruck by the changes they made to their CRM products thanks to the team led by Anthony Lye.  It was dramatic and it impacted Oracle as a company - and as it turns out, has had an impact on the industry as a whole.  While I can't remember exactly when they started calling it Social CRM, I do remember they had somehow understood that the customer's requirements and demands and mindset had changed. They adapted accordingly - which was another source of astonishment because they were about the last company I expected to see this kind of progressive and valuable thinking from. But to their credit they did it.

While my focus has always been CRM, I have some experience with enterprise products generally, having built practices for a variety of them back in the 1990s and into the early part of this century - so I keep my eye on them.  But the CRM transformation changed my expectations of what the company would deliver as a whole - ranging from their excellent CRM applications to their mysterious Fusion Apps (which are apparently going to drop at this show) to their entirely forgettable Beehive collaboration server (which I hope Oracle has forgotten too).  Plus Larry Ellison's flair for the dramatic makes me expect something remarkable.

Sadly, there was nothing remarkable presented, which is not a condemnation, just a fact. Outside of the CRM products (more on that shortly), what I've seen from Oracle so far (with the keynotes of Safra Katz and Charles Phillips) has been.....uneventful at best and pedestrian at worst. Not bad, just uneventful to pedestrian. The changes (at least generally) in their products have been incremental and small increments at that. Statements were made that were dramatic such as Safra Katz talking about Oracle's "slavish devotion to Open Standards" but nothing dramatic actually occurred.

Don't get me wrong. The keynotes by Charles Phillips and Safra Katz were fine if you were interested in an overview of what Oracle has been doing in the last year or so. The "keynote" by an EVP of Hewlett Packard was nothing more than a giant ad for Hewlett Packard, only interesting because of Oracle's acquisition of Sun. Unfortunately, the wisdom of the crowds so to speak, supported me here because they abandoned the hall in droves during  the speech.

including the growth of their retail business and the useful sophistication of their retail products - but all in all, nondescript is a good description (get the irony there?) of what I've seen so far.

Oracle CRM Moves Forward In Quality...And In Thinking

I will say, even with my narrow focused lenses, Oracle CRM stood far out far ahead of the rest of the Oracle Apps pack.  Also let me tell you right now, I've been a retained consultant with Oracle though as you all know, that buys them nothing but a good job (I hope) by me. Not anything in these things I write.

CRM at Oracle seems to remain their star application, probably because it is, in 2009,  the fastest growing application suite at Oracle and probably will be the Oracle revenue leader this year.  That's because they've understood what businesses need when it comes to being successful with customers.  Note that I didn't say collaborating with customers. That's not what Oracle CRM is all about. They are really applications for sales and marketing effectiveness. They don't have  much to speak of in the world of customer service - with the exception of their tight partnership with Helpstream - an excellent move given their lack of native customer service apps. But they are doing what they do very well utilizing their existing Siebel applications expertise and their on demand applications in combination with a view toward internal collaboration at a company. Witness the development of  Social CRM Sales Library On Demand in the last few months.

But what Anthony Lye, Mark Woolen, Christine Viera, Melissa Boxer and Adam May showed at an executive briefing yesterday on the advances in CRM was heartening because they are molding their CRM applications - traditional ones - with social and collaborative features that make them infinitely more valuable.

Anthony Lye, SVP in charge of Oracle CRM and the intellectual driver for much of this, started off with a discussion on the idea of reinvention rather than recovery as the strategy that companies need to take aggressively during poor economic times.

So far, so good.

He then framed the soon to appear demos by talking about what he saw as 3 game changing strategies:

  1. Executing the cross-channel customer experience flawlessly - Anthony distinguished between multi-channel and cross-channel (which was something like the difference between multigrain and whole grain) - multi-channel was a strategy that delivered an experience in mobile, field, community, call center etc.  Cross-channel was a strategy to traverse all the individual channels at any given time by embedding processes to instrument business so that the customer experience was consistent.  PG: While I thought the strategy was smart from a software and processes standpoint, I wasn't truly sure that cross-channel was that much different from what I know as multi-channel. But regardless, the idea of a consistent (though he didn't talk about authentic which is the companion piece of consistent when it comes to the customer experience) customer experience accessible whenever across channels was dead on.
  2. Tap into the power of the social web - this is the one that goes without saying and is the technological and process driven aspect of how Social CRM works - though by no means all of it.
  3. Deliver CRM data, when, how, and where users need it - this was the most interesting actually.

Anthony's contention was that there were two types of relationships that CRM users needed to know when it came to customers. First, the explicit relationships - what kinds of communities was the customer associated with; who were his or her friends or friends of friends; the historic transactional data about the cutomer and the more contemporary profile data. But most interesting to me at least was his idea of the implicit relationships. These were not of the "who do you know" variety, but more of the "who do you look like?"  When Mark Woolen, the always personable and very accomplished #1 VP for the Oracle CRM grouplet, demonstrated an app for a I presume fictional company though it was one that sold the iPhone 3G (S), he showed a button with the name "Connect to Someone Like Me." When that button was pressed, it took you to a list of customers who were ranked by percentage of how close to your profile they were.  You then could type in a question to ask of those like you.  Great feature and entirely social in how it was connected. Built through the new Siebel toolkit I believe.

This is not a new idea. Political campaigns use micro-targeting to identify the lifestyle habits of their potential voters and identify blocks of voters who might all own Mercedes, be involved in social clubs etc. They then use this "implicit information" to figure out who those "similar folks" would most likely vote for, based on this kind of data.  What Oracle is contending and I think rightfully is that the transactional data that's been gathered by CRM applications can be used to find "someone like me" segments - and they've gone ahead used Siebel toolkits to build out what they claim here.  Impressive and smart.

Melissa Boxer, who is probably the smartest person I've met anywhere when it comes to applying the principles of loyalty to enterprise software, demonstrated a genuinely fantastic iPhone application for Swedish Rail (SJ). Here's a screenshot on that.

Swedish Rail Social Marketing iPhone App

Swedish Rail Social Marketing iPhone App

What makes this application powerful is that it literally allows you use the points you have in a loyalty program to purchase items from Swedish Rail including tickets that are not only shipped right to your iPhone when you've used the points to buy them but can be redeemed via the iPhone. Additionally, you can make reservations directly and then have your itinerary delivered to your iPhone and if you choose to make it public so your friends (chosen friends) need to know where you are going - it can be delivered to Facebook for public or semi-public scrutiny.   Swedish Rail then gets all this new data about your transactions and interactions and can use it to create targeted offerings on the spot.

Way cool and what social marketing looks like, albeit in a nascent form (so don't get in my face about something that might be missing, okay? Nascent form.).

But Oracle is even doing more than that.  They have done some I think is important with a traditional CRM application. They've extended Siebel with the use of a new Siebel toolkit that allows developers to integrate business processes and components into any framework whatever. That means the results of the development can be delivered to users via a widget, or an mini-application or a mobile app. But what makes this toolkit particularly important is that its got APIs based on RESTful architecture.

This is big for Oracle. The reality is that Sage led the way in the effective use of RESTful architectures and builds their current products on this simplified and yet powerful architecture.  Unlike Sage, Oracle, and most of the other major vendors has been relying on service-oriented architectures which use far more commands than a RESTful architecture for their messaging and are considerably more complex. For the Siebel toolkit to use REST to deliver Siebel metadata is an important step forward in the world of CRM.  It will allow for more effective and easily consumable applications when combined with the other piece of the Siebel puzzle - a visualization toolkit to change the interface to be appropriate to the delivery channel.

There were a number of other developments including a strong offering of Siebel OnDemand Release 17, which has added features that are most often found in larger on premise products including PRM, advanced analytics and what I think Adam Day said was the OEMing of Best Systems Marketing Development Funds program.  and an increasing amount of vertical applications including a mobile pharma app for salespeople.  All in all, there are 12 new products, 31 new features, 88 "customer-driven enhancements" - Anthony's words not mine - and nine new integrations.

But to me the core developments are the improvement in true social marketing that recognizes the behaviors and activities of social customers. Oracle is using the traditional customer transaction data and the newe interaction data in an intelligent way tp micro-target and create "segments like me." That's really good for improving customer insight but what makes this truly powerful is that they've developed the channels and outputs to give the customers access to that same information by hooking them up with the people discovered through the micro-targeting efforts. Not only does the business gain insight, but the customer gains access. Truly multi-directional. In other words, this is what a technology can do to support a social CRM strategy. Everyone benefits.

So, hats off to Oracle now for conceptualizing and building a genuine social CRM application.  But capital H Hats off to Oracle when they release it and get it beyond the demo stage.  This is important and may be a paradigmatic set of CRM applications if it bears out in the real customer world as well as it seems to in the demo and development environment.

NEXT UP: Marc Benioff Speaks; Denis Pombriant and I speak; Larry Ellison speaks. Other OOW 2009 coverage worth following.

Editorial standards