Are Ellison's customer relations good for you?

Memo to Larry Ellison: Centrally planned economies don't work, and it takes a long time to recover from the failed effort of trying to make them work. If you don't believe me, take a look at the Russian economy.

Management Speak: He plays a key role in our process.

Translation: He has no ownership of any part of it.

-- This week's IS Survivalist played a key role in explaining process dynamics.

The New Economy must truly be dead. In the New Economy, I've been told by experts, the customer is king. If it were alive, how would you explain Larry Ellison?

Even notorious industry bad boy Computer Associates International thinks good customer relations are important, and it is promoting a new image as a kinder, gentler software company.

But then there's Ellison, who, at Oracle AppsWorld, told his customers -- his customers! -- that they should customise their companies to his software. This means that customising the software is wrong. Complementing it with third-party software is wrong. Building applications in-house? Don't you dare! That would get in the way of your company's primary mission according to Oracle: software integration.

What's the right thing to do? Adapt your business to the predefined processes Oracle has thought up for you, and run your business on nothing but Oracle software, of course.

This attitude would be predictable coming from a communist, but Ellison's a rich guy. So what is he thinking? He's telling us to trust a central planner (Oracle) to anticipate everything we need and to assume that if he didn't anticipate it, we don't really need it.

That's a centrally planned information economy. Memo to Larry Ellison: Centrally planned economies don't work, and it takes a long time to recover from the failed effort of trying to make them work. If you don't believe me, take a look at the Russian economy.

Ellison's mandate is bad for his customers for two entirely different reasons, both related to the fall of world communism.

First, Ellison ignores the complexity built into every real company -- the same complexity that causes all centrally planned economies to fail. Market-based economies don't outcompete centrally planned ones because they're more efficient. They're actually inefficient, encouraging redundant effort (we call it "competition"). What makes market-based economies superior to centrally planned ones is their ability to recognise and fine-tune the satisfaction of demand.

So although an ERP (enterprise resource planning) vendor's information economy central planners can recognise and satisfy the big-ticket items such as supply-chain management and financial reporting, your IS organisation is more likely to recognise and satisfy requirements closer to home, such as your real estate management department's need for an investment management system. It doesn't stop there.

Your IS organisation also consists of central planners. They're unlikely to recognise and satisfy your marketing department's need for a system to schedule use of your company's trade-show booths. That's why we have personal databases, electronic spreadsheets, and Jane, who's "good with this stuff".

Unrequited need isn't the only problem, either. There's also the clothing-size issue: Just because a suit is well-made doesn't mean it looks good on you. It also has to fit.

Oracle's process designs are, I'm sure, neither better nor worse than any other carefully plotted swim-lane diagrams (the standard way to graphically describe a process design). It's just that they almost certainly don't all line up with your current processes, so taking Ellison's advice means process re-engineering on a massive scale. The good news is that the process designs themselves are done. The bad news is that the good news only covers about 10% of the total effort of changing every process in your company.

Ellison isn't completely wrong. Many ERP implementations are unnecessarily complicated because of that's-how-we-do-things-around-here thinking. It's quite true that many companies don't give their ERP vendors' shrink-wrap processes a fair hearing.

But imagine your meeting with the CEO, COO, and CFO, as you explain the benefit of standardising on nothing but Oracle's software and processes: "Sure, we'll have to change how every bit of work in the company is done, but in return we'll save on the cost of Oracle upgrades! Not only that, but we'll operate exactly like every one of our competitors. Think of the benefit to our customers: They'll be able to switch among all of us at virtually no cost!"

Good luck finding your next CIO position.

The whole thing is silly. If every company took Ellison's advice, then every company would follow identical processes -- those envisioned by their ERP vendor and only those envisioned by their ERP vendor. Taken to its logical conclusion, the result would be that every company in a particular industry would be identical to all others.

Hmmm. Maybe he is a commie after all.

Fight communism! Email Bob Lewis. Lewis is a Minneapolis-based consultant with Perot Systems.

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