Oracle users appear cautious about, but open to, Larry Ellison's message of minimising modification to application software.
Don’t change our software, change your business processes, was the message from Oracle's chief at Oracle’s inaugural Apps World conference in New Orleans late last month. This seems to run counter to the age-old practice of modifying applications software, adding features and integrating it with third-party products and legacy systems. Shouldn't the software change to suit the business and not vice versa?
Ellison admitted that until now most Oracle customers have customised their systems, but the more they've changed the unhappier they've become. That's because standard systems are easier to support and easier to upgrade, he said, and this will become increasingly important as businesses go online.
“We have many customers with heavily modified applications and they’re trapped when it comes to upgrading. The co-efficient of customer happiness is based on how much they've customised the software. The less they’ve modified the more satisfied they are.”
Ellison's keynote prompted an audience member to ask what it meant for companies which need additional functions over those provided by Oracle’s application suite. Ellison said the software industry has traditionally delivered 80% of what customers need and left them to provide the rest themselves. Oracle’s 11i e-business suite, in comparison, provides 100% of what companies need, claimed Ellison, which may equate to 80% of what they want. It’s better to get online with 80% of what you want, than spend money trying to develop the perfect system which may eventuate two years down the line. Perhaps by then the features you wanted will be in the upgrade but you can't easily take the upgrade because you've changed the system too much.
Ellison conceded that niche industry requirements might never make it into future releases and softened his message slightly – if you can’t eliminate systems integration then minimise it. If customers do want additional functions they can request they be included in future releases.
It’s a big ask but is it realistic?
New Zealand Oracle consultant David Taylor of Auckland-based Asparona says he thinks it’s an approach customers are taking on board. New Zealand has about 50 organisations using Oracle applications.
“The temptation to modify software was very high two to three years ago but customers upgrading to 11i are saying they want to get rid of modifications and want the software to be as standard as possible.”
Taylor says Oracle workflow technology which underpins 11i makes it easier for users to configure the software to meet their needs. A lot of what in the past required modification can now be taken care of with careful configuration.
But Carl Lee of Montreal shipping company FedNav Limited is sceptical of Ellison’s message. “I don’t believe small companies will be heard,” he says. “We’re implementing the financial package but we can’t find anything to suite our front end. We’ll try and find third-party software that we can easily marry to our system and avoid writing software ourselves.”
Oracle Asia Pacific executive vice-president Derek Williams says a New Zealand customer (which Computerworld understands to be the Dairy Board) has been considering the customised versus standardised issue with regard to 11i and some of its requests will be "scaled" into the software’s next release.
Michael Sallai of Waitemata Health says it depends on the industry the user is in. “Applications that differentiate the business will probably need customisation but standard corporate applications such as ERP, accounts payable or general ledger shouldn’t need much.”
However, Sallai would like to see an online document generator to allow customers to change lay out of documents using individual elements such as company logos. He says at the beginning of Waitemata Health’s project it made suggestions to Oracle on other matters and these have been forwarded to Oracle’s corporate development team in the US. He hopes they are on the list of upcoming features but hasn’t heard anything back.
Oracle e-business suite Asia-Pacific vice-president Dennis Jolluck says suggestions can go through the Oracle Applications User Group and through Oracle sales staff who have a web-based customer feedback system which he monitors.
Thomas Park of the US Department of Transportation says his organisation is running 11i’s iStore and financials and will be upgrading to other modules. An analysis of the 11i suite found that it met all the department’s needs without the need for modification, he says.
Wayne Crichlow of Massachusetts-based networking equipment manufacturer Sycamore Networks agrees with the philosophy behind Ellison’s statements. His company uses the full 11i suite. “You can’t always take it literally but the general message to limit customisation is an approach our company tries to follow.”
Crichlow said any customisation has to go before a committee reporting to the CFO partly because customisation involves increased funding, a point that Ellison stressed in his keynote.
“If you customise it will cost you a lot more than taking the standard version.”
Ellison has made his own company go through the experience he is advocating for everyone else.
Oracle has made much of the fact it saved $US1 billion in its financial year to May 2000 by implementing 11i in-house. Part of the project included consolidating IT systems and ensuring the whole company uses the same version of the software. In Europe the various countries had collectively made more than 140 changes to their financials and Ellison wanted them all to use the standard system. European executives were told if they wanted modifications they had to come up with a good reason to be delivered to Ellison at the end of a two day meeting. At the end of two days no-one came forward with any changes. Presumably fear of the boss had nothing to do with it.
Malcolm attended Apps World as a guest of Oracle.