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HR Technology Column

Reading Oracle's Tea Leaves

The 800-lb. gorilla of HR technology sits where it wants to, talks when it wants to and, certainly, only to whom it wants to. While its five-year-old map to Fusion is getting a little less blurry, no one who is actually in the know has indicated its final destination. We may be hearing one soon.

Monday, July 26, 2010
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On the slim chance you hadn't noticed, since the acquisition of JD Edwards and PeopleSoft in 2004, Oracle has turned into HR technology's 800-lb. gorilla and is naturally acting like it.

SAP may argue it has more live HCM customers around the world and Workday may take bites off Oracle's edges, but it almost doesn't matter right now. Industry watchers dissect Oracle's every move, though sometimes, they are reduced to reading tea leaves when that's all that's available.

So, come do that with me following my week of full- and half-day vendor briefings in Silicon Valley. The tidbits are tantalizing whether you're a PeopleSoft Enterprise or Oracle EBS customer, or just an interested zoologist or competitor. (Read my extensive annual analysis of industry trends in September on HREOnlineTM and in the print edition of Human Resource Executive®.)

The most important tea leaf is that both heads of HCM Strategy -- Senior Director Tracy Martin for PeopleSoft and Senior Director Anand Subbaraman for Oracle -- told me their next releases would be a "customer release" and they will be available 24 to 30 months after the last one.

That probably means late next year for both of them, maybe early 2012 for PeopleSoft.

Now, everyone working in the software industry knows what a "customer release" means. It's the easy upgrade, responding largely to customer requests for a little new functionality here and there, fixing some irritants such as needing too many clicks or pages to finish a process.

It doesn't require much innovation or original thinking from the two very capable heads of those products.

In short, a customer release is largely reactive and a lot less work for Mother.

So what's so wrong with giving on-premise customers what they want? Aren't they paying an estimated 22 percent of their license fee every year for just such upgrades?

Nothing wrong with it at all, except in the software industry most (but certainly not all) customers just want it to be a little better, a little faster and naturally, a little cheaper. Most real functional and technical innovation springs from the brows of vendors. Yes, just like Zeus.

So, a customer release is an easy path. It keeps most customers happy and doesn't drain the organization's development, marketing, sales and customer-care resources.

Don't get me wrong: Both new releases, when available, will have new functionality, some to be described in September. Tracy is planning an earlier "off-release-cycle deliverable" and Anand has already released two "feature packs." Both are incremental upgrades, which roll up into the big release. And both of them showed me in PowerPoint dozens of prototype screen shots of new stuff.

They just won't knock your socks off. So what is Oracle husbanding its resources for?

What else but its best chance to strip your feet naked: Oracle's next generation Fusion HCM. It has finally started slowly doling out the details over the last 12 months in a process that's hard not to categorize as "spoon-fed."

Under development for the last five years, Fusion saw its first public light in CEO Larry Ellison's keynote at last October's Oracle OpenWorld user conference.

Much to the surprise and delight of the Fusion HCM team, he included their new talent-management functionality in his demo. Naturally, there is Fusion for Financials and all the other enterprise apps, which were competing for his time on stage.

I wrote at the time that the demo was impressive but not obviously a leap forward over the current offerings of the best talent-management vendors. And of course, they have continued to surge forward in the last 10 months, as has Oracle.

Then this past June at OHUG -- the independent Oracle HCM User Group (including PeopleSoft) -- Fusion was demoed more fully by the person directly in charge of it: VP Global HCM Product Strategy Gretchen Alarcon. You can read some first-hand accounts of that in a discussion in the HR Technology® Conference LinkedIn group. (You have to join the group to read it, but previous attendance at the event is not required for membership.)

Plus you can view Fusion screen shots collected and posted online by Ray Wang, perhaps the leading enterprise-software analyst in the world, whom we'll be honored to host at the conference this year in Chicago.

In the outings so far, I haven't seen or heard anything about Fusion integrating social-networking software into HR applications. And in my Silicon Valley tour, I discovered that has finally become the hottest trend in HR technology.

That's alongside a far less interesting trend of every vendor writing some kind of mobile application for smart phones. Mobile apps are less interesting to me, perhaps, because my own cell phone is developmentally disabled.

But Oracle has talked about social networks in the enterprise for three years and showed concept slides of possible pages. So I can't believe it's not already in Fusion: We just haven't been given the right spoonful yet. 

I'm hoping that taste is next. I think we'll get it at one or both of these events fairly soon: 2 p.m. PDT Sept. 21 at Gretchen's session at Oracle OpenWorld in San Francisco, which you can attend if you're an Oracle user.

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Or at 3:15 pm CDT Sept. 29 in Chicago, when Gretchen will take the stage at HR Technology® for her third Fusion demo but also for the first discussion and Q&A about it -- with me. No software purchase required to attend; there is a much cheaper ticket involved.

I have to warn Gretchen that our mutual friend, Naomi Lee Bloom, has just one or two questions for her about Fusion. Many of them are business questions or "go to market" issues, as the software industry likes to call them, which may be beyond Gretchen's brief. But others aren't.

In the spirit of friendship and preparation, I scraped them off Twitter and our LinkedIn group to show Naomi's breadth of concern here:

* What exactly will be the scope of the first generally available release of Fusion HCM?

* Is it all about talent management or is it headed for a complete replacement HCM suite?

* Will Fusion HCM be available as (1) multi-tenant SaaS, (2) single-tenant on demand, (3) single-tenant customer maintained on premise and/or (4) single-tenant appliance delivered on premise?

* Will Fusion HCM be available as (1) perpetual license with the customary 22 percent annual maintenance or (2) through subscription?

* Will Fusion HCM, whatever its initial scope, once subscribed, deliver new functionality three or four times a year? Will the functionability be at no additional cost regardless of expansion?

* Will Fusion HCM be available to current Oracle and PeopleSoft users on maintenance on a complete replacement basis or will they get only those replacement modules for which they already have EBS HCM or Enterprise HCM licenses?

* Since Fusion HCM is built on a modern object model, which should differ tremendously from the core data design of PeopleSoft dating to the late-'80s, it's not obvious how PeopleSoft customers are going to connect their Enterprise HCM platform directly to Fusion HCM.

And of course, there's more. With Naomi, the critical thinking never stops, happily. I don't know if she'll ask Gretchen those questions (or if I will), but Naomi will certainly kick her answers around the next morning at "The Great Technology Debate" with Gartner Managing VP Jim Holincheck.

Be there or be square. I can't wait.

HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is co-chairman of the 13th Annual HR Technology® Conference & Exposition in Chicago, Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, 2010. Many discounts expire on Friday, July 30. You can comment on this column at the Conference LinkedIn Group , which does not require prior attendance to join. He is also host of The Bill Kutik Radio Show ®. He can be reached at bkutik@earthlink.net .  

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