Insofar as I characterized Oracle Open World as a communications disaster in my last blog post, I think it’s fair to explain why I feel this way and what it means for Oracle and the market.
Oracle Open World is singularly the worst customer event I attend every year, a forced march so large and unwieldy that I and most people I know who attend – customers and influencers alike – end up trying at best to endure the event, much less benefit from it. And yet we must attend, as it is for the most part the only time in the year that Oracle will actually try to engage in a meaningful dialogue with both influencers like myself, and, indirectly and directly, with its customers and prospects. Because once the gates close and the drawbridge is drawn up on Open World, Oracle goes back to being a very closed world indeed.
Oracle has always been about controlling the message, something all companies try to do one way or another. But over the years, as the lawyers have risen in power and the company’s acquisition strategy has made a virtue out of bafflingly complex fiscal reporting, Oracle has more and more turned its communications strategy towards the goal of limiting, not expanding, the flow of information from the company to the market, and controlling those who try to cut through the PR and get to the meat of the issues surrounding the company.
This is Oracle’s prerogative, though it comes with an implied arrogance – we are so right in what we do that there is no need for any real scrutiny – and a decidedly anti-customer tilt – trust us, we’re on your side – that is belied by many of the company’s strategies. And that control has its consequences for any company – customer, partner, and competitor – that is making huge strategic bets on Oracle and needs, make that deserves, to know that those bets are based on facts, not something else.
The Open World communications disaster begins with two time-honored traditions at Oracle: The first is that Open World is the only major forum by which Oracle engages with influencers every year. Whereas most of the enterprise software market holds multiple user conferences, tech conferences, partner conferences, analyst summits, and press events, Oracle basically bottles up an entire year’s worth of new products and strategies into a five day window in October.
Into this extremely short window must fall all the aspirations of anyone looking for an understanding of this massive and increasingly important company’s products and strategy, and hoping for a dialogue and some critical thinking to boot. Sure, I am told that Oracle has thousands of events every year around the world, but those are tightly controlled, very select sales and marketing events that are all about lead generation and absolutely not about truly informing the market of what Oracle is up to. (Though, as I write these sentences, the notion that Open World is not a tightly controlled, very select sales and marketing event is starting to seem a little absurd.)
Nonetheless, Open World actually does sort of aspire to dialogue and to opening up the company to some critical thinking, despite the limits of its massive scale and the company’s focus on controlling access and information. Of course, the fact that Open World occurs once a year and in such a short time frame makes it impossible for anyone – customer or influencer – to truly see and hear everything they’ve been yearning to know for the last twelve months.
And that’s before the second tradition, the Larry Ellison Effect, takes over.
The Larry Ellison Effect takes this once-a-year event and makes it an even bigger disaster through a peculiar twist of executive fiat: Larry likes to bat both first and last at Open World, and that means that while some opening remarks and a couple of announcements get made Sunday night (Sunday night– Ugh) at the start of the conference, a huge chunk of the really juicy announcements don’t get made until the conference is virtually over: Wed. afternoon this year, 70 hours after Open World began.
This effectively kills any chance for a dialogue about whatever Larry wants to announce. This year it was the company’s cloud strategy, exactly the kind of complex, important announcement that could really benefit from a few days of follow-up briefings, conversations, and, yes, critical thinking. With the announcement on Wed. afternoon, and with not much left of the conference and many attendees already brain dead from the previous three days chasing the Oracle story, Oracle’s cloud strategy was left to be merely pondered, instead of actually understood.
(To their credit, the communications team tried to fix this problem by sending out an email at 3:40 PM on Wed. – right as Larry’s keynote was getting underway – that Thomas Kurian would be available at 5 PM that evening for a deep dive on cloud strategy. Needless to say, with that kind of advanced notice, many influencers, myself included, couldn’t make it.)
The applications team has recently been the major victim of the Larry Effect, as hardware announcements – remember, Oracle’s investors need the company to sell a lot of hardware – have dominated the Sunday night keynote. This means that the apps gang has to sit on its hands and basically say nothing about the most important announcements of the conference, waiting for Larry to deign to deliver their key messages. It makes for an almost comical interchange between otherwise intelligent and capable Oracle execs who have been forced to play dumb and dumber about key issues and strategies for fear of stepping on Larry’s toes.
But wait, there’s more – or less, really. Oracle also makes no bones about Open World being a sales event – point noted – and that means that there are virtually no meetings between influencers and executives, at least not by the standards of the industry: The four or so events Oracle’s competitors hold each year include multiple opportunities to put influencers in front of the execs and get the dialogue going. In doing so, most of Oracle’s competitors believe – or at least pay lip service to – the notion that they learn from the dialogue as much as the influencers. Oracle, with so much to learn, thinks otherwise.
The real question that I keep trying to figure out is whether this is all deliberate – as in, Oracle’s top leadership really doesn’t want to have this dialogue – or whether it’s more just a matter of style. As I ponder the question I am reminded of how Tom Siebel used to conduct his eponymous company’s quarterly financial calls. Rather than discuss meaningful strategy and other useful information, Tom would quickly dive into a level of financial minutia that could put a triple black belt accountant to sleep. Tables, charts, data points, all analyzed in excruciating detail. Minute after minute, on and on he would drone, until time was up and there really wasn’t anything anyone wanted to know other than how to get off the phone.
Could this be the real purpose of Open World: listen to the story we want to tell and don’t expect us to leave time or energy for dialogue? Take the information we want to give you and to hell with the information you think you need to know? This certainly has been the underpinning of the analyst program that I used to be part (I’m now a blogger, according to Oracle, analysts apparently work for big firms that sell Oracle lots of research and over which Oracle feels it has some leverage as a result.) My “handler” at the 2010 Open World said exactly that to me when I dared deviate from the program she put together for “me” in order to try to find out what I had come there to learn.
Regardless, I think that it’s indisputable that the result of this lacuna is a dearth of information and openness about the company’s products and strategy, a company that sits on top of a massive ecosystem of customers and partners who, as I said earlier, need to know a lot more about the Oracle than the company is willing to discuss. Too bad for all concerned. While Oracle seems to get richer by the minute no matter what it does, Oracle’s customers and the market at large are made all the more poorer by what is clearly a deliberate communications disaster.