Come On, Oracle, Open Up

A "circle the wagons" mentality has made Oracle harder and harder to understand at a time when its message is more complex than ever.
The hottest rumor in recent weeks among analysts was that Oracle’s head of analyst relations had lost her head in a power struggle.

The rumor reached escape velocity, coincidently, on the same day that Oracle experienced a major outage of its voice mail system. So a call to this person’s phone yielded a cryptic “your request cannot be processed at this time” message, only fanning the flames. The rumor was finally put to rest when a call to her cell phone confirmed that she still was on the job.

Many of us assumed that notice of this individual’s premature demise was just the latest manifestation of Oracle’s increasingly closed-door policy when it comes to analysts and the press. Many of us in both communities lament the “circle the wagons” mentality that has overtaken Oracle as year two of its Fusion quest gets under way. Oracle is harder and harder to cover, and harder and harder to understand – at a time when its message is more complex and craves more understanding than ever before.

Why is this a problem? It’s simple. The precedent for grouping together “limited coverage and hostile to outside criticism” and “long-term success” when describing software companies is extremely narrow. For the most part, in my 20-plus years of covering the software industry, the opposite has been true. Baan, Computer Associates, and Siebel are just a few of the companies that have been noteworthy for both their closed-door policy and their fatal, or near fatal, flaws.

Conversely, more openness often coincides with more success: Microsoft circled the wagons for a number of years as its enterprise software division, MBS, laid one egg after the other. Coincidentally – or not – MBS is looking pretty good these days. And, for those of us trying to get inside to take a look, access to Microsoft’s enterprise software side has never been easier.

Even Oracle hasn’t been immune to the effects of openness. Its last big turnaround in enterprise software, back in 2000, coincided with a massive opening up of access to Oracle executives and their thinking, as well as an influx of ideas, good and bad. This back and forth genuinely animated the discourse between Oracle and its customers and, I believe, made the company a sudden contender in a market that it largely had left for dead on a mountain of database revenues for many years.

Encouraging Negative Conclusions

The contrast with Oracle’s competitors, operating mostly in “smother” mode, is stark. Two recent conferences I’ve attended, SAP’s Sapphire and Microsoft’s Convergence, were noteworthy for the opportunities the companies afforded analysts and the press to talk to executives, customers, and partners. For anyone trying to answer the hard questions – like which company has a better long-term strategy – it’s much easier to have an opinion when you’re given something to go on. Especially if that information is constantly updated and refined by access to the actual decision-makers.

In fact, one of the starkest results of limited access is what I call the “going negative” option. If you’re being shut out of the information loop, it’s always easier to find the negative story than the positive one. This might look like bias, but it’s more about the intersection of information and human nature. If Oracle won’t tell me – and its customers – what’s really happening – then we tend to assume the worst until proven otherwise.

Assuming the best is assuming too much when access is denied and dissenters are punished. Indeed, those three companies listed above that didn’t like to talk to the press and analysts actually had good reasons for restricting access: Baan and Siebel were using bluster and disdain to cover up fatal problems with management and strategy, and Computer Associates (now CA) was covering up fatal problems involving cooked books.

I don’t believe Oracle deserves to be seen in the same light as these three companies, though that’s just a hunch. As long as the siege-masters at Oracle keep tight hold on the reins, hunches are going to be the best way to judge what’s really going on. And history will force us to draw our own conclusions.

Come on Oracle, open up, you have nothing to lose but your credibility.

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