Social collaboration: Oracle

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Having first entered the market in June 2013, Oracle Social Network is a social collaboration solution for internal collaboration scenarios that integrates tightly with Oracle’s cloud-based business applications.

Top takeaways

OSN provides a social collaboration layer on top of Oracle’s business applications

Designed for internal use cases, Oracle Social Network (OSN) aims to support social collaboration in the context of an organisation’s application-based activities. A well-rounded solution, its capabilities are focused around interactive conversations, microblogging and social networking, and the product is available for free to customers of Oracle’s cloud-based business applications.

Weaknesses in analytics and task-based collaboration capabilities

Though Oracle has invested in its analytics capabilities in the latest release of OSN, there remains plenty of room for improvement in the way the product leverages analytics, both from the perspective of an adoption manager or community manager looking for insights about how to drive increased activity, and also from the perspective of enriching the user experience to help users better navigate and handle the information that is available to them. Given its focus on supporting collaboration in the context of businesses processes (driven by application integration), there is also scope for Oracle to invest more in the relationship between unstructured conversation and task-based activity within OSN.

Lack of revenue incentive and referenceable customers suggests Oracle will not lead in this space

Although the product has been in market for almost two years, Oracle is still unable to provide reference customers for OSN – something that will offer little confidence to customers and prospects about the vendor’s commitment to the long-term viability of this product. Oracle insists that it does believe that social capabilities are essential to the success of its business applications, and that investment in OSN development will continue to drive that. However, because OSN is only available to Oracle Cloud Application customers and not as a standalone service, this is a different market proposition to those of many other social collaboration technology vendors. The lack of revenue incentive associated with the product means that this is inevitably not a high priority for the vendor from a marketing perspective, and that Oracle is unlikely to be leading the market from an innovation standpoint.

Company overview

From its beginnings as the developer of the first commercial RDBMS in the late 1970s, Oracle has grown into a giant of the business technology market, generating revenues of over $38 billion in FY14, and boasting over 400,000 customers. Through a combination of organic growth and an aggressive acquisition path, Oracle’s portfolio has swelled to include both hardware and software offerings, with the brand associated most strongly with middleware, enterprise applications, and of course databases.

Oracle’s formal entry into the enterprise collaboration space came in 2002, with the launch of Oracle Collaboration Suite, which included email, calendaring, file management, and later web conferencing and instant messaging. In November 2008, this was succeeded by Oracle Beehive, which delivered a new, unified platform for the company’s collaborative capabilities, based on Oracle Fusion Middleware and the Oracle Database, and leveraging various other products in the portfolio. Despite this revamp, Beehive failed to gain significant traction in the market, and Oracle decided to take a new approach, investing in a new product that would embrace the growing areas of social collaboration and enterprise social networking.

First announced at Oracle OpenWorld in 2011, Oracle Social Network (OSN) became generally available in June 2013. The latest version of the product, R9, was released in November 2014.

With its headquarters in Redwood Shores, California, Oracle employs over 120,000 people globally, with around 65% based outside the US. Just over 60% of the company’s business comes from the Americas region, with 30% coming from EMEA. The company is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange (NTSE: ORCL).

Oracle’s social collaboration offerings

OSN, which is available as a single-tenant cloud-based service via Oracle Cloud, is a social collaboration environment focused around conversations, microblogging and social networking capabilities. OSN is available only to customers of Oracle Cloud Applications (including Oracle Sales Cloud, Oracle Service Cloud (Right Now), Oracle ERP Cloud, Oracle HCM Cloud and Oracle Recruiting Cloud (Taleo)) and is tightly integrated with these platforms.

The Oracle Social Network conversation view

Source: Oracle

At the centre of collaboration within OSN is the ‘Conversation’; these are discussion forum-like containers that support threaded comments, and may be open or private. Anyone can create a new conversation, inviting specific people or user groups to join. Conversations may be standalone, or they may be associated with one or more particular groups, or business application records such as a customer or an opportunity. To help users manage their conversations, Oracle provides the ability to group conversations into ‘Collections’, which may be kept private or shared with a specific group or named individuals.

Each user within OSN has a personal microblogging ‘wall’, which is accessed via their profile page. From here, they can publish updates to their network of followers; similar to the Twitter model, ‘following’ a colleague’s posts includes them in the individual’s ‘Recent activity’ stream on the OSN home page. OSN also has the concept of ‘contacts’, which are distinct from followers’: whereas someone you follow is automatically added to your list of contacts (which is displayed in an omnipresent sidebar to allow for quick access to initiate a chat session or web conference, for example), you can identify people as contacts without necessarily following their activity. A recommendations section in the People tab displays a list of people the user might consider following, based on their and others’ relationships and interactions. Recommendations are also offered in the context of an individual’s activity, for example when adding users to conversations.

OSN also supports the creation of groups. Although these are to a large extent more akin to permissions-based user groups than community-style groups in the way they are presented in OSN, each group can have its own wall where members can post updates and comments, and the group page also displays all the conversations where the group is involved. Any user can create a group.

Oracle takes a similar approach with the way it handles integration with business applications within OSN; a ‘Social Object’ created for a customer record or opportunity, for example (the Enterprise Social Objects framework is discussed under Integration and interoperability below), also has its own wall for discussions, rich text posts, comments, documents and status updates, and can have conversations associated with it. Any user can create a Social Object from within the system of record. A feature added in R9 introduced the ability for Social Objects to be closed by any member when they are completed, to prevent further comments being added; they can also be re-opened if required. Social Objects can be linked together, for example relating a Social Object for an opportunity to an account Social Object.

Updates and notifications from group pages, as well as social objects and conversations, are all included in the ‘Recent activity’ stream on the OSN home page. Basic filtering on this stream allows individuals to view only unread items, those marked as favourites, or follow-up items assigned to them. The ‘follow-up’ feature is part of the posting function, and enables users to flag particular users in a post; this marks the post with a red flag in the recipient’s view, and they may get an email notification if this is configured in their settings. Posts can be flagged as “For Your Information”, “Please Reply” or “Please Reply – Urgent”. The recipient of the follow-up can then clear the flag when the item has been completed.

As well as posting text content, OSN supports the uploading and sharing of files within (and between) conversations, and to personal, Social Object and group walls. Document previewing and in-place editing (using the file’s native application) is provided, as well as the ability to annotate the document within OSN, which includes support for threaded comments in the context of the document itself. Clicking ‘publish’ upon finishing annotating a document also posts a notification to the activity stream. OSN also provides document versioning and permissions-based folders and sub-folders in the context of a conversation. Where there is no need to share (and hence duplicate) the document in full, it is also possible to share a link to a file stored within OSN.

For real-time communications, as well as one-to-one chat with contacts, OSN supports one-click voice, video and audio conferencing using Cisco WebEx, Avaya or the customer’s preferred conferencing provider (via custom integration). Out-of-the-box web conferencing integration with Cisco WebEx is also provided. Conference recordings can be stored as a file in the conversation.

Oracle provides a Desktop Client for OSN for both Windows and Mac; this can be used as a chat client, and also allows individuals to view and participate in conversations. It also allows OSN conversations to be accessed offline. Mobile apps are provided for iOS tablets and phones and Android devices.

In R9, Oracle introduced analytics capabilities to OSN; designed primarily for use by administrators, this provides a dashboard for tracking general activity statistics and usage patterns within the platform. Individual users can also view their own usage statistics.

Oracle Social Network analytics

Source: Oracle

Business use cases and market positioning

Designed for internal use cases, OSN aims to support social collaboration in the context of an organisation’s application-based activities, rather than forcing them to move into a separate system. Oracle’s positioning strategy for OSN is to focus on how social collaboration can add value to users of its line-of-business applications, enriching their experience and improving adoption of these tools. For example, for Sales Managers, enabling OSN can help them address issues such as uneven sales rep performance or limited insight into activity that would help with sales forecasting. For service managers, Oracle’s positioning focuses on enhancing time-to-resolution for service requests, or improving escalation processes, for example.

At present, OSN is available only to customers of Oracle’s Cloud Applications (Oracle Sales Cloud, Oracle Service Cloud, Oracle HCM Cloud, Oracle Financials Cloud, Oracle Procurement Cloud, Oracle Incentive Compensation Cloud and Oracle Project Portfolio Management Cloud). It is provided as a no-cost, automatic add-on to the Oracle application licence. However, access to OSN is not limited to licensed users of these line-of-business applications; it may be deployed to every person across the customer organisation.

Oracle was unable to provide current customer or active user numbers for OSN.

Oracle does not offer OSN as a standalone product, and there is no on-premises version available.

Although there is no standalone trial version of the software at present, OSN is included in trials and hosted demo environments of other Oracle Cloud Applications.

Key customer examples

Oracle was unable to explicitly reference customers at this time, but the company provided the following examples of how organisations are currently using OSN.

  • A global manufacturer of military equipment operating in 50 countries is using OSN integrated with Oracle Sales Cloud to support better communications and knowledge-sharing between employees and its systems integrator partners within its complex, multi-year projects. The software is also helping to better-connect the organisation’s field sales force through improved mobile collaboration.
  • A firm that develops, manufactures and markets value-added products for specialist industries such as aquatics and horticulture is using OSN with Oracle Sales Cloud to facilitate team collaboration and fill gaps in cross-organisation communication. By improving visibility of projects in different global regions, this organisation has seen new ideas developed and shared across its business, as well as much clearer insight into the sales cycle by R&D teams and executives.
  • A large European insurance firm is using OSN integrated with Oracle HCM and its Apex payroll system to provide in-context collaboration, as well as a platform for supporting goal management for the organisation’s top 500 executives. Adoption is progressing well, with many lines of business using OSN on a regular basis; mobile access has been particularly popular among users.
  • Having recently grown significantly through acquisitions, a provider of network performance management tools for telcos began using OSN integrated with Oracle Service Cloud to more efficiently and effectively resolve customer support cases. By enabling better sharing of knowledge and helping identify experts in a timely way, the organization aims to unlock the information in people’s heads and maximise the value from its rapid growth.

Implementation and services

As a pure SaaS solution, implementation services for Oracle Social Network are focused primarily on supporting customers through the rollout process, and providing help and guidance in defining and driving their adoption strategy. For its own part, Oracle provides support to customers deploying OSN via its existing Customer Success teams – for Oracle Sales Cloud, Oracle Service Cloud, Oracle HCM Cloud, and other Oracle Cloud Applications. Oracle also relies on its significant partner network (which includes large SI’s such as Accenture, Cognizant, Deloitte, TCS and Wipro, as well as thousands of medium-sized and small partners) to provide adoption support to customers. Given the company’s positioning of OSN as a way to enhance the value and adoption levels of its business applications, Oracle has to date focused on tying OSN adoption strategies into its partners’ existing line-of-business practices (for example CRM or HCM), rather than their more general social collaboration strategies.

Other partners that have signed up to providing services around OSN include Apex IT, CRM IT, CRM Now, EC4U and Intelenex. Partner services are advertised via the Oracle Cloud Marketplace.

Integration and interoperability

Given the close relationship between OSN and Oracle business applications like Oracle Sales Cloud, it is not surprising that Oracle has placed significant emphasis on developing an integration framework that supports relatively simple integration between OSN and other key business applications. The Enterprise Social Objects framework – which is leveraged in the OSN/Oracle Cloud Application integration – enables the surfacing of a specific object type from a system of record within OSN, providing a semi-structured page which can include a gadget displaying properties of the record itself as well as a discussion wall for that record, and enabling events and notifications from the application to be posted to the OSN activity stream.

The pre-built integration with Oracle Sales Cloud, for example, provides various types of social objects – including Customers, Opportunities, Leads, References and Contacts – which may be displayed as individual tabs in the OSN user interface. Oracle’s integration with Oracle Cloud Applications also allows OSN content to be surfaced within the business application, so that users can collaborate in a wall discussion around a record either within OSN or within the business application itself. This is displayed as either a contextual sidebar within the business application, or as a pop-out panel within the browser. The Enterprise Social Object framework can be used to integrate any Oracle or third-party business application with OSN.

For more complex integration or customisations, Oracle also provides an OSN API, as well as pre-built Java libraries, frameworks, documentation, and tools for the use of developers and partners.

Current pre-built integrations include an add-in for Microsoft Outlook, which allows users to view and manage OSN conversations, messages and follow-ups from within their email clients, as well as enabling emails to be forwarded into an OSN conversation or Social Object wall.

Oracle has a handful of integration partners in the area of web, voice and videoconferencing, including Avaya, Cisco Webex, FreeConferenceCall.com, HarQen, VoiceBase and Weemo. Other integration partners include Fishbowl, which provides integration with SharePoint content, and LingoTek, which provides translation tools.

The Oracle Cloud Marketplace allows partners to publish custom apps and pre-built integrations with the Oracle Cloud Applications. An example of a Marketplace app which explicitly leverages OSN is Avaya Aura Conferencing for Oracle Social Network, which enables web, audio and video collaboration sessions with enterprise and external guest users to be initiated from within the OSN environment.

Roadmap and business strategy

The next version of Oracle Social Network, due for release in the summer of 2015, is planned to include several key enhancements:

  • Support for collaboration with external users. Extending beyond the employee audience, this will allow partners, suppliers and known customers to participate in specific conversations in a controlled manner, with external participation clearly highlighted to ensure that all contributors are aware.
  • Hashtag support. As well as allowing the tagging of posts, this will enable users to follow specific hashtags, and provide a page for each hashtag that is created. Auto-suggestion will help reduce duplicate hashtags. Oracle is also considering enabling the auto-creation of hashtags by applications posting to the OSN feed.
  • Graph-enabled recommendations. Leveraging the social graph and the user’s context, this will recommend people that the user might want to add to a conversation or follow. Looking further ahead, Oracle is also working on bringing together the social graph with analytics and faceted search to enable more flexible, contextual search and recommendations, for example allowing a user to search for “all people who have participated in opportunities with me that were over $1m in the last six months”.
  • Wall controls. Designed for senior individuals who need to periodically delegate control and management of their wall to others, this will allow others to post to their wall under their name.

In addition to these feature enhancements, Oracle continues to integrate OSN with other products in its portfolio as they become available via the Oracle Cloud platform, with items on the roadmap for the 2015 calendar year including Oracle Documents Cloud and Oracle Process Cloud.

Considerations for customers and prospects

Though it was certainly late to the market, Oracle Social Network provides a well-rounded social collaboration solution that offers a good level of functionality. Although there is little to significantly differentiate the product from the competition in terms of the social features and capabilities it provides, the inclusion of interesting content-based features such as annotation and in-place editing, the focus on the “conversation” as the primary collaborative vehicle, and of course the tight integration with the Oracle business applications gives the product a distinct identity and feel which stands out from other competitors in the marketplace.

There are, however, some areas where the product still needs to mature; Oracle could do more to smooth out the user experience to make it easier for users to post without having to navigate to the appropriate location in order to post an update, for example, and to allow posting to more than one place at once. There is also plenty of scope for improvement around the use of analytics, firstly to inform and guide community managers as they look to drive adoption, but also to enrich the user experience itself, for example with more sophisticated recommendations, or to aid more intelligent filtering of activity. In terms of support for more structured, project-focused work, while the follow-up feature is a step in the right direction, there is much more that Oracle could do around projects and tasks, particularly in the context of business application integration.

From a deployment perspective, Oracle’s opportunity here remains limited, since only Oracle’s applications customers can adopt OSN, and only those who have taken a cloud-based path (though this is a very significant number of organisations). If you are such a custome, OSN is – if not a no-brainer – then certainly worth serious consideration if you are contemplating a social collaboration initiative, since you get the product for free anyway.

The biggest question relates more to Oracle’s ability to succeed in this area in the long-term. The company has long seen the opportunity presented by the collaboration software market, but it has never managed to gain a convincing foothold, and even with OSN it is very late to a very high-profile party. It is perhaps telling that Oracle has decided to approach the opportunity from its stronghold in the business applications market – both with its own sales strategy and its partner strategy – rather than from a more general, enterprise social collaboration perspective, and I think this is a sensible decision in the short-to-medium term while the company builds its credibility and understanding of this technology and its application. That said, this is no longer an emerging market, and if Oracle is still struggling to find its place, there is an argument that it will never truly find one here.

Given that Oracle has no direct software revenue stream from OSN, there is no major incentive for the company to heavily promote its social collaboration capability. The question for customer organisations is rather whether there is an incentive for Oracle to continue investing in the product itself in the long-term; to a large extent this depends on the ongoing traction and adoption that OSN experiences. At present Oracle sees the social capabilities of OSN as a necessary part of the strategy for its applications business, and ensures that it receives “significant development funding”. For now, OSN has a relatively strong (if not particularly ambitious, time-wise) roadmap, but at the same time, it seems unlikely that the company will emerge as an innovator in social collaboration.

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