Faced with continued user frustration about the complexity of upgrading to its E-Business Suite 11i applications, Oracle is taking steps to improve the software's quality and make it easier to install. But the company was hit with fresh criticism of its product development and support processes last week, illustrating how far it has to go to win over users.
At the spring conference of the independent Oracle application user group here, company executives detailed new tools and internal operating procedures that the vendor hopes will raise customer satisfaction levels and persuade users to migrate to 11i in greater numbers than they have thus far.
That follows the announcement last month of several upgrade assistance programs and an acknowledgment by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison that 11i is hard to install.
Members of the Oracle Applications Users Group who were interviewed last week welcomed Oracle's more cooperative attitude. But there were complaints about the quality of the company's application updates and its technical support, and several users said that they want to see Oracle deliver on its promises over the long haul.
"I'm anxious to see their words become reality. Right now, all we have is words," said Tom Wyatt, president of the Atlanta-based OAUG, which has been working closely with Oracle to remedy the 11i upgrade and support issues.
If Oracle succeeds in getting its application development and technical support teams to work more closely with each other, "that will have a tremendous impact" on users, Wyatt said. He works as director of Oracle systems at Sitel, a customer service outsourcing firm in Baltimore.
Oracle has acknowledged that fewer than 40 per cent of its existing users have installed the 2-year-old 11i applications or are in the process of doing so. While the company has no plans to roll out another major release in the foreseeable future, OAUG members were critical of the rapid pace of Oracle's incremental 11i upgrades.
The new releases require extensive testing and sometimes cause glitches in existing systems, according to some conference attendees. Every release of the 11i software "breaks the old stuff," said Melanie Bock, a San Francisco-based Oracle consultant who is a past president of the OAUG.
Several users also faulted Oracle's support. They said support workers don't seem to be communicating with Oracle's developers and often aren't fully up to speed on 11i's nuances. The amount of software patches that users have to install and the time it can take to put them in place were also sore points for some users.
Elaine Friedman, a technical analyst at Canada's National Capital Commission, said that the quasi-public agency charged with capital maintenance and beautification halted an 11i implementation last fall because the patching process was so slow.
Some problems took weeks to fix, Friedman said. She added that the commission postponed its migration from Oracle's 10.7 financial applications until this fall.
Cliff Godwin, senior vice president of applications technology at Oracle, said software quality improvements made by the company over the past year have cut in half the number of patches that new 11i users typically need to install. In response to user demands, he added, Oracle also now offers packs that include multiple patches in order to further reduce installation work.
Oracle's remedy plan also includes the formation of a new group to monitor internal quality assurance procedures and the start of weekly meetings between developers and support workers. In addition, a new utility being built into 11i is supposed to notify users of patches they need to install.
DHL Worldwide Network in January completed a global migration to 11i from 10.7. Like other early adopters of 11i, the delivery company faced "a lot of issues with quality" and was kept busy testing patches that Oracle released to fix glitches, said Jeremy Young, finance business process manager at DHL.
Oracle appears to be moving in the right direction now, noted Young, who is another past president of the OAUG. "The signs are there, but you want to see it continue," he said.
Underscoring the application upgrade and support issues raised by users at the OAUG conference was the release of survey results by Boston-based AMR Research Inc. showing a low level of satisfaction with the 11i implementation process.
The survey, conducted in February, drew responses from 115 OAUG members whose companies have completed 11i rollouts. Jennifer Kemmeter, an AMR analyst, wouldn't disclose the percentage of the respondents who said they were satisfied with the upgrade process. But she said the figure was "very low."
Moreover, Kemmeter said, the users that took part reported that they spent an average of 43 per cent more money and 39 per cent more time on 11i implementations than they had expected. On the other hand, she noted that 60 per cent of the users said they were satisfied or better with Oracle as a company. And 75 per cent said 11i had improved their software environment and delivered business benefits.
Oracle declined to comment about the survey. But a source at the company said it's working to help users keep their 11i upgrades from going over budget and taking more time than scheduled. For example, Oracle is automating the software regression testing process.