…it'll shine when it shines
you might think I'm wastin' time
but I'm just a good old boy that's learned to wait
- The Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ “It’ll Shine When It Shines”
Like many of you, I’ve waited some time to get my hands on Oracle Fusion Applications (I'll be using the term "Fusion Apps" from here, but I wanted to get the formal name in up front for the sake of the folks who care about such things). I know why I’ve been waiting…because Oracle has taken the approach that quality takes precedence over schedule. I'm good with that. In fact, I've been vocally supportive of that approach. And it looks like it’s been worth the wait.
I spent last week working on a peach of an assignment…validation testing for Fusion Apps at Oracle HQ in Redwood Shores. I was one of the few customers with the good fortune to participate in the first wave of such testing; the plan is to have five or six waves by the end of this calendar year. Faced with a choice of which product family to test (a week is just not enough time to test everything available), I chose Project Portfolio Management (PPM) because it’s the most important set of Oracle applications in my particular shop.
It was an interesting week: hands on the keyboard, working through Oracle’s test scripts, kicking the tires, and sharing my likes and dislikes. I typically had two members of the Oracle PPM team and a member of the Oracle User Experience team working with me at all times.
As a side note on the interesting week, my record of 100% inspection by the Federal Transportation Administration remained intact on both the flights to and from Oracle HQ - I know I'll sleep better knowing that somebody is protecting my country from the terrorist threat posed by middle-aged, over-weight, bald guys. Anyway, I've digressed...
What follows are some highlights and observations after working with Fusion PPM for a week:
Overall Development Progress
In terms of development progress, Oracle is a bit ahead of where I expected them to be with the first wave of validation testing. I was given specific test scripts to execute during the week, but I varied off the test scripts quite a bit throughout the week. I only found a few areas that were not functional.
I should also point out that the overall quality of the apps is much higher than I would expect it to be at this point in the development lifecycle. Yes, I did hit some bugs…but not nearly as many as I expected to see, and nothing that prevented execution of business processes. The whole idea of using an iterative development approach to improve product quality seems to have paid off handsomely on the quality front.
The imbedded business processes were pretty much spot on. Although the processes used in Fusion Apps PPM don’t exactly mirror what we do at JPL, I was not surprised at all by how the processes flowed. Some welcome streamlining of processes has taken place, especially in the area of creating and maintaining project budgets. Overall the project process flows seem very well thought out, with project management in particular benefitting from strong process flows.
The User Experience
Fusion Applications are presented as a series of user dashboards. The dashboard or dashboards presented to a user are dependent upon applications and roles. The user interface itself looks quite a bit like a basic Web Center UX implementation. In fact, it’s very extensible using the Web Center extensibility tools.
There are fairly accurate pictures of the user interface all over the web, including a few I took from last year’s Oracle OpenWorld. Those pictures are still relatively accurate, so I won’t be putting up more pictures here (I thought seriously about it, but decided there wasn’t much of a value add in return for possibly stepping over the bounds of my relationship with Oracle…it’s their work, they’ll share it when they’re ready). What I can say is that Oracle has followed a consistent design pattern with the UI, and they've stuck with it across most of the applications I saw during my testing.
It’s not the UI in and of itself, but the thought process behind the UI design that makes the user experience of Fusion Apps so powerful:
- The concept of shallow, flat navigation means that users are never more than two or three clicks away from performing a task.
- Detailed work areas, which are presented in a spreadsheet format, provide Excel-like navigation. The areas within the browser work like a browser. As a result, the navigation through the applications is very intuitive and very consistent between applications – I found myself being able to accomplish the objectives of a test script simply by reading the end of a test script, setting the script aside, and intuitively working through the process to achieve the end result required by the script by the end of the second day.
- The light bulb about all of this really went on for me while running a test script for PPM Contracts Billing. I hit a point where I saw invoices related to contracts, with both related to projects; all on a single screen with the ability to drill into the detail of any of the three without losing sight of the relationship to the other two. That just impressed the bejabbers out of me!
The upshot of the powerful user experience? Productivity gains. Users will be able to perform their tasks more easily, more quickly, and with less training.
Most ERP apps can model processes and gather transactional data. The real challenge is in organizing that data into meaningful information, then sharing that information with business process owners and decision-makers. That’s the value proposition for transaction analytics:
- In Fusion PPM, the Project Performance Reporting is built around an Essbase cube for OLAP (“Online Analytical Processing”). Users get the functionality of Essbase while being shielded from any associated complexity. To be honest, if Oracle had not told me, I never would have known – the Essbase components are transparent to users because the integration with the rest of Fusion PPM is so seamless.
- Reporting is built around the philosophy of management by exception. Exceptions and errors are “pushed” to the user – no more “baby sitting” processes, searching for errors or running an error report – with the ability to drill down and correct those exceptions or errors within two or three clicks.
- Project Performance Reporting (PPR) uses the familiar structure of measures aggregated in KPIs (“Key Performance Indicators”) and KPIs aggregated in KPAs (Key Performance Areas). Some measures, KPIs and KPAs are seeded while others can be defined by customers (which are reported on is each customer’s choice). This structure, used in combination with the Web Center tools, makes the development of personalized business intelligence dashboards a pretty trivial exercise.
Points of Concern
- There are lots of moving parts under the covers of Fusion Apps. The technology stack could be big and complex, so I worry about the impact of complexity on implementation and operations. I'm particularly concerned if AIA (Applications Integration Architecture), which is necessary for customers doing incremental upgrades to Fusion Apps...and I suspect, in this economy, most customers will migrate to Fusion Apps incrementally. I'm not entirely convinced that my concerns are justified…it’s just that I have yet to be convinced that they’re not.
- The social networking functionality, which admittedly is a significant chunk of the appeal of Fusion Apps, was not ready for testing.
- Although we’ve heard quite a bit about cross-product family business process flows, there was no opportunity to test, review or see those flows during the week.
- The browser used for system validation testing was Google Chrome. I did bump into a few things that worked on Chrome and not so well on FireFox. I suspect this situation will be remedied prior to a general-availability release of Fusion Apps, but it might make sense to get familiar with Chrome if you haven’t already.
- Fusion Apps supports user-defined tagging of data elements, and includes the ability to search data based on those tags. Sit back and ponder on that for a moment or two, and you’ll see what it’s so cool.
- Search forms built into the query flag indexed fields, so users will know which searches will run quicker than others. +1 for usability.
- Oracle is very, very serious about incorporating customer input into Fusion Apps. A story to prove my point… Wednesday evening, Oracle sponsored a small reception for the customers participating in this wave of Fusion Apps testing. In chatting with Thomas Kurian, Oracle’s Sr. VP for all Fusion Development (among other things), I mentioned briefly that I did not care for the user interface for a particular application. Overnight Thomas arranged to have me spend the next morning walking seven Oracle people (from different teams) through my dislikes, concerns, and suggestions for this particular application. I understand that meetings began last week to review my inputs and consider a redesign of the UI for the application. And I’m just one customer voice. I’m convinced that these folks are serious about considering customer input.
- The Oracle team I spent the week with worked very hard. They prepared for testing prior to my arrival, they stuck with me from 8:30 a.m. to around 7 p.m. every day (in fact, most of them continued working after I left), and they went the extra mile to make sure I was comfortable the entire week (including reviewing navigation prior to executing test scripts, having serious discussions about all my findings – including the negative ones – and also acting as gracious hosts. Kudos to the entire group there. I've posted a picture of the core group here.
- I’ve sat at a keyboard with Fusion Apps for a week. Cleared caches, executed test scripts, gone exploring off-script, even tried to break things a few times. Oracle Fusion Applications are real and work proceeds. So can we now please stop all this nonsense about vaporware, non-existent products, and off-track software development?
- I was very impressed. In particular, the user experience is a “game changer”. The team at Oracle really got this right with Fusion Apps, and I’d sure like to know how they did it...I'm really hoping to do a "day in the life" with the Oracle Usability folks to see if we can bottle the magic. Fusion Apps customers will see productivity gains as a direct result of the outstanding user experience for Fusion Apps.
- Even though the social networking functionality was not working during my testing, I can see the potential. Oracle is getting very close to the sweet spot of Web 2.0 for the enterprise with Fusion Apps.
- I saw people from disparate Oracle organizations functioning in well-integrated teams, with a common goal of building the best possible product. If the teams are integrating well, I have to think some of that cross-functional magic will rub off on the apps themselves.
- I'm struck by the elegance of design in Fusion Apps: simple and intuitive navigation, straight-forward and easily executed business processes, exceptions and errors pushed to the user, seamless integration between the various applications in the PPM Suite.
Like the tune says, it’ll shine when it shines. Overall, I think Fusion Apps are well on their way to shining and, after this week, "...I'm just a good old boy that's learned to wait".
Update: One thing I forgot to mention (it's an age thing) is the greatly improved interface between the PPM Suite and Microsoft Projects. The two-way synchronization greatly improved. In addition, the interface mapping is now exposed to users and can be easily modified. Very cool beans!