Automated Accountants: Personal Assistant Technology

robot-accountantIn my house, Alexa (aka Amazon Echo) is part of the family.  My young children check the weather whilst eating their breakfast, see how their favorite sports teams are doing, get some jokes, movie times and anything that pops into their head they will just “Ask Alexa”.  They also have a lot of fun seeing how Apple’s Siri and Alexa answer the same questions and which works better for what.  Observing these interactions and interacting myself has been a very good hands on research exercise and I have been thinking for a while of enterprise applications.

We can use personal assistant technology bots to use context and intelligence to provide a natural interface and increase participation in our cloud applications.We can increase participation on two groups of users

  • Casual Users
    • They have infrequent and limited interactions with the applications and do not have the time, or the training and familiarity with the capabilities to participate effectively.  They don’t know what information they can get, never mind how to get it.
  • Power Users
    • For these users it is about reducing the time it takes to do highly repetitive or UI intensive tasks.  This is like me at home getting sports scores or weather from Amazon Echo, I could easily look it up on my phone but it is easier to just say “Alexa, weather” whilst I am pouring my coffee.

I put together a team to enter a hackothon by our UX innovation team last month and we tried to focus on the former use case.  A high level manager who is very busy, runs a team of 50-100 people and manages to budgets but does not have a secretary.  We imagined her wanting to know details of budgets and implemented three flows

  1. Inquiry on remaining budget
  2. Details of who spent a budget on what
  3. Transfer funds from one budget to another (say from travel to computer hardware)

We spent a lot of time trying to make the interactions as natural as possible, so getting the natural language trained correctly was key and we also wanted to use Amazon Echo, IM and SMS messages to interact with the live data in an ERP Cloud environment.

It was a great experience and we learned a lot technically. but probably more of a revelation was the different design strategy for these types of interaction.  The other teams also did some amazing things(read the event review here) so we were pleased to pick up third place overall and the People’s Choice Award (voted on by all the participants).

I fully expect Automated Personal Assistants to be a key interaction model for Enterprise applications going forward, just as we are seeing them start to take off in the consumer space.   Exciting times.

The Times They Are A Changing

I am focusing on some new things here at Oracle.  I’ll be dedicating a lot more of my time looking into emerging technology trends and how we should be applying them to the enterprise ERP or financial management space.

So how does this effect this blog?

I’ve been blogging for many years on Intercompany, Financial Management and ERP, mixing in some general technology posts.  Now I plan to start writing about new technology trends a lot more.  I have always been interested in this, but now I have more time to get deeper into it and I find blogging about things helps me understand them better and get feedback and insight from others, so it is a win-win.  I have enjoyed all the comments on the blog and words of encouragement that people have given me in person, that has been a huge motivation to continue writing (even tho I have been posting as frequently as I would like the last few years) and respond to comments.  I hope that feedback will continue.

So now I have got this announcement out of the way, I can get started… watch this space.

Oracle Cloud Marketplace

If you are an Oracle Cloud customer or a partner, or are considering becoming one, or if you are just interested, you should check out the Oracle Cloud Marketplace.  It follows the type App Store type model that you are probably familiar with, but this is for cloud based enterprise apps.

oracle cloud marketplaceI am always inspired by the innovation that comes from the Oracle partners, it drives me to try and keep innovating in the products Oracle produces and that is how the ecosystem should work.  I see a lot of content on their already and I plan to try out some of the free apps over the next days and weeks, maybe I will do reviews of anything I find particularly interesting.  However you shouldn’t wait for my reviews, get over there now and check out the content, post in the comments to discuss what you find.

Trivial Software?

All software is hard.  Building good software is not trivial, but the challenges I face are different depending the intended use of my software.  For me it helps if I put software into three categories

  1. Critical – this controls nuclear power plants, medical equipment or aircraft control systems.  If it breaks a lot of people die.
  2. Enterprise Class – If it breaks I cannot run my business (pay my suppliers, pay my employees, serve my customers)
  3. Trivial – If it breaks I can’t check the latest sports results, or post my opinions on my lunch to facebook and twitter

The tolerance of the consumers of each of the above software for failure is quite different and as such the speed with which new features can be delivered and implemented will differ.  If the pilot of your plane sees a pop up on his screen right before he takes off saying “An update is available for your autopilot software, would you like to install it now?”;  would you want him to click ‘Yes’?

I build Enterprise software, which is the middle ground.  I certainly have to spend a lot of my time ensuring that what we build is robust and reliable, but there is plenty of scope to innovate.  I respect the people who build there other types of software as they each have their own unique challenges.  Critical software has to be totally safe and reliable and those pressures are obvious.  What I class as trivial software is a challenge because you have to move with the market and bring out new features and innovations very fast and keep your customers very happy and engaged because they can move easily to another product.  What is trivial software to the users may well be critical to your ability to make money and pay your own bills.

Do you agree with my categories, or do you prefer to slice it another way?  Is trying to categorize software a futile exercise?  Am I just trying to be controversial by calling some people’s life passion trivial?  Have your say in the comments below.

Little Data and The Semantic Enterprise

Small dataI have taken this term and the inspiration to get some of my thoughts in this area into a post from Jake’s recent post on the excellent AppsLab blog, I have been thinking about personalizing experiences in software for a long time but I had not ever called it little data.  It somewhat fits with thoughts I have had around The Semantic Enterprise, which is my preferred term but I think I have a different perspective on it than other people.

So my idea here is that we make use of the data we have about a person and what they do to get the small amounts of data that they really need to them, even though they didn’t know the data was there or that they needed it.  This is perfect for enterprises software because we have a lot of data about your life inside the enterprise and also a lot of data about other people similar to you and we have a whole load of data very relevant to you so we just have to pull those things together – should be simple right?

I will give an example that I noticed where this is done badly.  When I first had children, I bought new born diapers from amazon, then I started buying slightly larger diapers and then I bought a book on potty training, my buying needs progressed in a somewhat predictable way.  Amazon continued to recommend potty training books and diaper related items long after I had bought my past potty training book.  This is a case of good logic to figure out people who buy X also buy Y, but not good to be really smart and predict how my needs progress over time.  In the enterprise our needs also change over time, so we should try to predict that and help you get what you need.

So to give an example in the enterprise, I might want to recommend an online training resource on managing my employee’s expenses or doing performance reviews after I am newly promoted to a manager title, but I should not blindly push that to every manager even if they have been a manager for many years.  In finance the reports I have on my homepage would change based on my activities in the system, if last quarter I was the person approving last minute adjustments for the Slovakian Ledger, then maybe I want to see some reports on the Slovakian Ledger a little earlier in the cycle to get ahead of the process this quarter.  However if I happen to be set up as an approver for the Slovakian ledger but have never approved anything in that ledger maybe I am not going to be interested in having those reports pushed to me.

As you can imagine the possibilities are huge and very exciting, I have barely scratched the surface.  I’ll be giving this a lot of thought and bouncing ideas of smart people.  Your opinions are also very welcome, use the comments below.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

I’ve been cheating on my Blog

I have been spending time writing on another blog, it’s nothing you did, it’s about me.  I was drawn in by the star studded list of other guest bloggers such as Steve Miranda, Terrance Wampler and Steve Boese and I couldn’t resist when the offer was there to guest write on the Oracle Applications Blog.  Now that is out in the open I feel better, I mean you were all going to find out eventually but I wanted you to hear it from me.  I have to confess I was nervous at first but I was encouraged to be myself and then it was much easier.  My first draft was kicked back at me and I was asked to make it more personal, when I read the first draft again I realized it was like a marketing release, I wasn’t speaking in my own ‘voice’.  So I reworked an example I used here a while ago and I felt got my point across and it’s now a very personal post, drawing on my love of toast in the mornings and relating it to embedded BI.  So I would strongly recommend pointing your RSS readers at the Oracle Applications Blog.

Happy Fusion – Our Time is Now

robot clockWhilst I was visiting the Oracle offices in Hyderabad recently, the Fusion development team gave me the gift in this photo and that’s what prompted this post. Fusion has, and continues to be, an incredible journey. Building a full suite of enterprise applications from the ground up is certainly a challenge, but the learning from the continual customer interactions and the amazing people and products from the many companies that have joined Oracle during the acquisitions, has been an immensely rewarding and enjoyable and enriching experience. One thing that has been a little frustrating is that I was not able to blog in detail about Fusion while it was not released, but as it is now generally available, the time is now. The Oracle Applications Blog has relaunched recently and we’ll see a lot more content there, I saw a really nice paper by infosys on Fusion Financials and Joe (my former boss and now much respected colleague in the strategy team) has been active on the Fusion Financials strategy team blog and now I am ready to get my opinions and interpretation on things out there. This is a very exciting time for me, because I believe the team has done a phenomenal job of building Fusion Applications.

So over the next weeks and months I hope to bring you some interesting Fusion Applications posts and I will continue to mix in Ebusiness Suite and general tech topics as always. You will also see me getting a little more active on twitter again so please follow me there too and let me know what you think and what you would like to here more details about.