Thursday, May 26, 2011

Oracle Real-Time Decisions Empowers Business Users

One of the few dependable rules in the software industry is that Suites Win. When a market first develops, it is filled with “point solutions” that do one function – say, send emails or analyze Web traffic. Over time, products emerge that combine these functions and displace the individual point solutions. Even though the point solutions may be better at their particular task than the corresponding suite components, the time, cost, and risk savings of preintegrated products are irresistible to most buyers.* This is especially true when IT departments, rather than end-users, control the purchase process.

The only reason that companies haven’t already ended up with a single mega-system is that new applications appear constantly. It takes time before the existing suites can expand to assimilate the new features. This is especially true in customer management, where new touchpoints – Web, mobile, social, etc. – appear at a dizzying pace. In the real world, nearly all companies run multiple customer contact systems and probably always will.

What this means in practical terms is that companies wishing to coordinate customer treatments across channels need to knit together their separate touchpoints. A class of systems to do this has long existed, loosely labeled as “interaction managers” or “decision engines”. These systems manage outbound campaigns and real-time interactions using a combination of business rules and predictive models. Examples include Infor Interaction Advisor, IBM Unica Interact, Pegasystems Recommendation Advisor, SAS Real-Time Decision Manager, eponymous thinkAnalytics, and Oracle Real-Time Decisions.

These systems are all broadly similar in that they connect to external systems for customer data, marketing content, and message delivery. This contrasts with standard marketing automation and customer relationship management systems, which maintain their own customer databases, store content internally, and deliver messages themselves. Interaction managers and other types of customer management systems do share decision management capabilities including multi-step process flows, logical rules, and predictive models.

Interaction management vendors compete on the power of their rules, automated model generation, user interface, scalability, and analytics. To some degree they also compete their ability to connect with data sources and touchpoint systems. But every vendor I've spoken with says this integration is easy, so it doesn’t seem to be a major point of differentiation.

I caught up last week with the Oracle Real-Time Decisions (RTD) team, who released their latest version earlier this month. RTD is based on the SigmaDynamics product, originally built in 2002 and purchased by Oracle in 2006. Oracle now sells it as a general purchase decision platform, positioned as one of its business intelligence and middleware products. But although some clients do use it for customer service, sales, and operations management, 90% of implementations are still for marketing decisions, primarily to select offers for Web sites and call centers.

RTD’s particular strengths are automated learning and sophisticated decision rules. Users set up process flows, define decision points within each flow, and connect to touchpoint systems to capture events at those decision points. The system then automatically correlates event outcomes with creative, channels, offers, customer attributes and other factors. This happens without users specifying which factors to track -- a significant labor saving. The scope of data lets the system predict behaviors based on the full context of a situation, not just the customer’s identity. The data also provides the foundation for in-depth reports on the factors driving results, in addition to standard campaign reporting.

Decision rules can incorporate multiple goals, each assigned a relative weight, and multiple choices, each assigned a value towards reaching each goal. The system scores each choice by adding up the value it contributes to each goal, adjusted for the probability that the customer will accept that choice if offered. Users can also weigh goals differently for different customer segments: for example, retention might be more important for high-value customers, while cost reduction could be a priority for customers who are less profitable. The same goal definitions can apply to multiple decisions, reducing work and ensuring consistency.

Although RTD has always been powerful, its user interface was designed for technical users. The latest release changes this, introducing role-based security that allows different business users throughout an organization to control different functions. This means offers could be controlled by one person, campaigns designed by someone else, and touchpoint placements by a third party. Different users can also be presented with different views of the underlying objects, so they can see information organized in ways that make the most sense for their own purposes.

The new version of RTD is still aimed at large enterprises. Pricing depends on the type of deployment but it's a safe bet you won't get started for less than a couple hundred thousand dollars.

*True believers might argue that Software as a Service upends this rule by making integration very simple. I’ll grant that SaaS makes it easier to add new components on top of a standard platform such as’s But I'd argue that the platform itself is the functional equivalent of the suite, so the rule still stands.

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