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Friday, February 24, 2012

Meryl Streep, or how to be the world's greatest actress for three decades - and counting

In her latest movie, la Streep
plays Mrs. T. to a T
One can be certain of few things in this world - only death and taxes, Mark Twain famously said. I'll add a third one: next Sunday, at this year's Academy Awards, Meryl Streep will walk away with the Best Actress statuette, and an egregious injustice will finally have been redressed. The Film Academy (see my  post about last year's awards edition) is famous for snubbing great acting and rewarding mediocre talent (isn't that an oxymoron?) Streep is "America's most admired actress" said Vogue, which I would dispute. America's? You mean the world's!!! but probably that the famous magazine as is the wont of many US companies cannot distinguish between the two. And yet the last time Streep won an Oscar was 30 years ago. Since then she has been regularly nominated, more than any other actor in  history, and as regularly ignored.

But next Sunday amazing Meryl will finally clutch her third Oscar for her tour-de-force performance as the famous British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, which I watched last week. I grew up with both ladies, had seen Thatcher in innumerable speeches and interviews, learned to admire her (when she became the Western world's first elected leader -  well, almost, I think tiny Iceland got there first) and revile her (as a student in Scotland in the mid-1980's during the famous miners' strike I saw first-hand how much hatred she elicited.) After ten minutes watching the movie, I sat mesmerized. Meryl Streep had completely disappeared. I was watching Thatcher, her voice, her tone, her pitch, her gestures, the face slightly bent, the teeth, the glowing eye. As a film buff who pride myself in having seen most movies worth watching in the art's 100+-year history, I have to say that this is simply one of the greatest performances ever put on screen.

The movie itself is of slight interest as it basically consists of sketches from Thatcher's life: we see Margaret get married, have kids, become a politician, win the election, flirt with declining popularity, win the Falkands war, get a historic third mandate, fall out with her party colleagues who ditch her. The only originality (well, even then, it isn't that original) is that it tells the story through flashbacks between the present where the old lady is losing her mind and the past. The movie doesn't bring anything new about the nature of British politics or how a woman managed to be such a winner in a man's world (or why she'd want to be in the first place). Whereas The Queen was brilliant in how it depicted the essence of political power in Britain (especially between the monarch, prime minister and the media-manipulated citizens), The Iron Lady is quite shallow. But then The Queen was made by one of Britain's greatest directors, Stephen Frears, whereas (and here's another prediction I'll make) The Iron Lady's Phyllida Lloyd will never reach directorial stratosphere. But who cares? Watching this average movie is the price to pay when it comes with such a dazzling performance.

Interestingly enough, Meryl Streep's most celebrated performances came as "dual" roles. In The Iron Lady, she plays Thatcher at the height of her career and in her old age, although with good makeup and clever shots, I think she could also have played her at a younger age (remember how a 50ish Bette Davis played herself as a teenager in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) In Sophie's Choice, in 1982 (her last Academy Award) Streep played the title role in two stages of her life: as a gaunt, thin Polish concentration-camp prisoner with a shaven scalp, and the emigrĂ©e version in New York, beautiful, with luxuriant blond hair, sexy  but still haunted by what happened in that concentration camp. The previous year, in what was her first major role, in The French Lieutenant's Woman, she actually played two different roles: a 19th- century woman caught in a socially unacceptable affair and the late 20-century actress playing her role. Seeing her toggle back and forth between accents, costumes and hairstyles, it was hard to believe it was the same actress. And to reward her astonishing performance, the Academy decided to give the Oscar to veteran actress, Katharine Hepburn for her role in On Golden Pond. I have great respect for Katie whom I met in my New York days in her townhouse on 49th Street but, seriously, just compare the two performances and there is no contest. I would even say that Katie's role was a supporting one and, anyway, with already three Oscars under her belt, did she really need a fourth one? But Academy members went emotional and rewarded age over talent. The following year, though, with Sophie's Choice they had to bow to superior acting - as they will this Sunday.

A few more things about this highly intelligent and well-balanced person. In neurosis-filled, ego-puffed up and drug-addicted Hollywood Meryl Streep is that rare person: a normal human being. She does her job better than anybody else in living memory, takes the praise she deservedly gets, and moves on with her life, taking care of her 30-year husband and children, helping them move to college, doing her groceries, getting involved in environmental issues. I always wondered how she manages to remain normal in such an abnormal industry?

For the cosmopolitan and multilingual person I am, Meryl Streep's trademark mannerism, the ability to portray women from different nationalities with an amazing ear for various accents, is awe-inspiring. From a  (Catholic) Polish Holocaust survivor in Sophie's Choice where she speaks Polish, German and English with a Polish accent, to a Victorian Englishwoman (not to mention a former British Prime Minister), or an Australian mother wrongly accused of killing her daughter* (A Cry in the Dark), she also played a Danish aristocrat running an estate in Kenya (Out of Africa), a Latin American woman in The House of the Spirits,  and an Italian discovering middle-age love in Clint Eastwood's The Bridges of Madison County. Coming from a famously monolingual nation, Meryl Streep truly stands out. As an actress, she is just unique. Let's treasure this jewel while we have her.

*News reports came out today that the Australian woman Meryl Streep played in A Cry in the Dark is asking the coroner in the case to officially declare her innocence.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Desperately Seeking SaaS: Oracle buys Taleo

As the old saying goes, if the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain. Oracle, by just announcing last week its acquisition of talent-software leader Taleo, showed it was enforcing the same principle. With customers stubbornly refusing to buy its pseudo-SaaS offering called Fusion, Oracle was left with no other choice but to go and buy a customer base. In addition, the pressure had been growing since December when the US-based giant's nemesis, Germany's SAP, bought the other talent-software leader, SuccessFactors. This defensive move, as a reaction to SAP, is not unusual for Oracle. The first major acquisition by Oracle, last decade, and which launched the series, was PeopleSoft. It came as a reaction to PeopleSoft's own acquisition of JD Edwards and, what few people know, secret negotiations to buy Spanish-based Meta4. PeopleSoft was on its way to becoming the undisputed #2 ERP vendor, relegating Oracle to the #3 spot, something that Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's puffed up ego could not countenance. Third, I can hear some say that if PeopleSoft can buy up other products, why can't Oracle? Well, the difference resides in that PeopleSoft's product was the acknowledged leader so by buying JD Edwards, and being about to do the same with Meta4, they were not trying to kill a competitor with a better product, but just expanding market share, a legitimate business goal. Not Oracle, whose acquisition spree since then, and culminating now with Taleo, has always been premised on the "if you can't beat 'em, buy 'em" principle.

Why Taleo?
For those who are unfamiliar with the term SaaS or are confused with every single vendor out there claiming to be  in the cloud or SaaS-y, I have discussed in several of my posts what a true SaaS offering is. After so long in this industry, I am still flabbergasted by some vendors' insistence on misleading the market: it is as if a submarine aircraft manufacturer insists their contraption is actually an aircraft. How can that fly? (in the two senses of the expression.) Why insist that an offering is SaaS when it is just hosted? Do vendors have such scant regard for their customers that they believe they can get away with whatever fantasy they feed them? Oracle's Fusion product, six years in the making and with few adopters so far, was supposed to plug the (never officially acknowledged)  hole of talent management functionality delivered via the web. By delivering the same functionality in the traditional , on-premise, software way, it was obvious this was not a SaaS offering, just a hosted one, as I have always said. Of course, if it were just my opinion, nobody would (or should) really care. Unfortunately for Oracle, customers shared my opinion that Fusion was anything but SaaS and therefore continued to flock to the likes of Taleo, SuccessFactors, Cornerstone and , even more worryingly for Oracle (and SAP), Workday which brings a full-fledged HR system in a pure SaaS model. Just as Oracle in the mid 2000s recognized it couldn't build and sell a better HR product than PeopleSoft and therefore set about buying it, in this decade they are just acknowledging the same by buying a SaaS-based talent vendor, recognizing its own double failure at having a true SaaS offering and competitive talent functionality, especially in the recruiting space.

As I mentioned in other blogposts, both Oracle's iRecruit and PeopleSoft's eRecruit have failed to capture the imagination, and budgets, of the recruiting masses. Taleo, which started out in the recruiting space before branching out into the other areas of talent management (performance, compensation, succession, career, learning), is still mainly considered a recruiting tool. A large portion of its customer base still uses only that module and is reluctant to acquire further ones. For example, French car manufacturer Renault has been using Taleo for Europe and some other major markets (but not Brazil, where they use local vendor eLancers) but when it came to the other talent functions, they said to Taleo, "Thanks, but no thanks," and decided on SuccessFactors. Now, if you think that made sense since Renault uses SAP as their HR system of record, you'll be wrong: the decision to go with SuccessFactors was adopted way before SAP launched its acquisition.  In Europe, even more so than in the US, Taleo is mainly used as an applicant-tracking system (ATS).

Another driver for the acquisition was that Oracle was clearly worried that Workday might decide to plug its recruiting and learning holes by acquiring Taleo (the latter's CEO is a former PeopleSoft executive.) This acquisition is a way for Larry Ellison to preempt that move.

Also, with SuccessFactors already gobbled up by SAP, the other talent-management vendors were too small to bring  much  to the table in terms of revenue, so it was a foregone conclusion that it had to be Taleo. When I published my take on the SAP-SuccessFactors linkup last December, I had a poll asking my readers to vote on which vendor was likely to be the next target: Taleo came up on top with 57%. The wisdom of the crowd  was proven right.

Offering overlap
The first headache that corporate customers and Oracle account executives are going to face is the sheer size of the Oracle HCM portfolio and the many overlaps between the various HCM-related products:

1. Oracle EBS and PeopleSoft HCM cover the whole gamut of HR: from HR administration/ payroll/ benefits/time to the various components of talent management (albeit not as well as Taleo.)

2. Fusion (available as on-premise and in mock-SaaS model, meaning hosted) now also covers many of these, although customer uptake has been limited in the US, and quasi-nonexistent in Europe.

3. The two JD Edwards products: JDE World and JDE EnterpriseOne, each with its own HR product line, some payroll and limited talent management.

4. Taleo, whose talent management functionality overlaps with ALL of the above.

Touting SIX different products to the same customers is leading to increased confusion in the market (apologies for the easy pun.) How are customers going to make sense of it, especially when coupled with other issues such as integration, upgrades and product direction expectations?

Integration and roadmap challenges
Oracle is still facing the hard task of integrating the PeopleSoft and Oracle HR products with its Fusion functionality. Now it will have to add Taleo to the mix. That creates additional problems. First, Taleo is itself busy integrating other products such as the recently acquired Jobpartners and Learn.com (see my blog on "2010:2011: Two momentous years of consolidation in the HR space") Second, You also have to take into account that Taleo is not fully multi-tenant since of its two offerings (Enterprise and Business) one is NOT SaaS. This means that in addition to the mammoth task of delivering a full-fledged Fusion Oracle will have the not insignificant task of bringing Taleo's offering first up to full SaaS speed before integrating it. Translation for customers: more R&D dollars for which, as we all know, you the end user will have to foot the bill.

Another bad surprise awaiting Taleo customers is that you can forget about all product direction commitments and promises. From now on Oracle, the acquiring company, is in charge and they will set the roadmap (see below under "Losers") and upgrade direction which, as some will soon and painfully find out, will bear little resemblance with their actual needs. But, when Oracle's priorities conflict with its customers', we all know who prevails. Read the carefully worded disclaimers by Oracle and you will understand where you stand (or stumble.) You may also compare Oracle's announcement of the acquisition with SAP's comments when they bought SuccessFactors: whereas SAP promoted SuccessFactors' founder and produced a video on how this would benefit customers (at least in theory), Oracle was all legalese and M&A  mechanics. Hardly surprising: SAP may still lag behind the SaaS train, like Oracle, but at least it has business apps in its DNA. Oracle still suffers from NIHS (Not Invented Here Syndrome) which means, from a product perspective, zero innovation from now on and as for the talent that built Taleo, Larry Ellison's message is: "Take the money (for those lucky to own stock) and get out of my sight."

As with the  SuccessFactors acquisition, the first winners are Taleo's shareholders who get a nice premium (18% with a share price offer of $46.) Oracle adds to its recurring maintenance revenue by collecting more customers. For a broadly similar revenue as with  SuccessFactors, Oracle drove a better bargain than SAP, paying "only" $1.9 bn, when its nemesis paid $3.4bn. And Taleo has probably more users (20 million) than SuccessFactors. But, still, paying almost $2 bn for a company whose revenue is around $400 mn, means it could take 5 years for the investment to be profitable.

And, as is often the case, short-term winners will include independent talent management vendors such as SilkRoad, Cornerstone or Lumesse who are certainly not shedding any tears at the removal of a strong competitor. Regardless of the amount of consolidation we are seeing now, the market will always have a need for independent point solutions. Of course, some of the still-independent ones could be bought, but by whom? And when the vendor is  privately held (Lumesse, SumTotal) this is even  less likely.

...and losers
So, unless Oracle can manage to increase the subscriber-base of Taleo, and cross-sell them its other products (for example, its Fusion core HCM functionality for those Taleo customers running on, say, SAP), this may well be a failed acquisition. Sure, a competitor is taken out, but there are still several other talent vendors out there that customers who do not want an Oracle product, will just go to. And I don't see Oracle just buying one small vendor after another.

Of course, the biggest losers of all, will be the customers. Those who weren't happy with the quality of service of Taleo (and I know many HR leaders who expressed deep frustration at Taleo) will find themselves in an even worse situation now that their vendor is just one product among the sprawling Oracle portfolio. Support took several days to get back to you when you logged a ticket? Well, now at Oracle you just got an extended waiting time. You rarely heard back from Product Development about that key enhancement request sent to Taleo, especially when you were in Europe? Well, with Oracle, they will not even pretend to listen to you. Your requests will fall into a black box, the "undiscovered country from whose born no traveler returns," to quote my beloved Shakespeare. Innovation in Taleo, as in PeopleSoft before, is coming to a screeching halt. You need to start planning ahead.

Options for Taleo customers/prospects
1. PeopleSoft/Oracle EBS customer + Taleo: this is the worst situation you can be in since, when you evaluated different vendors for your talent acquisition/management system, you clearly and unmistakeably decided on a NON-Oracle solution and now you will be forced to move to an Oracle product. The situation is made even worse for those who have recently selected Taleo since it will be  disheartening to start all over again, and knowing that your investment is soon going to be worthless (no innovation coming your way) is not going to help much either. If your investment in Taleo is older and you were among those who are not greatly satisfied with your vendor, then time has come to look at alternatives: another recruiting/talent management system. It is also a golden opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: upgrade your entire HCM system, not just your talent management. Rip and replace the whole thing.

2. PeopleSoft/Oracle EBS customer - Taleo: companies that run either PeopleSoft or Oracle for their core HR processes and are on the lookout for a recruiting/talent tool (because they didn't like any of the products in the Oracle portfolio) may be encouraged to look at Taleo more closely since Oracle will tout the integration benefits (actually just stitching the two HR systems to Taleo with supported interfaces.) My advice: remember that even when it is the same product line, true integration is not always guaranteed.  Make sure you get clear commitments on the roadmap, with no easy way  for the vendor to weasel its way out of them. And of course, if you are looking at having an innovative talent management system, then, pass your way. From now on it is going to be tiny, incremental enhancements to Taleo while you are asked in very unsubtle way to switch to Fusion until, around 2015, the product is abruptly discontinued. Don't be fooled by the Applications Unlimited  support being promised: in Oraclese it is  unlimited until they decide it no longer is. Better plan for the worst and hope for the best.

2. Other HR admin vendors: this is the case of customers who, as an HR system of record, run SAP, Meta4, HR Access, Ultimate. In that case, evaluate with your vendor their talent functionality and if it makes sense negotiate a safe pasage to them (see §4 below.) For instance, as a SAP customer, a move to SuccessFactors might make sense. For vendors such HR Access, Ultimate or, to a certain extent, Meta4 whose talent-management functionality is limited, you will need to either bite the bullet and stick to Taleo for a while or start considering moving to another independent TM vendor. Of course, there is no guarantee that such a vendor will itself remain independent for long so make sure your contract protects you adequately. This being said, with Oracle and SAP having already shopped around, the pool of acquirers has shrunk, but ADP could still buy Cornerstone or some of the second-tier HCM vendors could acquire a smaller talent system (Silk Road or Jobvite for instance.)

3. The case of  Workday: if you are among the fast growing pool of Workday customers, this raises some questions of their own. Workday's talent functionality is still missing the two key ingredients of recruiting and learning. You will have to demand a clearer roadmap on when Workday plans to add these two functions either through organic development or through an acquisition of its own. If neither is forthcoming or satisfactory, then you will have to start shopping around. A discussion of the impact of this deal on Workday is inevitable. Their partnership with Taleo is clearly now a thing of the past, and as they and Oracle start competing more fiercely, a linkup with Salesforce.com (an even more formidable SaaS-based rival to Oracle) is no longer impossible. After all, Workday has still made no foray into the CRM business and, except for the recent acquisition of Rypple, Salesforce has kept away from HR. A merger of the two may soon become too strong a proposition to be ignored.

4. "Safe passage" programs: as expected some vendors (I almost used another V word) have been prompt to offer incentives to Taleo customers to switch to their cloud-based systems: free migration,  first months or even year free subscription, interesting pricing are usually part of the deal. But, as is so often the case, check the small print: the devil can often be found in the software details.

Many of the points I made in my analysis of SAP's acquisition of SuccessFactors are valid re Oracle. In particular the fact that you canNOT buy your way into SaaS: it is too radical a departure from ERP business as usual. In a post from January 2011 I wondered whether software dinosaurs such as SAP and Oracle could morph into true web-based vendors. The answer so far is that with their faux-SaaS offerings they are trying hard but achieving little. Buyer, beware of bad imitations.