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KM and CRM: Is the line blurring?

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Oracle is one of the world's leading enterprise software vendors. Its data management system is ubiquitous in organizations worldwide. Its acquisition of InQuira, RightNow and Endeca, all in 2011, significantly expanded the Oracle footprint in information access.

After Oracle bought InQuira, I read an article about whether the deal cast a cloud on the future of knowledge management and if KM might become part of   customer relationship management (CRM). (See searchcrm.techtarget.com/news/2240039610/Oracle-InQuira-deal-raises-concerns-about-the-future-of-KM.)

InQuira is an interesting company. The firm was formed in 2002 from Answerfriend and Electric Knowledge. Both of those Silicon Valley companies had developed natural language processing (NLP) technology. InQuira was one of the first of the NLP ventures to sharpen its marketing focus on customer support. It was attracting high-profile clients prior to the acquisition and was benefiting from the need for improved online systems to provide customers with information about products and services purchased from InQuira licensees.

Oracle provided a glimpse of its motive for purchasing InQuira in a presentation dated September 2011. The positioning of the acquisition was to create "the most comprehensive CRM solution with advanced knowledge management capabilities and integrated self-service." (See oracle.com/us/corporate/acquisitions/inquira/general-presentation-444328.pdf.)

Other noteworthy aspects of the Oracle presentation about the deal were:

ITEM: InQuira had at the time of the purchase 85 "blue chip companies" as licensees.

ITEM: The unique selling proposition was the Oracle InQuira ability to "deliver the most comprehensive cross-channel customer support." (Cross-channel is a buzzword that suggests an orchestrated, personalized approach to customer service such as e-mail, Web self-service and dial-in support. Each channel uses the Oracle InQuira system for information access, case tracking, metrics, etc.)

ITEM: The approach is described as "integrated knowledge management." The idea is that "knowledge-driven customer service" supports self-service, escalation, routing and responding, resolving, and analysis and reuse of information.

Fixing pain points

What strikes me is that the Oracle InQuira approach blends several different solutions to customer support pain points in one "knowledge application."

First, there is the native support for multiple channels such as voice calls, e-mail, search, Web self-service, collaboration and automated messages sent via RSS (really simple syndication.)

Second, the system resides on the InQuira Q8 knowledge platform. That system captures data and information, provides tools for the licensee to create new information or combine existing data, refine the content and deliver it to either a customer or a subsystem.

Third, the knowledge management function includes additional functionalities. InQuira NLP software can understand content and use context, meaning and "role" to personalize the information. The Oracle InQuira system includes collaboration functions to "leverage social networking to enhance knowledge."

Fourth, the KM system can answer questions. A customer seeking information can type a question into a customer support Web page equipped with a search box. The NLP system parses the query and generates an answer or group of relevant answers for the customer. No Boolean logic is required.

Fifth, and what I find most suggestive, is the Oracle InQuira system's ability to learn. The idea is "to understand behavior to improve ongoing experience." IBM Watson requires extensive training to answer questions. The Oracle InQuira approach learns as the system operates.

Filling gaps

At first glance, the Oracle purchase of InQuira filled some gaps in the Oracle Siebel product line. Oracle purchased Siebel Systems in September 2005 for $5.85 billion. (See nytimes.com/2005/09/13/technology/13oracle.html?_r=0.) InQuira provided Oracle with collaborative functions foragent-to-agent interaction, a customer feedback capability and tools for personalizing the customer's experience. Among the most significant additions, InQuira's purchase provided Siebel with the community forum and social functions and knowledge management. Oracle highlighted four specific KM functions that rounded out the Siebel solution: knowledgebase technology that integrates disparate data and information, content authoring and access capabilities, FAQs (frequently asked questions) that automatically update when an authorized user adds or changes content, and the workflow components that keep track of a problem throughout the resolution process.

The theme of the Oracle vision for InQuira was fusion. The Oracle approach invoked middleware (software that sits between an application and an underlying Oracle database, for example) and integration with other products and services available from Oracle. Integration is often one of the budget gotchas for large enterprise applications. Some systems do not integrate without technology professionals investing considerable time and intellectual energy. One of the important messages Oracle sent in 2011 is that the Oracle solutions were "ready for the cloud." The idea was that on premises installations were an option, but "fusion" systems could take advantage of software and systems that run "out there" on remote servers. The implication is that the efficiencies of fusion, integration and the cloud would deliver "next-generation CRM."

It is worth noting that Oracle also acquired PeopleSoft (human resource-centric software) in 2005 for $10.3 billion, Endeca (information access) and RightNow (cloud-based CRM), both in 2011, and dozens of other companies whose technology seems to overlap in the knowledge management, information access and customer support market. A basic list of Oracle acquisitions appears at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_acquisitions_by_Oracle.

The leaders

Has the Oracle InQuira tie-up changed knowledge management?

The idea that a single company can forever alter the knowledge management landscape is a bold one. Oracle certainly launched its CRM initiative with some statements that, if true, would have had a significant impact on the customer support sector. One example mentioned in the presentation is the stunning cost benefit of the InQuira system at Blue Coat Systems, a cloud services and security firm. The implementation of a Web self-service "case deflection" system resulted in a savings of $240,000 per month in 2011 dollars. The other compelling example in the presentation is the reduction in time by 30 percent to process a "resolution" for Farmers Insurance Group. Equally impressive efficiencies include a reduction in the "average time to find answers from 87 seconds to 34 seconds and reduction of agent training time by 25 percent."

According to Destination CRM (destinationcrm.com/Articles/Editorial/Magazine-Features/The-2012-CRM-Market-Leaders-83897.aspx), the 2012 leaders in customer relationship management include Microsoft (microsoft.com), NetSuite and Oracle. However, the winner in the CRM race was Salesforce.com. The 2012 CRM Market Leaders report stated:

"Salesforce.com, our enterprise victor, showed off a prime score of 4.5 for company direction. The company continued to wow judges this year, especially with its $50 million acquisition of SaaS solution Assistly (now Desk.com) last fall ... Oracle's pursuit of marketing automation (in its snapping up of Vitrue in May 2012) was soon followed by Salesforce.com's acquisition of social marketing solution suite Buddy Media."

The question about Oracle and knowledge management is less clear-cut. KMWorld (kmworld.com/Articles/Editorial/Features/KMWorld-100-Companies-That-Matter-in-Knowledge-Management-80773.aspx) produces a list of the "100 Companies That Matter In Knowledge Management." Oracle does appear on the 2012 list in this manner "Oracle/Endeca/FatWire." InQuira is not mentioned in the listing.

Increasingly similar

The blurring of CRM with knowledge management has begun in earnest. Companies once content to license search systems like Coveo and ISYS Search Software (now a unit of Lexmark) have moved into customer support service businesses.

On the other hand, the number of technologies that are required to perform customer support in a cross-channel environment, often via cloud solutions, is remarkable. CRM and KM today require search, workflow, analytics, content management and semantic functions. In short, CRM and KM seem to be increasingly similar. In organizations that depend on customer service for sales and leads, CRM is knowledge management.

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