Digital transformation has changed dramatically for businesses around the world in the past few years. As technology has developed, so has its ability to drive efficiency, boost business, improve customer experience, and deliver more succinct, targeted strategies.
Digitisation has stopped being an IT responsibility, and moved firmly into the CEO and CFOs’ offices, such has become its profound and all-encompassing impact on businesses today.
A key component of this digital transformation is the cloud – a platform that can encompass data storage and analysis, computing power, infrastructure as a service, platform as a service, software as a service, and much more.
One of the main players in the Gulf region – and across the world – in rolling out cloud services is Oracle. Through its cloud offering, the tech giant has provided organisations with tailored solutions to their technology and business needs.
But as Arun Khehar, Oracle’s senior vice president of business applications for the Middle East, Africa and India, explains when we meet at the company’s regional HQ in Dubai, the past 18 to 24 months have seen a shift in what Oracle can do for its customers.
“Our journey into the cloud started three and a half years back – that’s really when we took our first baby steps and started looking at customers who had individual requirements,” he says.
“What I mean by that is very targeted requirements in HR, or CX [customer experience], or budgeting and planning, or just financials. They wanted to understand what cloud was, they wanted to know the piece that they could digest and run with before taking a decision on bigger things.
“Now our customers are looking at the whole piece.They are saying ‘if I take one piece of cloud, that does not give me the value that I am looking for’. Previously they got the value, they saw the difference, they saw the speed of implementation, and they also understood they do not need to take ownership in IT anymore – they could outsource as much as possible. Now, in these last six or seven quarters, we have seen customers connect end-to-end on the cloud.
“The one key thinking behind it was ‘how do I bring the total cost of ownership down by a huge percentage’. We’re talking about 35 to 45 per cent, depending on different types of customers. They wanted to get rid of their data centres and outsource their entire IT platform to Oracle.”
And the SVP can point to some pretty impressive companies that are taking the lead in making these bigger, bolder changes.
“We have in retail Apparel Group that started the full piece of outsourced to Oracle. Then there are the Aldars of the world, and many others. They’re across different industries, and not just in the private sector; we have public sector too. And it has triggered a new set of expectations from the market.
“A great example of what I’m saying is Emaar. Emaar has been a customer for 14 or 15 years, basically since they started. Here we had a customer that had X number of properties, X number of assets, and X number of people 15 years back. The company grew, became the largest property company in the world outside China, and with that the requirements grew, the shareholders’ expectations grew, the complexity grew, and real estate changed around the world, as well as in Dubai.
“So cost of ownership, governance, compliance, speed, competitiveness, real estate changes, and the new requirements in the real estate market – all that made Emaar talk to Oracle and say ‘we had what we had, which was great for the last 10 to 12 years; now we want to see how you can transform our business in the new digitised world, which has different expectations and requirements’.
“We had to do a complete mapping of what the company had, what they needed, what the market had, and what the market needed, as well as what the expectations were from Emaar. We created a solution and a roadmap for – it was a long exercise and took us a few quarters. We brought in domain experts, architects, industry experts from Oracle to help them see how the CFO role would connect with the new Oracle implementation.
“What we did for Emaar is a summary of what we do for all the other customers, and we’re doing this across industries. The next big challenge that we will see more of, and we look forward to that, is the entire government of this region taking the journey and taking the transformation.”
Spotlight on the C-suite
Khehar explains that as part of the Emaar digital transformation, Oracle worked closely with the real estate giant’s CFO, highlighting another important development in the cloud landscape.
“The roles of chief financial officer, chief executive officer, and chief operating officer have become very, very critical in this phase,” he says.
“IT over the years has matured. The issue is not about technology any more – that’s the key difference. If you look at why a CFO or CEO would take such decisions, it’s because the market – the compliance, governance and the regulations of the market – has made the role of CEO and CFO different.
“Now they have to report in a certain way, and the numbers have to be driven by certain guidelines that weren’t there 10-15 years back, or at least not as important as they used to be 10-15 years back. So I think that is driving it.”
With new technology changing the way businesses operate, and with a new group of executives needing to understand what cloud, AI, blockchain, and other tech means for their organisation, Oracle has also taken on the role of educator – helping companies, especially their leadership, understand how and why new tech can make an impact for them.
“We are doing a lot of education, bringing that into organisations to show them the value,” says Khehar.
“Today’s CFOs, CEOs and business heads need a lot more assistance than before. What do you do? Where do you go? What do you believe should be the right decisions to take?
“For example, we show them that we have artificial intelligence directly connected to security, with automation done around blockchain, which is built into our applications today. We have the autonomous database, and you have to remember that the database is the heart of all this. If you don’t fix the heart, your organisation will collapse somewhere or other. So you need autonomous to compute for you. It’s automatic, so it computes it for you, it repairs it for you, and secures you.”
And giving potential new customers the inside track of what Oracle can do – and why it’s important – has paid dividends for both sides.
“Apparel Group is a good example,” says Khehar.
“They had nothing in Oracle, and the meetings we had were basically looking at their new requirements.
“The visionary owners were very clear that their core business is to run retail; they don’t want to make themselves an IT shop. So they were looking for a partner who could take care of their technology, who could take care of their business, their expansions, while they focus on what they know best, which is retail.
“The systems they had in place before we met them would not allow them to grow the number of stores beyond 10-20 per cent at that time. Now they’ve grown something like 200 or 300 per cent since. And the growth was directly connected to the IT they had in place.”
Digital or bust
With so many benefits to those implementing new technologies, digitising their business, and partnering with experts such as Oracle, Khehar believes organisations that are slow on the uptake could suffer dire consequences.
“If you’re not automated with the right tools, if you don’t have the right security in place, if you don’t have all the artificial intelligence-based applications coming in, I think you’re going to run out of speed,” he argues.
And it’s not just a private sector challenge. Public sector bodies around the world are also on the line when it comes to digitisation, though Khehar believes this is one particular area in which GCC governments have taken a leading step.
“We work very closely with the governments and we align ourselves to their strategies,” he says.
“As we speak, we are working with them on many fronts. One is to look at individual departments, individual ministries, to see what we can do there. And some of them have taken steps already to automate their HR, or their CX, or their budgeting and planning. And now, with the investments we made in the region with the datacenter, the rest of it is falling in place.”
The data centre, opened in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, was the first in the Middle East, offering cloud storage to customers across the region.
Designed to better manage service levels and respond to local customers who need to keep their data local, Khehar explains that one of the main benefits of the facility has been peace of mind.
“It’s brought more comfort – I think that’s the biggest piece of it,” he says.
“Some customers had this more as a kind of a checklist thing: Is there a data centre in the region? Yes, it’s there. Okay, check – we give Oracle a green light.
“But actually a lot of our customers are very happy with our global data centres. They are very happy that we give them the comfort of European data centres, American data centres, Singaporean data centres; we cover our customers globally. In the Middle East we have the UAE now and we have Saudi coming up.
“So we’ve given them the extra comfort of giving them the whole piece, including the data centre.”
The data centre is a prime example of how Oracle is investing in the future of the region and its businesses. But it’s certainly not the only one.
“We have also trained and brought more skills into the country,” explains Khehar.
“For example, we have just finished training 500-plus Emirati students on the latest technology from Oracle – artificial intelligence, blockchain, and so on. These guys are going to go into the job environment in the next few quarters and hopefully use our technologies to improve the way they do business. So that is happening.
“And our investments keep growing. We’re bringing more people into the country and exports into the region, we’re training our partners, and we’re taking a lot more ownership than we did in the past. That’s something that is very critical.
“In the good old days, Oracle – and our competitors – would come in, sell the CD, and then let the customer decide what they wanted to do with implementation. Not anymore. One of the key benefits of the cloud is that we have a stake, we have skin in the game, throughout the journey that Oracle has with each customer.
“So we sell you the technology, we implement that technology for you, we do all the business analysis that goes with it, the ROI that goes with it, and we run that for you in our data centres. We take ownership of the upgrades, we take ownership of the security, and any issue that comes up, there’s only one person responsible and that is us.”
The SVP adds that Oracle will continue investing in people across the region in the coming months, and will bring more products and innovations into its data centres. Meanwhile, big events such as Open World Dubai, which debuted this year, will continue to take place in the region “to bring awareness to people who cannot travel to our international events”.
There is also the growth of Oracle’s digital hub for SMEs to consider, as well as its Future Ready Lab, which exhibits the power of technology to customers, and allows them to work on new ideas.
“They can come in here, sit with our guys, and create solutions for them based around our technologies,” says Khehar.
And while all this is taking place in the background, there have also been some substantial moves that signal a new way for big tech companies to work.
In June, Oracle announced a partnership with fellow tech giant Microsoft that would allow cloud interoperability, enabling customers to migrate and run workloads across Microsoft Azure and Oracle Cloud.
With the partnership being rolled out in Ashburn in the US first, the new system will be available in the Gulf later in the year.
“It’s all with the customer in mind,” says Khehar.
“There are customers of ours who want to do certain things around our product with Microsoft, and this collaboration will give them that additional choice. So I think it’s good. It gives the customer a choice and to reuse the dollars that they’ve spent internally.
“We’ve taken the right steps there, and more will come on in the next few quarters.There’s a lot of good stuff that they do, especially in analytics, so we can capitalise on that on our platform.”
Something else Oracle is capitalising on is geography, with the Middle East viewed as a critical region by the company. But as Khehar explains as our conversation draws to a close, so strong are the cloud’s capabilities, companies can now afford to think a lot more globally.
“We create the discipline, the guidelines, and the references here, and then we see a lot of countries follow this,” he says.
“What we do here is not just about the Middle East, especially as a lot of our customers are global. Landmark Group, for example. Whatever they do here they also do in India. Apparel – they do it in Middle East and Africa. Alshaya, they have the Eastern Bloc in Europe.
“Kuwaiti and Saudi customers have a global presence. We sold to a customer in Saudi recently who owns plantations in Argentina. Our reach is beyond imagination today, so what we’re trying to set and sell here is going to have a huge impact, probably across 20, 30 countries.
“And that’s the beauty of the cloud. Because as long as you get internet there, it will run.
“So I think our stories are going to get more global out of this region.”