Later this month, thousands of users from all over Europe will descend on the Spanish city of Madrid for the annual jamboree that is the Oracle European User Group meeting.
But one man will be absent from this year's festivities. Pier Carlo Falotti, the suave Italian who has led Oracle's business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (Emea) over the past five years decided, out of the blue, to retire at the end of May.
His presence will undoubtedly be missed by the customers who have, on the whole, benefited from his strong leadership in Europe. On a wider stage, his absence may also raise some serious questions about Oracle's overall European strategy.
Is the Californian software giant in danger of international myopia in its pursuit of globalisation and centralisation? And if so, what are the consequences of such a policy likely to be for both the company and its customers across the region?
A difficult nut to crack
Europe has always been something of a curate's egg for Oracle. It has been a highly profitable region for the company on the whole, but parts of that whole have, at times, been extremely problematic and difficult.
It is difficult to criticise Oracle's US management for becoming exasperated by a French subsidiary, for example, that wanted to change its corporate livery to navy blue rather than the bright red that the rest of the world appeared perfectly happy to go along with.
On the other hand, however, there have long been suspicions that some at the top of the Oracle hierarchy are unhappy with the autonomy enjoyed by the vendor's international operations. Ray Lane, Oracle's chief operating officer and the man who effectively runs the supplier on a day-to-day basis, has made no secret of his desire to see greater 'globalisation' of its operations.
Lane's vision is reminiscent of the McDonalds' model: a strong brand replicated across multiple international regions, but which still reflects the parental company's identity strongly. There is a McDonalds in the UK, in France and in the US, but each is essentially the same wherever it is located.
Lane would also prefer that there was not so much an Oracle UK or an Oracle France, but rather an Oracle in the UK and an Oracle in France - a hugely important distinction.
Over the years, several attempts have been made to put this vision into practice - with varying degrees of success. But critics argue that a company such as Oracle has to take account of too many national variables to be able to impose a global identity too rigidly. McDonalds does not have to build factors into its business model such as the strength of the ICL-installed base in the UK, for example.
Testing times in the UK
One Oracle veteran of the 1990s - who asked to remain anonymous - recalls some of the firm's attempts at globalisation and the efforts made to repel them in the UK.
"There would be periodic bursts of activity from Redwood Shores [Oracle's headquarters], where we would be reminded that there was a global hymn sheet and we had all to sing from it," said the former Oracle executive.
"In the UK, we were struggling with the hangover from the poll tax applications mess. That was a totally local issue and not something that California was going to help us deal with. Meanwhile, we're being reminded 'think global'. It was at best something of a distraction," he continued.
"There's nothing wrong with thinking global and acting local as the clich‚ goes, but the danger comes when the so-called global vision is just too California in flavour. The other big issue, of course, was the fact that they couldn't co-ordinate activities on a global basis. There was an attempt to unify all the public relations activities under one US company, for example, which lasted about five minutes before being scrapped."
The net effect
In recent times, a new and significant factor has been added to the equation, which has enabled Oracle to put its globalisation ambitions into practice far more effectively than ever before. The company's decision to "eat its own dog food" by turning itself into an internet-based ebusiness has enabled it to pull vast tranches of decision-making and administrative power back to Redwood shores.
Across Europe, every national data centre has been closed and their operations consolidated into one vast super-centre in California. Each of Oracle's 70 country operations have lost their own computing systems as the supplier consolidated an estimated 2000 servers around the world into just 158 machines based at headquarters.
Public endorsement of the strategy across Europe was reportedly matched by an internal 'not in my back yard' resistance. Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison's response was to allow European country managers to keep their own systems, but only if they bore the entire cost in their own national budgets.
This brought an end to the resistance problem. Cost efficiencies of about $1bn to date was one official reason for the move, with the ability to monitor any possible problems occurring internationally, another.
But Ellison let slip another reason, perhaps, when he told BusinessWeek magazine: "When you're an ebusiness, everything is mediated by computers. All the individuality is bled out of the system and replaced by standards. People don't run their own show anymore." Undoubtedly, however, some people do not like not running their own shows.
All change at the top
In the UK, the company lost Phil Crawford, its high-profile head who very much his own man, amid speculation about tensions between him and Falotti. But now Falotti has gone himself. He is to be replaced by Sergio Giacoletto, who is currently head of consulting in Oracle Europe.
In retrospect, it is possible to see the seeds of Falotti's departure in some of his recent comments. At the Oracle European Applications User Group conference in Paris in April, he shared the top table with Lane, but many of his statements appeared to contrast with those of his US boss, although he was never directly rebellious.
While Lane emphasised the global party line, Falotti seemed keener than he had ever been on playing up Europe. "Europe is a leader in some areas like mobile phones. Where are the most imaginative people in the world? For the last 2000 years, they've been here," he said.
When directly questioned on the matter of possible retirement, he was coy, saying only that his wife did not believe that he would ever retire.
On the subject of the Oracle restructuring, his response was somewhat conditional. "There are some cultural barriers, but it is for the greater benefit of the company as a whole. But it's easy for me to say that. It's not the same as if I was part of the data centre that was being closed down," he said.
The road ahead
So where does the organisation go from here? Does it matter that Falotti has gone? Only time will tell on that front. Giacoletto is clearly a highly able executive and his particular strengths in the role as vice president of Europe will come to the fore in the weeks and months to come. His performance at Oracle's user group later this month will obviously be the subject of considerable scrutiny, however.
But there is one aspect of his appointment that may give pause for thought. Giacoletto will continue to undertake his existing responsibilities on top of assuming Falotti's role. Yet the position of head of consulting and operations is obviously a full-time job in itself and it's difficult to see immediately how one person can handle both.
Unless, of course, the role of Emea vice president is no longer quite the same as during Falotti's reign. Customers will undoubtedly be looking to Oracle to affirm that its commitment to a strong Europe remains as strong as ever.
And analysts are in no doubt about the dangers of reducing such a commitment. "If Oracle were to reduce the role of the European vice president, then it might lead to some problems ahead for the company," said James Governor, software industry analyst at Illuminata. "Customers need a visible presence to handhold and be seen to be there for them."
So, while Falotti embarks on whatever retirement plans he has concocted, the company for which he has played such a high-profile role over the past few years is embarking on another shift in identity.
Whether it results in a Californian or European flavour remains to be seen.
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