The Really Useful User

By Wheatley, Malcolm | Management Today, June 1997 | Go to article overview

The Really Useful User


Wheatley, Malcolm, Management Today


User groups used to be a forum for dialogue on development. Vendors now find individuals a better source of feedback.

Under a cloudless blue sky, palm trees and fountains ring the beach-front San Diego conference centre. Inside, the convention hall slowly fills to capacity as people await the start of proceedings. Finally, with a fanfare of trumpets and a roll of drums, 'renowned recording artist' Leonard Tucker launches into a song, accompanied by an inspirational video that fills the vast screens behind the podium on which he stands. 'The world unites in hope and peace,' goes the refrain. 'It's the power of the dream that brings us here.'

At the song's conclusion, Don Groesser, an IT manager at US railway company Union Pacific Railroad, takes his place as chair of a two-day conference. He inaugurates the proceedings by urging all 1,400 people in the hall to stand up and declare that they are 'happy to be here'. Clearly dissatisfied with the response, he repeats the performance. At the second attempt, the decibel level is noticeably higher.

This, believe it or not, is how the corporate customers of computer company NCR began their annual user group conference last year. Overtly American in character it may have been, but in its key ingredients, the occasion was little different from hundreds of other such get-togethers around the world. These are IT users with a common interest cloistered in a convivial location, usually with the supplier of the product they all use.

Generally funded by members' subscriptions and revenues from conferences and seminars, user groups aren't a cheap pastime: with a range of software and hardware suppliers, a company can easily find itself belonging to a dozen or so user groups simultaneously. Membership of each costs several hundred pounds, although that may buy attendance rights for more than one member of staff.

Corporate membership of the Sybase user group, for instance, costs [pounds]400, but entitles a company to nominate 10 IT managers to attend events and receive information. Meanwhile membership of IBM's two principal user groups, GuideShare Europe and the IBM Computer Users' Association, costs SFr750 ([pounds]370) and [pounds]295 respectively.

Financially independent of IBM, the IBM Computer Users' Association illustrates the extent to which providing a forum for people to share their experiences has become a significant business in its own right. It has an annual turnover of over [pounds]500,000, explains its chairman, Martin Beckwith-Brown. This is generated by subscriptions and attendance fees, as well as conferences, which, though mainly aimed at the group's 800 corporate members, are also open to non-members.

Like most groups, it is run by volunteers - full-time IT directors and managers in the corporate world, who donate their time as well as their employer's cash to helping to run the group. Beckwith-Brown, an internal IT manager with Coopers & Lybrand - 'not as a consultant, I'm a genuine user,' he stresses - reckons running the group takes up around 10% of his time. Phil Howard-Knight, his opposite number at GuideShare Europe, and a vice-president of IT with Bank of America, estimates that his role 'takes up around 20 working days a year - plus weekends and evenings, of course'.

But what do user groups achieve? Do their conferences and meetings really serve a useful purpose - or are they simply a source of enjoyable corporate junkets and an opportunity for people to network with their peers at their employer's expense? 'The networking aspect is very important,' concedes Mike Rhind, an IT manager responsible for the human resource systems of BG (the erstwhile British Gas), and a member of software vendor PeopleSoft's European user group. 'It's an opportunity to share information and product knowledge with people facing similar problems.'

Martin Parker, a committee member of the Sybase group, and a divisional manager with OCS Consulting, concurs. …

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