Alarm bells sound over user group sponsorships

IT user groups must be careful about what they ask of vendors or risk losing the support of their members and leverage over the very vendors they seek to influence, users, analysts, developers and the Australian Computer Society warned last week.

The urge for caution follows attempts by a number of top-tier enterprise IT vendors, including HP and PeopleSoft, to wrest control of user groups as part of consolidation moves after a spate of recent mergers and acquisitions.

Australian Computer Society president Edward Mandla said users had a moral imperative to decide what they wanted from user groups, especially if they sought to influence vendor behaviour rather than merely be exposed to product or "domain experience".

You have to open yourself up to multiple vendor perspectives, but you certainly don't have them putting money into that, he said.

"I think it is immoral if you take the vendor's money and you are sipping the vendor's wine and you are plotting as a group how to get a better deal or better maintenance program.

"It comes back to the leadership of the user group. I don't think it's fair on the vendor," Mandla said.

However, Mandla argued vendors also had a right to market services and products within what he called "interest groups", saying if users had "paid hard currency, it's fair enough the vendor feeds you and indoctrinates you with all the new versions.

"For some of the user groups, the vendors do all the work anyway, they coordinate everything. If you are going to have vendor representatives in the user group [the groups] are never going to be neutral," Mandla said.

While some vendors may seek to integrate with independent user groups, others seem happy stay at a comfortable distance.

Developer and chairman of the Canberra chapter of [IBM] Lotus user group Walnut, Justin Freeman, said user independence was highly prized.

To date, IBM had not sought to sponsor the group and only provided speakers or experts to brief or speak with members in an informal context.

"A lot of the guys are quite [senior] and have come in from [overseas]. They do it on their own time too, not paid IBM time," Freeman said.

Frost & Sullivan senior industry analyst, Foad Fadaghi, said the critical factor for good relations in any user group is how discussions are moderated, similar to a bulletin board.

Fadaghi said vendors need to be able to create a catalyst to harness "negative feedback", adding "how you manage that sets some vendors apart from others".

"Independence of moderation [and discussions] resonates with users. Closed networks work quite well. Vendors can use user groups to enhance products and services, thus it is in their best interests to have independent and open discussion, Fadaghi said.

In the ring

Locally, JD Edwards' user group Quest is continuing its firm stand against plans by PeopleSoft to merge the entity into a PeopleSoft's sponsored user group following the merger of the two vendors.

PeopleSoft has withdrawn support for Quest's annual conferences, stating it believes user group activities should be included in the ticket price of its software.

The standoff looks set to continue as Quest users dig in their heels, with senior executives from some of Australia's top manufacturers including Smorgon Steel, Yalumba Wines and Hallmark refusing to relinquish independence.

Asked whether user group independence from vendors was important, Yalumba IS software manager and Quest conference director Graham Baker is unequivocal in his response.

"Definitely. At Yalumba we will be continuing on with the [JDE] investment, and as far as the user group is concerned there is a crying need for a user group. The users get a lot of benefit from being able to get together and talk one-on-one. There are lots of friendly companies out there that talk to each other. You can only get that when you get together and raise issues," Baker said.

Out on the street

Over the last month bitter public disputes have flared in the US between HP and ITUG (formerly the Tandem user group), OpenView Forum International and Interex user groups over plans to "coalesce" the three into a single technical conference in the US.

However, differences between the size and influence of local HP user group Encompass (the Australian division of Interex previously named Decus) could not be more vivid.

According to Encompass' local Web site, the group has been turfed onto the street after the newly-merged HP found its Rhodes, NSW, digs too small to accommodate the 25-year-old group's meeting.

Issues cited on the Web site include attendees having to be escorted by HP staff after 6pm for security, a complete ban on booze and strict demarcation prohibiting members bringing their own food to meetings.

According to chairman of Encompass Australia, Bob Harrington, the move was not vindictive - merely that the user group office occupied three under-utilised desks, while a growing HP simply needed three more.

Harrington said technology has enabled the group to operate from a "virtual office".

Michael Crawford contributed to this report

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