Among my shortcomings, I blame the so-called information age for something that might equally be a consequence of the ageing process, or even a sign of laziness. But I blame the information age because of its insistent demands on my attention. Eventually I will be a well-informed idiot. My current state is one where it takes someone else to explain the blindingly obvious.
Carol Wyatt, director of vertical sectors and major accounts at Bull, is the most recent person to perform this service for me. She was talking about an event Bull is involved in on June 6 and 7. Called 'Fit for the Future', it is what would not so long ago have been a user-group meeting, but is now something different. As Wyatt said, the traditional user group tied to a single supplier is becoming an anachronism. The circumstances that gave rise to user groups have changed.
Especially where hardware is concerned, user groups arose through a clear shared interest. Hardware makers would often supply not only the system and peripherals but also the systems software, compilers, databases and the consultancy to fit it together. Their users banded together to exert pressure on their common supplier. There may have been arguments over which user groups were genuinely independent and which, funded by the manufacturer, were more or less supine, but they were seldom seen as irrelevant.
Companies now may have strategic technology partners but there cannot be many instances left of a big user totally reliant on one supplier.
Their key hardware, software and development environments generally come from different vendors. If they have a single point of contact for the whole lot it will be with the prime contractor.
On one hand, the changes are to the users' advantage. The greater openness of architectures gives them more options. If the supplier of one component proves uncooperative, they have a better chance (in theory) of finding a more suitable alternative.
On the other hand, the distance between users and suppliers must be growing.
It could hardly be otherwise. The channel has so many more navigable reaches than it used to. Changing technology also has an impact here. The intricacy of the relationships between components in modern systems means users wanting improvements will often be hard-pressed to identify the appropriate supplier to approach. The possibility of a group of users solving a common problem by galvanising a supplier seems increasingly remote.
Bull's accommodation to these changed circumstances with 'Fit for the Future' accordingly involves a number of suppliers. The sponsors of the event include Microsoft, Oracle, 3Com, Wang and Landmark. It has also created something called a customer focus forum. The speeches appear to devote little time to technology and plenty to business potential.
In this last respect the event is not a successor to a traditional user group meeting. They were, above all, about technology, and often at a fine level of detail. And although it is fashionable to concentrate on the business benefits of IT, someone still has to do the legwork. Someone still has to apply the tools and make the systems work. For them, I suspect, user groups in the old style are still important.
The question remains, though, of how to adapt them to a situation in which many suppliers of hardware and software are represented on a user site. Is there a business opportunity for dealers and Vars here?
Dealers and Vars remain close to users, not infrequently at just the right level of technical detail. The association is usually founded on a particular application, and in a world where people mix and match hardware and software in bewildering variety, applications will be what they have most in common. The contribution of the dealer or Var will generally include getting the application to work on whatever variegated style of platform it is presented with. So it may be that the inhabitants of the channel may be best placed to carry forward the idea of the traditional style of user group.
To the objection that there isn't much money to be made hosting workshops for people with solder under their fingernails, I reply: think big. Think of it as an off-shoot of the conference circuit. The type of event that might develop would admittedly be something of a niche conference, but precise targeting is what marketing should be about. The target audience should know it will get something worthwhile. And this brings us back to the information age. As a general concept it seems far too vague. But when you starting looking at what information people will need for which purposes, and when, finding out how much they will pay for it is only a short step.
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