Two-way traffic

User Groups are at last catching on in the Middle East. At best, such groups can provide users with a productive forum for debate and the useful exchange of ideas, while vendors are gifted an invaluable channel for generating long term relationships and garnering product feedback from customers. However, the Middle East’s fledgling user group community is already in danger of becoming hijacked by big name vendors eyeing a high-growth market.

  • E-Mail
By  Patrick Phelvin Published  March 1, 2004

|~||~||~|Having been used to thriving user group communities elsewhere in the world, the manager of Emirates Airlines’ human resources (HR) service centre & systems, Christo Nieuwoudt, was surprised to find no such resource available in the UAE when the airline undertook a major Oracle E-Business Suite implementation less than two years ago. “There was nothing,” Nieuwoudt recalls. “We realised that there was a need [for a users’ group] in Dubai, and probably further out in the Middle East as well... because we got a requests for a lot of reference checks and a lot of site visits. So we decided there was a need for a reciprocal exchange of information on Oracle Human Resources Management Sytems (HRMS) and there was a need for [users to] communicate more effectively with Oracle as well,” he adds. Nieuwoudt contacted several colleagues who had implemented Oracle HRMS in various companies across the Middle East and together they formed the first Oracle user group specific to this region. Now in its second year, the group has met five times at different locations and swelled to include between 20 and 30 people, a membership that including customers, systems integrators and, of course, Oracle representatives. The group has also expanded to accommodate users of a variety of E-Business Suite Modules apart from HRMS. “It is growing. We started in Dubai and we said: “let’s see what happens”. Since then we have had requests and enquiries from people in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi and Kuwait and so I’m expecting some companies [from those countries] to attend our next meeting,” he adds. The Oracle group is not alone in experiencing a large demand among end users for a talking shop where members can discuss the latest developments relating to a particular technology and share tips, best practices and experiences. As the number of technology implementations in the Middle East continues to grow, an increasing number of user groups are springing up around the region. These groups have dual functions. They allow end users to get together and discuss how to make the most of their companies’ technology investments while also providing a platform for end users to manage their relationships with vendors more effectively. Until now, the number of Middle East end user groups has been low, and the groups have tended to be limited to developers and those interested in the technical side of solutions. That situation is changing, however, as Middle East companies look to user groups to increase their knowledge base and vendors wake up to the possibilities of using such gatherings as effective channels to recruit new customers. In response to the growing demand for end user dialogue, the SAP User Group Arabia (SUGAr), one of the region’s most established user groups, recently doubled the frequency of its regional user group conference, which now takes place every six months. Further proof of the demand for user group meetings was also comes from the latest Middle East Maximo user group conference, organised by vendor MRO Software for its asset management software customers. The gathering became the second largest Maximo user group meeting in the world when it met last October, with more than 300 delegates from 11 countries. “We more than doubled our attendance figures [from] the first user group conference in 2001. We actually had to refuse registrations during the last few days because the hotel was full and we did not want to split the attendees up,” says Oliver Shultz, sales & marketing manager, MRO Middle East. “Out of 140 accounts we had almost 50% attendance. Considering the expense and the inconvenience of people from Egypt, Jordan, Yemen or Oman who had to come here [to Dubai] to attend the conference. It was very successful,” he adds.||**||BEA Systems sets up Java user group|~|diyaa_M.jpg|~|It can be well worth a vendor investing in user groups, says BEA’s Diyaa Zebian.|~|Group feedback and discussion can be especially useful to those end users using complex programming languages, such as Java. Realising Java developers had few organised channels with which to meet other users, BEA Systems set up a Middle East Java user group earlier this year. With its first meeting attracting 50 users from around the region, the company now plans to hold the event frequently. Furthermore, not all of those invited to attend the meeting were BEA customers. Staff from the Dubai E-Government, which uses iPlanet from Sun instead of BEA’s WebLogic product, also found the meeting worthwhile. “I found it very useful, it is a valuable service. You can ask for a subject to be presented and they can arrange for that. You meet people from many different perspectives — developers, architects and users — at these meetings and many questions are raised and answered,” says Mohammed Daher, analyst programmer for Dubai E-Government. BEA says it is keen to avoid the impression that it is using the group as a platform to pitch its products. It has, therefore, widened the discussion topics to include anything related to Java. Subjects on the agenda included wireless, security, mobile phone solutions and web services. Whether vendors should play a part in organising user groups remains contentious, as by definition such groups should serve only end users. Vendor interest in the Middle East’s burgeoning user groups is inevitable, however, and the opportunity to present their latest offerings to them is too good to miss. The commercialisation of user groups has long been the bugbear of many grass roots user group communities in the USA, and there is evidence that sponsorship and vendor control of these groups is spreading here as tech companies eye the rapid growth of the Middle East IT market and look to expand their channels. Microsoft, for example, was only too happy to sponsor the last SUGAr conference, and also put forward expert speakers for the event. BEA is also considering sponsorship offers for its user group conference from companies including MobileAware, a developer of Java mobile solutions. Nieuwoudt remains opposed to similar vendor intervention at the Oracle user group, and while Oracle is always invited to attend the group’s meetings, its role is certainly not that of organiser or sponsor. Indeed, the vendor does not contribute to the costs of running the group. While this may change under its Global Grass Roots programme, which contributes towards the costs of conferencing facilities and expenses for user group meetings around the world, the Middle East group has yet to go down this road. “I think a user group should be user driven rather than provider driven. What [can] happen is you get too much marketing talk. You get a situation, as in some of the user group set ups in the United States and Europe, where some blue-chip implementers like the PriceWaterhouses and the Accentures try to take over,” says Nieuwoudt. “I have tried to be assertive in my statement that it [the Oracle user group] is an inclusive gathering of interested people that can share information constructively on a reciprocal basis,” he adds. Successful users groups manage to strike a balance between gaining the support of the vendor while not handing over too much control over proceedings. In the spirit of end user control, BEA, which spent between US$3000 and US$4000 on organising its first Middle East user group meeting, says it is prepared to relinquish control of future meetings and allow the region’s Java community to take the reigns. As companies here spend more on technology, vendors may also be interested in user groups for development purposes, as feedback can be used to create market-specific products. Such practice stands to benefit both sides of the equation as vendors garner invaluable feedback about how their product is perceived in the local market and can then use this information to develop future releases.||**||End user feedback|~|christo_M.jpg|~|User groups provide an important forum for developers, says Christo Nieuwoudt.|~|All 50 of those who attended the BEA user group meeting were presented with a feedback form and asked several questions about WebLogic. This data, according to Zebian, was sent back to the company’s US headquarters for analysis. While this use of customer feedback from the Middle East cannot be a bad thing, how much of this information is referred to when addressing product development remains questionable. The hard truth of the matter is that vendors support Middle East user groups to improve sales figures. There is no better endorsement of a product than that which comes from someone who is already using it. For example, such conferences are proving particularly useful for MRO as rival enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors raise question marks over Maximo’s integration capabilities relating to other software packages. “Since the ERP players are making a big fuss about integration, us telling the audience that integration is not an issue is one thing, but if a customer the application programme interface (API) works beautifully says it then it makes all the difference,” explains Shultz. At both the BEA user group meetings and the MRO user group conferences, both of which are organised by the vendor, potential customers are always present. “Of those that attended the conference, 5% to 7% were prospects. This is the indirect return we are getting. We have them there, they can mingle with the others. We create a bond between ourselves and the user community and especially between existing customers and new customers,” says Shultz. “We want to get something out of it, because otherwise why would we do it. If we are not making money out of it, at least directly, there must be some kind of return, and it is a heavy return in terms of loyalty from the customer,” he adds. On the other side of the equation, big budget users teaming together can still leverage significant power from such an alliance. This was demonstrated recently in Holland, where a user group sued Dell Computers over accusations that the hardware vendor did not honour after-sales agreements. On a less confrontational note, customers can use groups to successfully lobby for changes to future product releases. Emirates Airlines, which leverages significant power through its seat on Oracle’s Global Advisory Board, says this potential input at grass roots level is also important. “We [the user group] have not [really] used our clout until now. If we wanted to, and we put more into it, we could probably get more out of the group from that avenue,” says Nieuwoudt. “With regard to localisation, for example, if we really wanted something done, let’s say there is a tax ruling or a new legislation ruling in the localisation layer and it is not happening, we could certainly push for it through the group,” he adds. The ability to present vendors with a united front is just one advantage of being part of a user group. Even the likes of Emirates Airlines, whose IT team travels globally to gain first hand experience of how other companies are utilising Oracle’s products, stands to gain extra knowledge through participation of a user group at a local level. In setting up a local Oracle user group, Emirates has created a resource with a minimal financial outlay that it can use to improve its use of technology. For example, the airline operator can pick up knowledge specific to the region in dealing with tax issues in the HRMS module. The growing realisation of the benefits of joining user groups, coupled with the ever-increasing investment in IT, mean the user group community is destined to grow further. BEA says it hopes to kick-start other groups around the region and increase the frequency of its UAE user group meeting to once a month. “We had 50 people at the last meeting and we are expecting between 90 and 100 at the next one. It will take on a life of its own because the Java user community here is very active,” says Zebian. Nieuwoudt also says the growing user group community is destined to expand. “The market [in the Middle East] is very active, probably more active than any other part of the world, and people need to share implementation experience and knowledge of what is happening in the system in terms of functionality. The time I spend with the user group is time well spent,” he says. ||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code