A meeting of minds

In the space of the last month, I’ve attended meetings of user groups from two of the biggest players in the enterprise applications space – SAP and Oracle

Tags: Oracle CorporationSAPUnited Arab Emirates
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By  Imthishan Giado Published  April 6, 2009

It’s interesting to compare and contrast the fortunes of these two heavy hitters in Middle East space and the reasons for their varying levels of success. SAP entered the market more than 20 years ago, but entered into an exclusive regional distribution agreement with SAP Arabia, the terms of which never seemed quite clear.

In the years that followed, SAP’s business here has experienced mixed fortunes with many large enterprises in key verticals preferring to deal with SAP directly in Germany rather than put with what they privately described as “less than satisfactory” regional support.

In the interim, arch-rival Oracle is widely perceived to have scooped up the lion’s share of the market in both public and private institutions, with the result that SAP is now playing catch-up. But interestingly, the converse seems to be happening with the firm’s user groups. While SAP’s user group, SUG-MENA (renamed from SUGAR or the SAP User Group Arabia after the 2007 split) is now well established and held its first meeting outside the Emirates in Bahrain last month, Oracle’s equivalent, OAUG (the Oracle Applications User Group) is only just getting off the ground with the first meeting of its Middle East chapter at the beginning of this month.

Despite being labelled user group meetings, the reality is that both groups seem to function under the broad structure of a partner conference, with vendor presentations punctuating keynotes and little in the way of open panel discussion. To some extent, this is unavoidable – partners and sponsors provide the funds that make events of this nature possible and as such are entitled to pitch their products and services to delegates.

Unfortunately, at the SAP conference it seemed to me that the vendors were a little too over-bearing in their presence, limiting the ability of attendees to engage in meaningful discussion. The Oracle user group, conversely, had many of the sessions chaired by end-users who – while still beholden to discussing the technology of the vendor which they had implemented – were able to at least provide some expertise on installation challenges and dealing with user training.

The real value at events of this nature, in my opinion, comes when users are allowed to speak out candidly about their experiences using the product and share best practices. While the opportunities are few and far between, when it does happen, the conversations need little in the way of direction to sustain themselves.

Other valuable opportunities include CIOs being able to speak directly one-on-one with the top EMEA management at these firms and get an inside peek at the future of the applications which essentially run their business.

But that’s not to say that these events can survive without long-term direction. At the Oracle conference, while users expressed a strong desire to be a part of the group, few were willing to nominate themselves as candidates for a managing committee. This wasn’t a problem at SUG-MENA, which has a well-established group of CIOs in charge of planning overall activities, but it does point to a crucial distinction between the two.

Oracle’s version is entirely user-led, while SAP has adopted a more top-down approach when it comes to running its global user group. In theory that means more freedom for OAUG versus better support and training offers for SUG-MENA members – but I’m not sure that this is how things really play out in the conferences. In the end, both will lean on their parent vendors to some degree and for both SAP and Oracle, it’s a chance to get valuable on their products and offerings direct from the people who use them.

What we should looking at instead is the fact that in the middle of a global economic slowdown, events like these are starting to happen with more frequency. It means that rather continuing with business as usual, enterprises are slowing down, taking stock and moving out their comfort zones to risk a free and frank exchange of ideas with their rivals.

If we want the Middle East to be accepted as a mature IT market, it’s the only way.

3044 days ago
R "Ray" Wang

Imthishan, You make some great observations on the state of user groups. In North America, the Oracle User Groups have also been gaining independence. This year, we have heard that the user group chose which speakers would be in attendance, a departure from previous approaches. Contrast this to the perception among SAP users about their user group's role in defending the maintenance hike, we are seeing an emerging and similar pattern as you with SUG-MENA. As you may know, user groups are hard to run, they require dedication among the membership. Its not easy trying to fend for the group when vendors often try to influence the individuals and their companies interests. Some user groups have better business models that allow them to stay clear of vendor sponsored initiatives or create better objectivity. Others become too dependent on the vendor for content and find themselves in trouble. At best, we do need strong user groups and leaders and if anything as a collective, we need to encourage their independence. Here's a link to a blog posting on this topic. http://blog.softwareinsider.org/2008/11/10/mondays-musings-the-role-of-user-groups-check-and-balance/ Cheers, R "Ray" Wang Vice President Forrester Research, Inc. http://blog.softwareinsider.org

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