Column

User groups: Labs for problem solving

Les Johnson

It's 6 p.m. I mutter to myself, "Why am I here late again?" Peering through stacks of ERP project notes, I check to see if anyone is still in the office before yelling "Help!" We are closing in on our go-live date, and all the minutiae of the project are screaming for attention.

Taking a break, I read an email from Mike, a friend who is on the board of our legacy software's

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user group, asking if I remember a workaround for a software bug that never got fixed. I write back: "Looks like the same problem we had last month. Steve [a whiz kid at another distributor] figured it out -- doesn't he always? Here's his script." I remember to attach the file before I hit "Send."

Part of the comfort of staying on our old system was the network of people who, in some ways, know the system better than the people who wrote it: end users who live the business and apply the code in the real world. Mike pointed out once that there are more than 1,000 years of experience contained in the heads of the user group's regular contributors. Some members contributed so often, we wondered how they ever got any real work done.

Vertical market user groups in the midsized enterprise space are an amalgam of talented, business-savvy users. Unlike users in the technical groups that form around cross-business applications from companies like Microsoft or Symantec, midsized ERP users are business people first and techies second.

Business-focused user groups offer conferences, Web sites and list servers, working groups, and topical summits. Like a smorgasbord of business consultants who all have their backsides on the line, they are like Gartner on the cheap. These features have become as much a part of ERP systems as upgrades and support contracts. Midmarket vendors proudly showcase their user groups (to which they offer financial and technical support) as a part of their package.

So during our ERP selection process, we made sure to visit the user group conferences associated with three of the vendors we were considering. These large, annual conferences drew between 200 and 800 members, and we ran into a lot of people we knew from industry-related councils and working groups. Thus we were able to ask tough questions of people we knew and trusted.

We quickly learned that passion and talent weren't unique to our legacy system's group. Each user group we visited seemed like a laboratory, where members sought creative solutions to new problems and shared what worked (or didn't). This kind of information sharing is one of the unheralded advantages that local and regional companies have over their larger brethren: We share best practices proudly rather than protect them like crown jewels. As a result, we get access to hundreds of practical studies, communally available as a part of the annual membership fee, all for about the price of a family outing at the ballpark.

Some of the user groups we visited made a better showing than others. While we didn't choose Intuit Eclipse because of its conference, we walked away with a sense that its users believed that the company would do what it said.

Saying goodbye to our legacy system's user group is saying goodbye to old friends. But it's time to box up all the memories of the hot issues battled over cold drinks at conferences and the times when a quick phone call kept the past-its-prime software chugging along.

Now I'm the new kid in need of help from my new colleagues, who someday will become old friends as well.

Les Johnson is CIO at North Coast Electric Co., a wholesale electrical distributor in Bellevue, Wash. Write to him at ERPJourney@ciodecisions.com. This column originally appeared in the March issue of CIO Decisions magazine.


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