We use many solutions in the form of software, whether they are the operating systems, databases, or application packages. Whenever we faced issues as users in the past we had only the vendors to fall back upon. While some were happy with the vendor-support, many others complained of poor response. Vendors, at the same time, were keen to expand their customer-base using the current customers as their spokespersons. This is perhaps what led to the creation of various users-groups.
In India, the early groups created were the Lotus Users Group, Ingres User Group, and a few others; later, many others followed including users of SAP, Oracle, Linux, etc.
Running of the user groups
In the early days, initiative was taken by a handful of good user-organizations who desired a platform to exchange ideas on use of various features in the products they used and to find out solutions for problems they faced. It was natural for them to approach the vendor to help organize meetings. Vendors willingly agreed as they found it useful to meet their customers together and if one of their experts could address all of them and clarify their doubts, they will have built enough goodwill among the customers. Vendors would, in these cases, pick up the tab for hotel expenses, etc., and play host. Along with the experience-sharing by a few members and a clarification session, vendors would also come on to the stage to showcase their new offerings and make up a case for upgrade and for customers to expand their footprint with more packages.
Situations changed; whenever some lead customer-representatives moved elsewhere, the whole movement took a dip and then the vendors took over the center stage. Slowly, many of these groups became vendor-led and some others faded away. Such a powerful medium for the users has often been allowed to slip away.
Vendors-companies also hold their annual events that are grand shows and they attract good participation of users. For example, Sapphire, Oracle Open World, Lotus Sphere, etc., are events that are completely led by vendors and this may also have had a role in weakening of the user movement.
What can be done
I strongly feel that a lack of leadership and absence of participation amongst the user community have led to the weakening of the user movement. I have often seen a few strong personalities taking initiative and starting the movement on a high note. Others do join them, though not as leaders or participants but as spectators. Since the community is not tightly bound through active participation, separation of one or more of the leaders leads to the movement going astray. The user group working is sometimes not institutionalized through creation of executive committee, regular meetings, encouragement of users to share their experiences, and involvement of other members in evolving new ideas for the group. In the absence of strong user-involvement, vendors start exercising greater influence and the sessions move toward product-promotions and acquire a sales-flavor.
I had the opportunity to head two user-groups in the past and my experience was that as long as the initiators held the reigns, the group worked very well; but soon as the original team moved away, the second line did not take over. We were then guilty of not creating a second line by choosing some of the bright users and encouraging them to lead some initiatives.