Wednesday, October 17, 2007

You can't survive if you ain't got drive …

I have just returned from a successful European ITUG event. But the picture on the left was taken at the SATUG event earlier this year and I was reminded of it by some of the comments made by the ITUG leadership. You will see Scott Healy, ITUG Chairman, and me banging away on drums, along with all of the other SATUG attendees, and looking back it occurred to me that perhaps we were drumming to a different beat. Oh well.

Seated to my left is a colleague of mine, Anthony. He is a South African and like me, has elected to settle in the US. Anthony’s world has just turned upside down – he’s become the father of twins and anyone who knows dad’s in similar situations knows that life will never again be the same. But for South African’s all over the world, even with new families, there’s only one thing on their minds right now – the Rugby World Cup.

While living in Australia I had different shirts for summer and winter. In summer my shirt simply said “I support the Australian cricket team, and anyone playing England” while my winter shirt was even blunter, declaring “I support Australia, and anyone playing NZ”!

Well, who was to predict that both Australia and NZ would come up short and not even make it to the semi-finals. So here I am, along with Anthony, and Jay McLaughlin I suspect, cheering for the South African Springboks!

True, England are the current World Champions, winning the title last time around. But as everyone knows, it was a fluke, and the only time a Northern Hemisphere country has ever won the trophy. I hate to disappoint Neil Pringle, head of NonStop sales in EMEA but, this time around, it’s anyone but England to win the Rugby World Cup! With a South Africa win, as I expect, then for many of us the status quo will be maintained.

It was while I was thinking about the status quo that I thought of the English rock group Status Quo. Early on in their career they were known as Traffic Jam but had to reinvent themselves as Steve Winwood's Traffic took off and became popular. While the group emerged in the mid ‘60s, it was in ’99 that they recorded a song where one verse started out:

“Living isn't easy, feeling bright and breezyEverybody has to try …”

And where the chorus kicks in with:

“That's the way it goes, oh everybody knowsThat you can't survive if you ain't got drive …”

In these words, written some thirty years after the group first formed, you could really get the sense that adapting to the changes in their industry, of pushing boundaries, was very important to the group. And they did survive, and they are still performing today!

Returning from the Euro ITUG, it reminded me of a couple of points Scott made during the event. Looking back to the days when Tandem was an independent entity, ITUG was “the” user group – but today, as part of HP, it’s “one of many” user groups. Not only is it now one of many, but it also finding itself in a competitive position up against a number of very well organized vendor marketing events. Yes, HP has every right to put on these marketing events, to best showcase its own product suites – but they are less about what users do with existing systems and more about what’s just over the horizon.

But today, no organization is a Tandem-only installation, or even a HP-only site. The users of today’s NonStop servers are part of a heterogeneous computing world, interoperating with servers from many vendors. The days of hardware silos are over and, most likely, will never come back. As Scott remarked, “IT shops are multiplatform today, and we all have to deal with inter-platform issues like interoperability, the integration of data, and an almost constant world of migrations”.

The leadership of ITUG is aware of these major sea-changes. They have been observing for some time now how user groups have fallen behind the industry, as they maintain their focus on a very narrow core technology element (our historical differentiation?) at a time when volunteer leadership just doesn’t have the bandwidth to diversify and broaden its focus. As the song says so simply, “you can't survive if you ain't got drive”!

User groups emerged at a time when platforms were unique, and where innovation was important to everyone involved. The community that developed was highly focused on getting the best out of the platform and wanted to see what other users were doing.

While I don’t miss the proprietary nature of these earlier systems and, like most of you, welcome today’s open systems, I am not sure we now have the same sense of belonging we once had. We used to be very proud of ourselves, as we squeezed the very best from our platform-of-choice. But as participation in user-driven events begins to wane, and the number of regional meetings declines, have we the energy to re-invent ourselves?

Earlier this year, the ITUG board elected to proactively support the HP Technical Forum and Expo (HPTF&E) and to share center stage with Encompass as well as with HP. I’m not completely sure, but perhaps the Encompass president, the lovely Nina Buik, charmed us! But whatever, it represented a major milestone for ITUG and the door was left open for others to join. With time, I think these user groups, including Vivit (formerly OpenView Forum International) may choose to participate as well.

As the event wound down, even those initially opposed to the changes and who had wanted to see the exercise fail, were very pleased with the event and didn’t want to go back to the old ways of the past. User’s wanted to bring their senior management, and vendors who had been investing in cross-platform solutions were very pleased to see the bigger audience.

There’s no question in my mind that there exists an underserved community, within our user groups, very interested in enterprise level subjects. Reaching out to the architects and technical leadership responsible for gluing all the bits together, and coming up with something just as reliable and available as systems in our past, is just one area where our heritage suggests we can provide value. Our SIGs could easily step up and fill this void but we would have to be comfortable broadening our scope to include more than one platform and more than one operating system. It will be a challenge but we need to keep the dialogue open and we can’t rule out accommodating changes like this.

Every visionary, no matter what community or business they are part of, faces the nay sayers, happy with the status quo. It is sometimes very hard to move forward and make the tough calls when some prefer the closed nature of the group.

I have seen this happen across a number of user groups – as we all age, we show preferences for the “private club” experience and dislike being forced out of our comfort zone. Deeper into the community you find some who don’t even want us to introduce new content or push for new themes and focus areas, preferring simple repetition of topics they themselves know so well. Change is very unsettling for many of us.

But we have to try! We either adapt to our environment or we fade into oblivion. Darwin’s theory is no more pervasive then in corporate life – and in case we forget, user groups are a business exposed to the same lifecycles.

We have to keep pushing, or we will cease to be relevant. The lifecycle of corporations, of technology, of products is all about adapting. The principles are so well known to us all. So, as we listen to the messages coming from the leadership of ITUG, we need to really understand that we only have a couple of options. As Scott added late in the event, “we can adapt with technology, and with the industry, or hold the course and disappear over time”!

Holding the course, maintaining the status quo, resisting change, never wins out. Even private clubs eventually fold and disappear. As for me, I have a passion for user groups and I am looking forward to embracing a far bigger community and working with folks sharing my interests!

And who knows, maybe against all odds, England wins the Rugby world cup this weekend and, in upsetting the Southern Hemisphere powerhouses, once again smashes through the status quo. Neil, can you get me another shirt for winter? You know, something with an English rose on it?


DRagan said...

Hi Richard. Call me a dinosaur but I’ve had no interest in reading blogs . . . until yours. Thanks for making this conversational and fun to read and understand – even to a non-technical Marketeer like me. I look forward to your future blogs and to following the commentary it initiates from others.

Bill Highleyman said...

Richard -

I have to admit that I was one of the supporters of keeping the ITUG Summits "pure." Back in the early 2000s, with being on the Board or closely associated with the Board (my wife Janice was chair during the 9/11 crisis), I saw the pressure from HP and Encompass to join Encompass. We finally tried a joint show in Anaheim which was a disaster.

However, I must admit that the problems that faced us back then seem to have been pretty well solved. I thought that this year's Summit was a great improvement over Anaheim. I'm not ready to say yet that it is better than having our own show, but the advantages of sharing community across the product lines clearly showed, and I hope that the joint shows will learn from the past and get better in the future.

But Las Vegas in June? C'mon.