Thursday, September 25, 2008

Beautiful sunsets, aren't they?

I have just spent an enjoyable weekend in La Jolla – a little north of San Diego. I attended a wedding Friday afternoon on the beach at Del Mar, an adjacent beachside community to La Jolla. The picture here is with the seascape behind me, as the sun begins to set.

The young couple getting married had developed a playbook for the wedding, and had scripted the ceremony and the “readings” given by the various participants. Adapting to the seaside location called for a different type of ceremony and they did the right thing, as far as I was concerned, in putting traditional approaches to one side.

Being back in San Diego for a few days gave me the opportunity for some serious downtime. So I took a harbor cruise on San Diego Bay – both the northern and southern loops. The boat took us past the many military establishments that dot the bay’s foreshore, and the skipper, a former Navy man, gave us the full treatment. I now know more about naval vessels than I ever wanted to know, but what did catch my eye was the lifecycle of these fleets as new technology is introduced and their missions continue to evolve.

What particularly caught my attention was my first sighting of a new class of naval vessel – the LPD-17 “San Antonio” class of amphibious transport dock ships that represents the Navy and Marine Corps' future in amphibious warfare. Sailing under the Coronado Bridge, and pictured below, was the second ship in this class – the LPD-18 “New Orleans.” This ship represented the third generation of amphibious warfare vessels and looked like something straight out of a James Bond movie. It had been built to be as “stealthy” as possible - for a ship the size of an aircraft carrier.

The Navy was finding itself having to adapt to new missions – with the need to frequently place significant naval presence directly “in harms way.” Gone were the days of the old cold war, tactics that called for massive, missile launch capabilities, that could reach any corner on the globe. As I followed the New Orleans into port, I was able to watch another sunset and, looking back at the city skyline across the docks, it was very clear that the Navy’s new playbook was calling for a much different, self-contained and multi-purpose vessel that could safely anchor in any “hot spot” on the globe.

Watching theses sunsets had me thinking of conversations I had last week at the ACI Customer Event (ACE) conference in Scottsdale. Much of the coffee-time discussions among the attendees had been around the imminent sun-setting of the classic BASE24 product. And while many were still having a lot of difficulty coping with this, I really didn’t see the same degree of outrage as I had witnessed earlier this year at the European BASE24 User Group (EBUG) conference in Vienna.

During my time at Tandem Computers in the early ‘90s, when I was the product manager for communications products, I had to sunset a number of products. Yes, maintaining support for Burroughs Poll/Select and Honeywell VIP protocols was tough to justify when the development dollars were hard to find. And this was 1994 / 1995 – and we were talking about protocols that had passed their 25th anniversary! But technology lifecycles do not encourage or foster close attachment to any one solution for any period of time – new ways to solve business problems while exploiting the latest in hardware, operating systems, and middleware, continue to appear. Sun-setting of one solution is nearly always accompanied by the sunrise of another …

Perhaps it was just mirroring the mix of the users present at ACE, but I sensed that there is a growing consensus within the BASE24 community that the clock can never be wound back, and that it was time to really consider their options. And with the apparent easing of any pressure to migrate to IBM’s System z platform and steps being taken to assure the ACE community that, contrary to everything else that had been said, the System z was now to be viewed as an additional platform and not as a replacement, a little less adrenalin was flowing. This being the case, as it now seems, it does beg the question of why some executives were so determined to burn all the bridges between ACI and HP when the need to do so was pure nonsense! And I frequently asked them – what is your game-plan now, and how do you expect to be received by HP?

It’s not only products that fade into the sunset, but so too do business units, divisions, and even complete companies. For many years I was part of Insession Inc., from its earliest days on through to its purchase by ACI, and I stayed with it as it reappeared when ACI created the larger business unit it called Insession Technologies. Two years ago, ACI pursued a tighter integration of Insession with the rest of ACI and reigned in its independent operations. Following ACI’s new strategic direction with IBM and the commitment to IBM’s infrastructure and software “stacks”, the need for a separate infrastructure development group came under serious scrutiny.

Now, with ACI’s recent axing of a number of groups, it has finally pulled the trigger on Insession effectively sun-setting it in just the same way as we would see for any product. I still wonder how ACI imagine to support its customer base having axed the whole QA group down in Sydney – the folks who knew how to build and release the product … whatever! Someone in their wisdom thought that the likes of a Lloyds or a BofA would not care about getting a prompt fix should a problem arise.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise as we watch the shake-out of the financial services industry. Banks are buying trading companies, investment houses are becoming banks, and the governments want to become mortgage companies. With this as a background, is it any surprise that technology companies follow similar lifecycles as do products? Sometimes there is a “Phoenix” phenomenon where new organizations would simply rise up from the ashes of old. But more often these days the vacuum left behind, with the demise of an IT technology company, is just as rapidly filled by a more fleet-footed competitor energized by the disappearance of a former foe as they follow business plans quickly pulled from their playbook.

And what about user communities – do they too share the same fate as products and companies? Do they follow a similar lifecycle? I often look at the state of a community and begin to wonder whether they too, will follow a similar path?

My experiences with different user group boards for the past ten years always brings me back to a simple observation – user groups just have to evolve and adapt to an ever-changing set of community-vendor dynamics to remain relevant and be of value to their stakeholders. But very few game-plans have been developed for user groups that address changes like this and the playbook has very few calls guaranteeing successful engagement among the parties during any transition.

As I packed to leave San Diego, the New York Jets NFL team arrived and I found myself surrounded by the players as they begun to prepare for a Monday night game against the local team. As I passed the players I could see each of them carrying a ubiquitous white three-ring binder – the playbook with the game-plan for the upcoming match. Clearly, the coaching team had spent a lot of time pulling together all the information they felt the team needed to defeat San Diego. On Monday night I turned on the game – and what a disaster. After only two quarters, New York was being thrashed. As the second half started, one commentator remarked “what happened to the Jets? They are just being run over …”

Having a playbook detailing the game-plan didn’t bring the Jets any close to success, and I am not sure having a playbook for a user community would fair any better. But user groups change as surely as products and companies do, and sometimes they are subject to sun-setting no differently than we witness today with products.

Will user communities look the same as in the past? Will the formats continue to follow tried-and-true formulas? I don’t think so – face-to-face meetings will continue to be important to me but from here on out, I am finding more value across the electronic medium than I ever imagined, and I will continue to provide my viewpoint on all that I see.

I am anxious about the future of user groups – as I am anxious about the value proposition they represent in their current form. So many more options exist today, than ever before, all competing for our budget dollars. And so we do have to adapt – the conditions we face are changing, and we have no option other than to look forward. If you know what I mean …

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