Who’s in charge of these user groups anyway?

To say technology user groups wouldn’t exist without technology vendors sounds like pointing out the obvious. Of course they wouldn’t, because they would have no reason for being. But there’s more to it than that. Most user groups wouldn’t exist without the support – financial and otherwise – of the vendors whose products they are built around. That raises a question: How independent are those groups – and how much does it matter?

Leaders of Canadian user groups say that for the most part the help they get from vendors comes with few strings attached, but some of them do acknowledge that there are lines they avoid crossing. That does not stop them providing valuable services to their members, but it may mean there are roles that users shouldn’t expect these groups to play.

Through its Technet program, Microsoft Canada Co. provides financial support and other resources to a number of user groups across the country, such as the Toronto Windows Server User Group. Jean-Luc David, president of that group, says it would be very hard for his organization to exist without such support.

Even groups that are not built around a single vendor’s product, like the Calgary Linux Users’ Group (CLUG), depend on businesses to provide meeting space and sponsor events. Without that, notes Shawn Grover, president of CLUG, “You’d end up meeting in somebody’s house.”

Some groups charge fees for membership or for attending events, but this is rarely if ever the sole source of their income – and Graham Jones, president of the Vancouver Technology User Group (VANTUG) says he would prefer to see those fees play less of a role rather than more. Jones says accessibility to all – including for instance students for whom membership fees may be a burden – should be “one of the principal tenets of a user group.”

But Jones also admits that vendors’ support may come at a price. Like most user groups, VANTUG invites speakers from various technology vendors to make presentations at its meetings. With Microsoft as a principal sponsor, would the group feel comfortable bringing in a speaker from a direct Microsoft competitor? “We do have to exercise some care in terms of how Microsoft might or might not view that,” Jones admits.

Jones adds that in his view, Microsoft has become more accepting of such things in recent years. “They’re becoming more liberal about it than they used to be,” he says. “There was a time when if you mentioned the word Linux, they went into a sort of apoplectic shock.” Today, Jones believes alarm bells probably wouldn’t go off at Microsoft if his group had a speaker talk about, say, getting Windows and Linux servers to communicate.

But VANTUG would probably hesitate to invite a direct Microsoft competitor to one of its meetings. The same goes for the Eastern Canada Regional User Group (ECRUG), an Oracle user group. Marie Sargent, ECRUG’s president, says companies like Microsoft that compete with Oracle in some areas but co-operate with it in others – Oracle’s software runs on Windows, after all – might be invited to ECRUG conferences. But “we wouldn’t invite SAP. I mean, let’s get real.”

Fair enough, one might say – ECRUG is an Oracle user group, VANTUG is a Microsoft user group, and those interested in rival products should seek out appropriate counterparts. “It’s a constraint,” says VANTUG’s Jones, “but I don’t find it to be an unreasonable constraint.”

Jones also says VANTUG wouldn’t likely get involved in a dispute between users and a vendor, though it might discuss such a matter at one of its meetings “if it’s a widespread issue and we really think that it’s topical.”.

Even Linux groups, whose ties are less likely to be to one vendor in particular, sometimes perform balancing acts. Grover says CLUG is careful not to show favouritism towards Linux distribution vendors, trying for instance to invite Novell Inc. to send speakers to its meetings about as often as it invites Red Hat, Inc.

Vendors are an obvious and useful source of speakers as well as funds for user groups. Joanne Pomalis, president of the Ottawa Oracle User Group (OOUG), says the Oracle office in Ottawa is always ready to provide a speaker when OOUG needs one, as well as booking meeting rooms for the group and providing other support.

But the groups say they are careful to insist on presentations of real value to their members. “We try to avoid marketing content,” says David at TWSUG.

“We make it fairly clear to (vendors) that we want them to come and speak to our members,” says Jones at VANTUG, “but this has to be a low-key sell, not a shameless sell for their company.”

OOUG does the same for most of its meetings, except for one annual all-day event at which the group sells slots for vendor presentations. “They they can sales-pitch all they want,” Pomalis says.

ECRUG sponsors an annual conference, and often gets suggestions from vendors like Oracle regarding the program, but Sargent says these are only suggestions, and ECRUG takes input from members into account as well. “There are some times when we need to maintain the independence from them,” she says. “We wouldn’t want the business partners telling us what to do, but we appreciate their input.”

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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