If you've ever wished you could make a few minor adjustments to the software you use, you'll appreciate Stuart Koehler's position. Koehler is the operations manager for First Supply LLC, a Madison,Wis.-based plumbing, heating, and kitchen supply wholesaler that uses Infor's warehouse management system in its distribution operations. Though the software does what it's designed to do, Koehler nonetheless wanted to have a modification made.What he hoped to address was a limitation in the software's label-printing capability—the system was unable to include as much product information as First Supply wanted on the labels it generated.
In the overall scheme of things, that was a minor concern. Still, it was something Koehler wanted to pursue. Although he could have gone directly to the vendor to have the modification made, Koehler chose a different route: He took the matter up with his software user group.
If that strikes you as a roundabout way to solve a software problem, you're probably not a member of a software user group. User groups—organizations made up of customers of a particular software supplier—have come a long way from their origins as forums for sharing war stories and swapping tips. These days, they're also an important communication channel between the users and the vendor. And in many cases, the groups have a great deal of influence on product development.
In fact, Koehler says that recommending upgrades and enhancements is one of his user group's main functions. "We come up with a 'top five' list of things we'd like to see improved," he explains. The group then presents its list to Infor, which oftentimes follows through and makes those changes.
That's exactly what happened in Koehler's case. The group recommended that the vendor modify the software's label-printing function. And sure enough, when Infor designed the next version of its warehousing system, it expanded the label's product information field.
Feedback from the front lines
Though they saw their heyday in the '80s, software user groups are still going strong today. They've undergone some changes in the intervening years, however. Nowadays, for example, user groups draw their members from all areas of the organization, not just from information technology (IT). Members may include warehouse managers, logistics managers, and operations managers like Koehler, as well as IT specialists, chief information officers, and even CEOs.
In the supply chain arena, user groups come in two types: "independent" groups that are run by members and have a loose affiliation with the vendor, and "dependent" groups that are formed by a software vendor that also provides financial support for the group.
Members of independent user groups tend to be customers of the big enterprise resource planning (ERP) software vendors, whose worldwide customer bases are large enough to support and sustain these groups. One such group is the Americas' SAP Users Group (ASUG). Formed in 1990, ASUG currently has 1,700 member companies and 50,000 individual members. It has 46 subgroups, called "influence councils," that focus on specific applications like warehouse management systems, advance planning and optimization systems, and supply chain execution systems.
ASUG uses its "collective voice" to make recommendations on ways in which SAP can change its products and services to meet customer requirements, explains ASUG President Rod Masney. He notes that the group's influence with the vendor has expanded over the years. "What's interesting is that 10 years ago, influence was at the operational level," Masney says. "Today, the user group influences the strategic level [of SAP]."
Another big independent group is the Oracle Applications User Group (OAUG), which counts about 2,000 companies among its members. This global organization has more than 100 subgroups, some of which deal strictly with supply chain applications. "OAUG is the voice of users that Oracle listens to," says Basheer Khan, president of systems integrator Innowave Technology and a member of OAUG's board of directors.
Members of dependent user groups, by contrast, are usually customers of best-of-breed software makers, which serve as the groups' sponsors. Supply chain planning and execution software specialist Manhattan Associates, for example, actively solicits members for its user groups from its customer base. Manhattan says that about 1,000 of its customers participate in 15 "product councils," which are organized around specific applications. "The councils get together at least once a year for a face-to-face meeting, and they do regular teleconferencing," says Manhattan's Eddie Capel, senior vice president of product management and customer relations. "We ask for participation in the design phase for the next release of a product. They get to vote on the features and functionality of the product."
HK Systems also invites user groups to suggest software modifications. Most of these groups meet on an ad hoc basis and hold frequent telephone conference calls. "A lot of our functionality is based on customer direction," says Dave Adams, vice president of product development. For instance, when the company upgraded its warehouse management system three years ago, it worked with a user group to improve the advance shipment notice (ASN) functionality in that release.
Other vendors organize conferences for their customers. For instance, AL Systems holds seminars several times a year that feature user presentations and small-group discussions. HighJump Software has been holding annual user conferences since 1988. These conferences provide another avenue for communication between vendor and user."We encourage regular feedback from the 'front lines' to ensure our products fit most effectively with the clients' requirements," says Chad Collins, HighJump's vice president of global strategy.
A little help from their friends
The benefits for vendors are obvious, but why do logistics professionals take time out from their busy schedules to attend user group meetings or take part in conference calls? It turns out that they see a host of advantages in joining these groups.
Ellen Martin, a vice president of supply chain business systems at Greensboro, N.C.-based apparel maker VF Corp., says she likes the fact that user groups offer a way for companies to ensure that software evolves along with users' changing needs. "When you buy a piece of software, it is what it is," says Martin, who serves on the board of directors for i2's user group. "Business conditions change, and software must change to be responsive. The user group gives you a manner in which you can work for change."
Influencing the development of new features, moreover, can save shippers a bundle: If a desired enhancement is included in the next version of an application, then users can get it for the cost of the upgrade—and that beats the cost of customization any day. "We get something we see as a needed change," says Koehler of First Supply, "but we don't get charged a modification price for the change."
But logistics professionals see user groups as more than just a way to get the vendor's ear. For many, the primary draw is the opportunity to meet and learn from their fellow users. "If you're having a problem, you get a chance to collaborate with others on it," explains software consultant Phil Obal, who helped start a user group several years ago.
User groups aren't just for advanced "power users," however. Users at all levels can benefit from participation. "User groups are especially beneficial for companies that are experiencing the initial startup with an application," says Greg Vandergriff, a DC manager for Beauty Brands in Kansas City, Mo., who helped his software vendor launch a user group. In fact, when it comes to instruction, many find that the best tutors are their fellow users. "You're able to get more good information and more utility by being able to exchange notes with other people using the system," says J. Kevin Michel, manager of logistics operations at Cowan Logistics in Aberdeen, Md., who has participated in three user groups.
But for many participants, the relationship building facilitated by software user groups is the most important benefit of all. In a recent survey of DC VELOCITY readers, fully half of the respondents cited the opportunity to exchange knowledge and network with their peers as their primary reason for joining a user group (see the accompanying sidebar).
"It's a way to make friends," says Obal. "You build a relationship. You become a resource for them, and they become a resource for you."
It's not just about the technical details. The chance to share knowledge and network with fellow software users is what motivates many DC VELOCITY readers to join software user groups.
And join they do. Forty-two percent of the survey takers (which included manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and service providers) said they take part in vendor-sponsored user groups, while 36 percent belong to independent organizations. Another 22 percent participate in both types of groups. When asked which vendors' groups they had joined, the respondents listed a number of suppliers, but the most common responses were SAP (25 percent), Oracle (14 percent), and Manhattan Associates (11 percent).
Though many said they had joined a user group for the chance to talk shop (see chart), a sizable percentage of the respondents said they had signed on in hopes of influencing software development. And it appears that they've achieved some success in that regard. The vast majority (94 percent) of survey respondents said that input from their user groups had led vendors to make refinements to their software. One respondent, for example, reported that his group had persuaded its vendor to enhance its system so that it could automatically calculate freight charges when an order was entered. Another said he and his fellow group members had convinced the software maker to add a feature that determined whether orders should be shipped as individual pieces or grouped together.
|Why do logistics professionals join user groups? Half of the respondents to a recent survey said it was for the chance to exchange information and network with their peers.|
|Knowledge sharing with peers||39%|
|Voice in vendor development of new features||22%|
|Input on software vendor's strategic direction||14%|
|Inside knowledge of software vendor/application||14%|
|Networking||11%||SOURCE: DC VELOCITY READER SURVEY, JUNE 2007|