Q&A: Steve Strout on ASUG's New Business Objects User Group

ASUG exec says Global BusinessObjects Network will raise customer wants and needs to SAP management. But what about existing user groups, 'BOB' discussion forum and possible costs?

Doug Henschen, Executive Editor, Enterprise Apps

September 8, 2008

8 Min Read

Steve Strout

The Americas SAP Users' Group (ASUG), the well-known, customer-run community of SAP users, announced last week the formation of the Global BusinessObjects Network (GBN), an independent user community for customers and partners of Business Objects, an SAP company. The not-for-profit, member-led organization hopes to fill gaps left by a hodgepodge of existing local and regional user groups. ASUG CEO Steve Strout describes the benefits of bringing a powerful, unified voice into the SAP executive suite.

Why did ASUG feel the need to form GBN?

When SAP acquired Business Objects, we started discussing how we could address the needs of these customers and ensure that there's a viable conversation between Business Objects users and SAP. Somewhere between 70 and 85 percent of the Business Objects customers were not SAP ERP users, so there's a large population out there that basically has no representation back into SAP. There are 42 Business Objects user groups in North America, but they are very regionally or locally defined, and they don't collaborate very much. There hasn't been any kind of coordinated effort to bring the needs, desires and thoughts of all those groups back to Business Objects or SAP.

Have you communicated with these groups about plans for GBN?

Yes, we've contacted all 42, and many if not most want to participate and see the benefit of the collective voice when trying to talk to an organization as large as SAP. The bigger you are, the easier it becomes to have a conversation of equals.

What about BOB, the Business Objects Board? Doesn't that hold a lot of sway?

BOB is not a user group, it's a discussion forum. It has been out there for a number or years and has good traction. There are more than 18,000 people who contribute to the bulletin board on a regular basis. It is an important user community, and we met with Dave Rathbun, who is the father of BOB [and he is now one of eight customer and partner members on a GBN steering committee.] We've had really good conversations, and Dave agrees that helping to facilitate conversations from Business Objects users is very important. Among the things that ASUG has done exceptionally well over the years have been our formalized [vendor] influence program and our [technology] benchmarking program, and these are things that we will bring to Business Objects customers through GBN.

One thing that might be controversial is that ASUG charges membership fees whereas BOB has been free to all. Will GBN have membership fees and what will members get in return?

A steering committee made up of Business Objects customers will set the policies as to whether or not there will be fees, and for now they've taken the position that there will not be any fees through 2009. At the end of next year they will determine whether membership fees will be necessary. You have to have a reason to charge, and GBN doesn't have any services in place just yet.

So what might GBN members gain that they couldn't get through BOB or a local user group?

A discussion forum like BOB is one way to connect, and it's a great tool to post your ideas and thoughts and questions. That's important, but that's only about 30 percent of what GBN can do. A user group also gathers the collective wisdom of the membership. It gives you the ability to add things like social networking tools so you can identify and reach out to people who use the same products and who are facing the same challenges you are. Face-to-face meetings are also an important component, including both local chapter meetings as well as national meetings. Human nature is such that you tend to open up more and gather more information in a face-to-face environment. You just don't get that in a virtual exchange.

You've also said you'll come up with Business Objects-specific influence and benchmarking programs. What will these do for the membership?

Our influence programs are an official connection into SAP and its senior executives. GBN will influence the roadmaps for Business Objects products and how they're integrated into other SAP tools. We're not talking about just the traditional Business Objects tool sets; SAP has combined some of its acquisitions, such as Versa and its GRC programs, into the Business Objects portfilio. We also need to understand how that portfolio will fit into the NetWeaver BI and NetWeaver BW systems... ASUG's influence program have had a direct member-driven impact on products and entire product families. The things that our members ask for actually show up in the products.

Lots of vendors talk about voice-of-the-customer-directed upgrades and improvements. So is it about making that feedback publically transparent and holding the vendor accountable?

We handle the transparency by saying, "here's what our members have said they want." At the end of the year we do a close-the-loop report that shows what was asked for, what was delivered by SAP and what SAP is saying about improvements that have yet to be delivered.

A hot customer issue came up very recently when SAP transitioned Business Objects customer support over to the SAP support network. That transition apparently wasn't handled too well and some customer support issues fell through the cracks. Is that the sort of situation GBN could help remedy?

That is the type of situation where GBN could jump in and bring it to the attention of the vendor with the power of the many. We can articulate the customers' frustration in a broader way than if they were just listening to 30 or 50 or even 70 customer complaints. We'll not only identify the symptoms, we can help diagnose root causes and articulate back to the user community how it needs to be addressed. We can also help SAP solve problems and do so quickly.

Do smaller companies just naturally have closer relations with customers and is that why there wasn't a big Business Objects user group?

My personal opinion is that Business Objects has been an aggregator of companies getting prepared to sell themselves. So the great majority of those 42 user groups are an aggregation of the traditional BI tool business plus Crystal Reports, which probably represents 60 percent of those groups. It's not so much the size as the style of the organization that leads to strong user groups. Business Objects, from my perspective, was an organizations designed very purposely to get itself sold. Therefore, it didn't put forth the effort to build or nurture a user group.

What is SAP's involvement with ASUG?

ASUG was started by three customers back in 1991 and we get no direct funding from SAP. SAP does sponsor parts of events and they are a good partner, but they don't get special rates and they don't give us financial incentives to do anything.

So what has SAP done to nurture ASUG?

They make sure that people are available to us. In our influence program, as an example, SAP product managers work with our influence teams. We have nearly 70 special interest groups around technologies and business processes, and SAP has a point of contact for every one of them. They are in contact and in conversation with us on a regular basis, and they donate thousands of hours each year to ensure that they respond to our membership, show us roadmaps and get our input on those roadmaps.

How do benchmarking programs help members?

They help customers take part of their business — a particular business process, for example — and understand how well they are performing relative to others using the same technologies or business processes. The benchmarks help you measure and understand whether you're doing things more efficiently or less efficiently than everybody else. And if it's less efficiently, where is it that you need to improve and what are the best practices you need to adopt to achieve the same result.

So what should potential GBN members look for in the months ahead? Is it early days, or will influence programs and benchmarks be forthcoming in 2009?

It's still fairly early. We're in the process of creating the organization and building the roadmap of what it will accomplish and where it needs to go over the next couple of years. There's already a voice for Business Objects customers through ASUG, but that only covers 15 to 20 percent of the customer base. We want to give that other 80 percent a voice, so the influence programs will be one of the first things that you'll see. Certainly the ability to have conversations around issues such as the recent support problems are the kinds of things that we'll want to address.

About the Author(s)

Doug Henschen

Executive Editor, Enterprise Apps

Doug Henschen is Executive Editor of InformationWeek, where he covers the intersection of enterprise applications with information management, business intelligence, big data and analytics. He previously served as editor in chief of Intelligent Enterprise, editor in chief of Transform Magazine, and Executive Editor at DM News. He has covered IT and data-driven marketing for more than 15 years.

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