Vendor User Groups: Wield Your Influence
Vendor user groups offer a productive pathway to help shape product development and create valuable peer networks for sharing knowledge.
Paul Fisher, associate CIO at Seton Hall University (NJ), says joining Blackboard’s vendor user group, Blackboard Idea Exchange (BIE), has given him a way to have a profound effect on his institution. “One of the main reasons why anybody in my position would get involved in something like the Blackboard Idea Exchange is because of the influence that you’re able to have on a product that is core to our mission of teaching and learning,” Fisher says.
Fisher has been a member of BIE since 2004. That year, the South Orange, NJ, college migrated its online programs from an outsourced vendor into a Blackboard format that is supported by Fisher and his staff. When Fisher discovered BIE, he immediately knew it would offer him the opportunity to guide the development of his school’s core applications.
“We can tell Blackboard what this app needs to do, what direction these things need to take, what our students want, what our faculty wants,” Fisher explains, noting that over 75 percent of Seton Hall’s faculty is currently using Blackboard. “You see some of the things you asked for actually come to fruition, and that’s always nice, especially when you can bring that back to the squeaky-wheel faculty member who’s been on your back to get the issue addressed.”
BIE members meet biannually at Blackboard-organized events, participate in regular conference calls with Blackboard personnel, and post experiences and questions to an e-mail listserv. “The members of BIE aren’t shy,” remarks Fisher. “We’re all about telling Blackboard what we think it should do.”
Setting the Direction of a Product
As a longtime user of Sonic Foundry’s Mediasite webcast software, Arizona State University’s Octavio Heredia had already established a collaborative relationship with the Sonic Foundry team when the company formally introduced the Mediasite User Group (MUG) in 2007. Still, Heredia, who serves as associate director of global outreach and extended education at the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, didn’t hesitate to join MUG.
“We were one of the largest-scale users of the software, so we thought we had a lot of good information to share with other users who were getting started,” he explains. “At the same time, we wanted to see what everybody else was doing—how were other people using the product and what challenges were they seeing within their own implementations?”
Heredia also recognized that MUG offered a great opportunity to influence a specialized, relatively new piece of software that he and his staff relied heavily on. “It was an early market. Sonic Foundry wanted to create a dialogue with the customers to see which features were must-haves in the early version of the product,” Heredia recalls. “It was a way to formalize the dialogue not only with the company itself, but with the other users who were going through the same challenges and successes that we were going through.”
As a member of the MUG Steering Committee, Heredia participates in quarterly conference calls during which the committee organizes and sets the agenda and topics for MUG’s quarterly Mediasite-based webcasts. He attends an annual users conference, a three-day event in Madison, WI. MUG members also communicate informally via e-mail, discussion boards, Twitter, and Facebook.
“The Sonic Foundry team is very responsive,” says Heredia. “They welcome input from their users. Obviously, not every feature request can be put into the product, but they always let us know if one of our requests doesn’t fit into their vision of the product, and the reasons behind that decision. There’s a very good dialogue between the users and the company in setting the direction of the product.”
The Value of Peer Input
The peer-to-peer aspect of vendor user groups increases their value to participants exponentially. MUG is populated by a diverse group of users, ranging from higher education and K-12 users to users in the private sector. For Heredia, whose department regularly offers Mediasite webcasts for professional development seminars for the general public and for customized training programs for companies, this mix of users provides invaluable information.
“We deliver training to private companies through our department using Mediasite,” Heredia explains. “We want to make sure that their employees—the audience we are trying to reach—are comfortable receiving their training through the Mediasite platform. The private sector users who participate in MUG validate that for us…through the information that they share. Knowing that the private sector uses this type of technology and that, technically speaking, we weren’t going to have challenges with getting our content through [a company’s] firewall and networks, was probably one of the most valuable bits of information we’ve learned.”
Several independent regional Sonic Foundry user groups have sprouted up worldwide, enabling Heredia to establish a strong collaborative relationship with a group based in the Netherlands, and to present at the Japan user group’s annual meeting in July. The international relationships have kept Heredia’s eyes open to new ways of implementing Mediasite, especially with regard to the cameras, microphones, and other peripherals to record lectures and presentations. “Our colleagues at Delft University of Technology [Netherlands] are playing with a piece of software that controls the use of tracking cameras with Mediasite,” he notes. “We’re certainly excited about that, and we’re providing them with feedback as to what we’d like to see.”
Although the users involved in Blackboard Idea Exchange are less diverse, the peer network has nonetheless enabled Seton Hall technologists to implement improvements to their Blackboard system via the ideas and advice shared among members. Fisher relates this example: “Faculty always want to see pictures of their students, especially if they’re running a blended course that meets mainly online, so they can make the connection that, say, it’s the student in the third row who’s posting this response on the discussion board. Members of BIE from Grand Rapids Community College [MI] actually deployed a photo roster of students in Blackboard. We were able to implement it without doing all of the research and monkey-work that would have gone into finding the solution ourselves. That’s one of probably a hundred different problems we’ve been able to easily solve through the BIE network.”
Is It Worth the Time?
For many busy IT administrators, the perceived nuisance of joining yet another committee or organization could easily outweigh the potential benefits of participating in a vendor user group. As Fisher notes, though, being a part of a vendor user group can end up saving IT staff time and energy in the long run.
“Put the resources aside to do it,” he advises, “because you learn so many different things from your involvement. You can learn what your problems are going to be later because [product] upgrades might not align with what your faculty wanted from the technology, and then you can manage that ahead of time. And sometimes, you get to actually see your ideas get worked into a piece of software that’s used around the world.”