The “Outside the Box: approach
I have seen, in several occasions, companies get together to share information. The format and level of information is certainly different from the first 2 approaches since these forums are taking place outside of the corporate boundaries and often without Non Disclosure Agreement.
Trade shows offer very formal sessions on the topic of interest, Decision Management or Business Rules in our case. What is missing though from those events is the opportunity to brainstorm on problems faced by the group of practitioners. Bird-of-a-feather breakfasts are good for tips sharing, but they are definitely not sufficient for white-boarding solutions or exchanging best practices.
The gatherings I am talking about now for this Competency Center series is a hybrid of a public user group and an internal Center of Excellence.
The most typical format is location-based for the convenience of gathering while controlling expenses.
Open User Group
Companies in a given region host presentations from various vendors and on various topics. Connecticut and Texas were some of the early states to host such meetings as far as I know. I have not seen much activity recently from Connecticut though. The Dallas Rules Group, led by our friend James Owen, is still quite active.
Those events usually resemble the formal trade shows without the formality and the expense. They might meet monthly or so for arranged presentations and Q&A.
Vendor-Specific User Group
Given my background, I have mostly attended Blaze Advisor user groups of course. Besides the formal events we (the company) used to organize, there were customer-led initiatives in the field. One of the most impressive initiatives was the Insurance corridor in the NorthEast. It was amazing to see two dozen or so marquee names willing to share with each other a lot of information and dirty details on their implementations. Competitive details on their products and rules governing them were not shared of course, but how-to experience on the technology or adoption of the technology was freely discussed.
The dynamics were not that different from a traditional in-house Center of Excellence. Being the resident expert on the technology I represented, I could accelerate my requirement gathering activities and test some of my hypothesis while adding value to the conversation, dispelling myths or confirming product limitations.
I want to emphasize here the opportunity to brainstorm on best practices. For some reason, it is still hard to come up with best practices across technologies — too many product-specific features, different approaches to business user empowerment (which is where best practices are mostly needed), etc. The fact is, once the technology is common across the group, there is no limit to the depth of the discussions.
Despite the exciting format and great start of this group, it seems like it is running out of steam. I have not kept abreast of the reasons for lack of meetings after I left. It coud be due to the typical “too busy / not enough time” excuse. I believe there was value in having those meetings so I would not go there. Time tends to go by much faster than we think. Project Managing such local events does require dedication. I question whether those self-organizing group can work out without a formal responsibility / skin in the game…
This format may or may not remove the need for an internal Center of Excellence. I would argue that it depends on the maturity of the external pool as well as your company. If the technology is critical to your systems, you will have a CoE anyway and will not want to rely on an external effort that might run out of steam. If you are starting though, and the ecosystem is strong, you can learn from your peers and build your own expertise in no time.
The progress made by Enterprise 2.0 technology and the reduced cost associated — if any — has made it much easier for people to gather and discuss best practices from the comfort of their office. There are several initiatives yet again that allow practitioners to meet around topics of interest.
LinkedIn and Google have question/answer forums that have developed over time. Personally I participate mostly in LinkedIn groups since Google groups tends to be too easily spammed by inappropriate content. The discussions can be lively in some groups although I find mostly vendors and consultants interacting there.
Vendors now all have their own community in which customers can help each other.
Carlos and I also started one community across vendors. I like the depth of the discussions there but, very much like LinkedIn, I must admit that vendors are the most active. I know from personal messages that end-users have been very appreciative of the content even if they do not yet feel bold enough to dive into the heat of the arguments.
The community I have found the most interesting in terms of interactions and content has been the Forrester communities. There is no thread on Business Rules or Decision Management per se but there are se some very interesting related topics in Application Development or Business Process.
I expect those virtual communities to grow over time, as the technology keeps maturing. Like the local groups we discussed earlier, communities can complement an internal CoE initiative, or replace it in the early days before in-house expertise has been built.
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