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I recently attended a Winshuttle User Group conference and unfortunately this meant not being able to attend the TechEd in North America.

Attending User Group Conferences can result in a lot of different experiences for different attendees. For the convenors, success is of course measured by the feedback, repeat attendance and smooth execution of operations and logistics around the conference. I thought I would reduce my experience at this recent one, to a summary of the importance of user group conferences in general, and why, if you're a reader of SCN and SCN content, you should consider attending one of the many kinds of user conferences that are out there.

The Good

A problem shared is a problem halved or so the saying goes; while this may not be strictly true, the philosophy behind this statement certainly can ring true. My experience is that when you talk to your peers in the industry and in particular peers that are doing the same kind of work as you, you can often discover how they have found innovative and effective ways to solve the problems that they encounter. I had the good fortune of once again running a user panel for Finance at the WUG and one of the topics that came up was SAP end user training. This seems to be an ongoing issue with all SAP installations and does not seem to be one that is going away any time soon.

The consensus of the folks in attendance was that one of the best ways to effectively deal with a changing workforce and ensuring that they are as knowledgeable and competent in running a process and performing in SAP, is for you to really document the system well and in particular; keep your process documentation current. There are lots of ways of doing this, but one of the easiest ways is to use a document management system of some sort and ensure that part of your employee career development activities involve maintaining process documentation.

Process is always a bugaboo because it is often considered so... well.... "processey" and non-process oriented people always look at their jobs in the context of tasks and not the end to end process. Making people aware of what the significant of their tasks are in relation to the end to end process helps in providing clarity, context and relevance.

The Bad

One of the drawbacks of users talking to other users can be the revelations that emerge in the context of bad work practices. Excel spreadsheets for example are a much maligned business tool that are often used to great effect but without any thought about the long term consequences for the business. Those of you who have read my blogs and articles in the past, will know that I have no personal issues with Excel spreadsheets but I am mindful of the fact that they can be sorely abused and organizations can build tremendously vulnerable processes that depend implicitly on the proper use of some spreadsheet based solutions.

This year again, a number of imaginative users came up with tremendously powerful ways to perform certain activities as either pre or post processing actions on data before it went to or came from SAP and was routed on to secondary tasks or participants. I wouldn't worry too much about this except that some of the proposed approaches involved writing macros and building complex logic into the excel spreadsheet. My thinking is that as soon as you start becoming heavily dependent on user programming outside of your SAP environment, you better be 101% sure that your little programs are going to do what they are supposed to do.

If you are not a macro programmer yourself or barely get away with formulae and functions in Excel, perhaps macros are not a good place to go unless you learn some of that stuff through training or self-study and then spend an awful lot of time practicing. When you do this, you may perhaps become more proficient but then should consider whether that was effective and good use of your skills and time. Data Stewards learning Excel macro programming skills doesn't strike me as a good value add.

The Ugly

As with any gathering of SAP customers, things are not always as rosy as one would hope. There are always a lot of war stories told. Some are about how awesome certain features and functions are, and other times they are talking about things that don't or didn’t work when they tried to do something. This is often not constrained to just working with a given partner product but may also include working with the SAP products or just people and process. Quite often I have found that users demonstrate their lack of experience when they articulate disaster war stories that were difficult to resolve - often times they resolve this, but the resolution comes with the warning that reading the manual, being careful or really understanding what you are trying to do, are probably among the best ways to avoid trouble. Problems can be as a result of mistakes that people make themselves or are made by others, sometimes it is revealed, that disasters occur because there was no contingency planning, no testing and no backups or disaster recovery planning. At best, these ugly experiences help us all to learn from the experiences of others and hopefully head off similar issues for ourselves.

User group meetings are the best of the experiences around technology shows because most of the speakers talk about their own experiences and discoveries. The content may not be as polished as that of product managers, marketing and sales people, but it often carries a gritty realism that can be more easily understood by users in the trenches in similar environments. Getting a mix of the sales sizzle of a good spiel and a nicely presented deck as well as some of the real world experiences of users is probably the ideal mix in a show. ASUG is a strong example of an organization that offers user content in a variety of forums but more organizations can be found for your specific region here at SAPTREX.