Tell HP about your satisfaction
Some surprises in keynote show

HP and its users heat up Vegas again

There used to be a saying that an HP user group's hottest moment was the HP Management Roundtable, where HP executives took the heat from users. In the modern world of HP as the world's No. 1 computer company, the heat is all around this now-fixed meeting in Las Vegas, the Nevada desert's theme park for all manner of games.

The fourth HP Technology Forum started today with pre-conference training sessions on topics like the ITIL information technology practices, a kickoff expo floor reception and the meeting of media writers and the HP executives on hand. We writers and HP VPs come together in modest rooms deep in the innards of one of the strip's biggest hotel-casino-convention centers. Outside my window here in the wide halls between session rooms, a pool with a sand beach beckons under 107-degree sun.

That won't impress me too much this week, on a journey from a Texas where the Austin heat has soared above 100 every day since this month began. But we don't have the heat of meetings or the warm gathering of collegues and comrades that you find in a user group conference. Despite the overwhelming number of Hewlett-Packard attendees, this is still a conference of users. They are the reason HP turns out in a show of force unparalleled in the rest of its fiscal year.

The Big Three — CEO Mark Hurd, Executive VP Ann Livermore and Chief Technology Office Randy Mott — all speak tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, a volunteer who's not an employee of HP, Nina Buik, oversees the effort and engagements as the president of Connect, the alliance of user groups which will unveil its logo and some plans this evening on that expo floor.

HP 3000 partners, sponsors and suppliers take a place on that expo floor as well as in some of the session rooms. MB Foster, Speedware, Bay Pointe Technology, The Support Group, Transoft and DB-Net all have booths on the floor of varying sizes. Also on the floor are the suppliers Logicalis, Canvas Systems and Canvas Systems. Cognos is on the expo floor as well, maybe the only direct competitor to HP to show its wares. Cognos, after all, has been a part of IBM since this spring.

In an interview with Buik, who's heading up the user group for the third straight year, she noted that advocacy is a word that's been replaced with "community voice." It's a less confrontational approach in a world where a company like HP has been hundreds of billions of dollars large, while its special interest members represent a small share of HP's mind.

That mindshare grows large, however, while you consider how much of HP's solutions a customer could be using. Blade servers, storage, services ranging from enterprise product support to professional consulting a la EDS, the PCs and laptops, the software that HP has acquired (like Mercury Interactive) or built itself — it's a big universe out there.

So we can all grow nostalgic and wonder if the old model of user group meeting — with every attendee concerned with HP's business servers, HP 3000s or HP 9000s, pushing for advocacy of business and technology decisions by HP — was the better meeting to attend. So much has changed since then, from HP and the way the company spreads its technology across partners and throughout technologies and solutions, to the share of voice a few thousand customers could command with a company that was already more than $50 million large in the waning days of Interex conferences.

When you say "HP" these days you describe an organization of more than 200,000 employees, a group so big that Buik described it like her earliest days as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia. "That was a 30,000-student place," she said. "I was in a sorority, which helped me connect with such a large organization."

Connect — the alliance of Encompass, Interex-Europe and the ITUG user groups — intends to be that fraternity to help the "D-level" customer have a voice with HP. The D-level, director-level IT pros are Connect's "sweet spot," Buik said during a half-hour briefing with me. "Our sweet spot is with people in the trenches," so the user community will open up a social networking site created by Leverage Software, a company "which specializes in these kinds of online solutions."

Special Interest Groups (SIGs) will be a feature of the Connect online community, something a user can start up. So if you tick a box to report you use HP 3000s, the software is supposed to locate others on the site who share your experience. Best of all, sharing the community social networking experience will be free and open to everyone, regardless of Connect membership or not.

In part, the openness is motivated by the need for user-generated content. But Buik was also careful to point out that HP monitor chatter on the SIGs, much as does today on the HP 3000 newsgroup and mailing list. The difference might lie in the level of HP employee doing the monitoring and responding. Bigger groups, closer in partnership with HP, show a promise of results — although you need to take action, as Buik says, because "hope is not a good business strategy."