What is the value of IT supplier events?

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Customer events hosted by IT companies are always interesting to the external observer - I mean, to someone who is not the buyer nor the seller. I am now attending the Orange Business Live customer conference in Rome - a large, two-day event attended by several hundred IT leaders worldwide. 

Every time I attend this sort of event, I keep on wondering what might be going through the minds of the CIOs that have taken the time off their day jobs to come and hear more about their partner - or possible partner. 

What is the value of coming to an event like this, rather than connecting to other customers of that same vendor through tools like LinkedIn, or even asking an analyst? How does the supplier present their competence in a compelling way without patronising potential and current customers? 

Talking to a few people at the conference, the general feeling is that IT bosses still feel that there is a lot of value in face-to-face networking, particularly if you are about to start a relationship with the supplier or review your contract - whether the idea is to scale up or down.

The CIO at a large European retail chain told me that he sees these events as an opportunity to see what his key partners are up to, both from a financial and strategic standpoint.

"I don't have time to attend all the customer conferences I get invited to. It really does depend on how  valuable - in financial terms - and critical the supplier to my operation. [These events] also work as a sanity check, I get to ask other people in totally different businesses about how they work with the same supplier," the CIO said. 

It was interesting to see a roundtable chaired by an OBS executive, with three of the company's key partners for the delivery of services: Cisco, Polycom and Riverbed. With complaints from CIOs about the lack of imagination and transparency on the vendor side - "their presentations and sales pitches always look the same," an IT director recently told me - still echoing in my head, I was prepared for the the same old.

Indeed, there was room for improvement in areas such as explaining how users can mitigate performance issues with cloud computing, how to deal with the complexity of hybrid environments, or even issues are not often mentioned, such as the cost of migration or complexities around quality of data ahead of migration to the cloud. But conference presentations always need to balance detail with keeping the audience engaged. 

Fortunately, there were some interesting and very valuable takeaways. Cisco, for example, seems to have 70% of its staff working remotely at least once a week, with yearly productivity gains of about $300m. The competing companies also said that progress has been made towards more interoperability though the Open Visual Communications Consortium (OVCC), which is chaired by OBS. This suggests that some suppliers really are "eating their own dog food" more often than they used to - or at least they are learning to present a more credible story in plenary.
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