Tif's voice is heard in high places

On the eve of The Infrastructure Forum's conference in Bath, the user group's new chairman Jonathan Mitchell explains why...

On the eve of The Infrastructure Forum's conference in Bath, the user group's new chairman Jonathan Mitchell explains why vendor-bashing may get the headlines but Tif wants to have constructive relationships with suppliers. Ross Bentley reports

When Microsoft chief Bill Gates made his famous visit to 10 Downing Street in 1997 it signified a common problem in the IT industry - both the government and the national media are far more likely to be influenced by those who make computer systems than those who have to buy, implement and maintain them.

The IT user community is perhaps culpable in this imbalance. In the past it has struggled to channel a groundswell of opinion into meaningful lobbying. While the legal and medical professions have a strong voice, IT profession hardly registers, despite underpinning many modern business processes.

But, according to Jonathan Mitchell, vice-president of global services at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline and the new chairman of user group The Infrastructure Forum (Tif), things changed in May 2001 with Microsoft's decision to re-jig its software licensing charges.

The announcement that the biggest software company in the world, with a presence on more than 90% of UK desktops was making wholesale changes to its pricing model without consulting customers and without adequate explanation of the implications caused uproar in the industry.

Although reported extensively in Computer Weekly, there was a reluctance in the private and public sectors for anyone to raise their head above the parapet. The Confederation of British Industry would not commit itself and all was quiet at the Department of Trade & Industry (DTI).

But within Tif, the early rumblings of opposition to Microsoft could be felt.

"Microsoft is in a dominant position," said Mitchell, "and it has to be careful how it impacts on the industry."

He estimates that the licensing changes and the effect they will have on upgrade cycles will cost Tif members - who comprise 108 of Europe's largest organisations - £880m over the next four years.

"Microsoft did not consult with its customers before it announced the licensing changes and it was raised as an issue among the members of Tif. We held a workshop to help our members. We then contacted [Microsoft] and asked [it] to think again and when this request was turned down we penned our letter to [DTI minister] Patricia Hewitt asking her to look at the issue," Mitchell explained.

"It was pressure from Tif, along with Computer Weekly, that delayed the implementation of Microsoft's new licensing charges. The new charges won't come into being until July now."

Although there is no indication that Microsoft will revise its planned licensing changes, Mitchell said its decision to delay the changes is "significant".

"It is significant that we have got Microsoft to stop and listen to what we are saying," he said. "For a global company of the size and complexity of Microsoft to delay plans says a lot about the influence of Tif. It gives us a chance of dialogue and that's good enough for us at the moment."

Mitchell also feels that Tif's success in buying time for Microsoft users represents a watershed for the IT industry. "Tif's involvement with the campaign about Microsoft licensing was a coming of age not only for Tif but for the industry," he said.

"As Tif gets bigger and its membership swells, a natural consequence will be our increased involvement in campaigning for issues our members feel are important."

Long-standing members of Tif include organisations such as British Airways, British Airports Authority, Marks & Spencer, BP, Shell, John Lewis and the Inland Revenue.

Mitchell said the organisation is gaining three or four new member companies a week and is made up of 1,700 senior IT directors from companies representing a combined annual IT spend of more than £20bn.

That is a sizeable amount in anyone's book and, if money talks, then it represents a loud voice.

But despite the fact that the dispute with Microsoft may represent a milestone in Tif's evolution as an organisation with sway, Mitchell denied that the group is a "vendor basher".

"We represent the views of our members and, in this instance, their interests conflicted with Microsoft but we have a positive relationship with the company and are in constant discussion with them over a number of issues."

In fact, at this year's Tif conference, which takes place on 17-18 April at Bath, one of the main themes is developing constructive relationships with suppliers.

"A solid relationship with vendors is crucial to IT because today big projects require companies to work hand in hand with suppliers," said Mitchell.

"Companies need to engender a positive relationship with vendors rather than a hostile relationship. At the moment, due to the downturn, the climate is very amenable to user companies. During periods of rapid growth it is very easy to be a vendor. Now as times are harder vendors are having to change to cater to the needs of the customer," he said.

What is The Infrastructure Forum?
The Infrastructure Forum (Tif) is an independent not-for-profit organisation representing the corporate IT end-user community. Tif includes more than 1,700 senior IT directors and managers from 108 of Europe's largest organisations, including 41 of the 100 largest companies on the London Stock Exchange, representing a combined IT spend of more than £20bn per year.

Tif promotes best practice and improved standards within the IT industry, and provides members with an advisory environment free of vendors, suppliers and consultants.

The group was formed in 1996 and by January 1998 it had 50 members. In March 2001 it launched a benchmarking service. Tif took on Microsoft over the software giant's licensing charge changes in September 2001. The following month Microsoft announced it would delay its licensing changes due to "customer feedback". In November 2001 Tif's membership reached 100 members.

Some of the other IT user groups
British Computer Society

As the only chartered professional institution for the field of information systems engineering, the British Computer Society exists to provide service and support to the IS community, including individual practitioners, employers of IS staff and the general public

Communication Managers Association
This association has more than 1,500 telecoms and IT managers working together to influence suppliers of communication costs and services

Society of Information Technology Management
Socitm is made up of 500-plus IT managers from local government working together on matters of common interest, including the production of shared procedures, consultancy and group negotiations with suppliers

IMPACT Programme
This is a personal development network for IT executives. It draws its members from the FTSE 250 companies and through training, networking and mentoring, it helps its members develop their roles and personal performance

IBM Computer Users Association
Originally a group for users of IBM technology, on the whole it appears to be largely a club for AS/400 users.

Mitchell's CV
December 2000 to date:
vice-president of GlaxoSmithKline's IT systems and communications global services division
1999: became responsible for Glaxo Wellcome's UK operations division
1998: appointed strategic planning director for IT in R&D at newly merged Glaxo Wellcome
1994: given responsibility for IT supporting discovery research
1990: joined Glaxo as a project manager
1986: occupied a number of roles at BP in London from analyst programmer through to project manager
1985: member of the scientific computing group at Wellcome Foundation
1985: received his PhD in computer modelling and geochemistry.

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