In-Depth

The New Face of User Groups

Even with the Web and IM, professional-level IT user groups are just as vibrant and important as ever.

David Sanders
David Sanders is president of the North Carolina IT Professional User Group and president and CEO of Culminis Inc., an organization that represents most of today's active, professional-level user groups and provides funding and support to those groups that are just getting started.

In 1977, a precocious 13-year-old boy named Jonathan Rotenberg established a group called the Boston Computer Society (BCS). While the BCS was set up for PC users, not IT, it formed a blueprint for all the user groups that followed.

"A lot of people wanted to keep it a club for technology enthusiasts," says Rotenberg. "I had a broader vision of how it could benefit people in their everyday lives. I felt the organization had a mission to demystify technology."

The BCS grew to become the largest organization of its kind in the world, with more than 30,000 members spread across the United States and 40 other countries. At its peak of activity in the late 1980s, there were more than 75 different special interest groups (SIGs). Collectively, the BCS and all of its SIGs held more than 150 monthly meetings.

This gathering of people with a passion for technology did not go unnoticed by the vendor community. IBM Corp., Apple Inc. and Lotus all made major product announcements to BCS groups. In fact, Apple announced the first Macintosh at a BCS meeting in 1984.

During the 1990s, however, BCS membership dropped dramatically, and in 1996, the organization had no choice but to lock the doors and turn off the lights. The last issue of the group's magazine, BCS Journal, included a solemnly worded goodbye letter citing the changing technological landscape and increasing availability of less-expensive services as the primary reasons for dissolving the BCS.

"There are now billions of dollars a year of private-sector services that compete directly with the services the BCS offered. And the incredible rate of change in the industry, as well as the integration of computers into our daily lives, have made the BCS no longer unique," wrote the society's final interim director Franklin Smith.

A Sense of Community
The BCS may have run its course, and Rotenberg is no longer involved in user groups, but many of the social forces and motivating factors that drove him are still extant today. "There's a school of thought that user groups are like the quilting bees and barn raisings of the early West," says Rotenberg, now a management consultant. "There was a sense of getting together to support one another in a community."


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While consumer user groups like the BCS are relatively passe, the user group is alive and well on the IT professional side. According to Redmond's recent reader survey, 48 percent of the respondents are actively involved in a user group (for more on the results, see "The Redmond Reader Survey"). Of that population of user group members, nearly 46 percent consider themselves moderately active within the group and more than 13 percent say they are very active.

In this day of instant messaging, the Web and collaborative technologies, the human element remains the most important aspect of user group membership. IT professionals are people, and they depend on other people for information and inspiration.

"That face-to-face forum is really helpful," says Rotenberg.

Contact and consultation with their peers is a primary reason for many members' involvement with a user group.

"The best peers make the best professors," says Brent Eads, IT manager at Employee Technology Solutions. "Everyone has knowledge and this industry is based on knowledge transfer."

Others echo that same sentiment, even in light of easy electronic communication.

"User groups have moved to online discussion forums and blogs, which is great for passing on information, but the in-person meetings are still required for any good user group," says Robert Kuhn, manager of IT for digital pathology firm Aperio Technologies Inc. Kuhn is a member of several user groups, including the San Diego chapter of the Storage Networking User Group, the Storage Networking Advisory Association and the San Diego Windows Server 2003 User Group.

Most user group members feel that face-to-face sharing is essential. The Redmond reader survey revealed that nearly 46 percent of respondents joined a user group to get technical advice from their peers. In fact, slightly more than 45 percent feel the role of their user group is to keep its membership up-to-date on technology trends. Nearly 44 percent feel it should have more of a troubleshooting role, helping its members solve IT problems.

"We all benefit from sharing," says David Sanders, president and CEO of Culminis Inc., and the president of the North Carolina IT Professional User Group. "When an IT pro says, 'I'm going to teach you what I know,' they both end up learning more. The person-to-person interface is so valuable."

Professional-level user groups have grown in numbers, strength and activity level. More than 35 percent of Redmond reader survey respondents feel there are more professional user groups active today. More than 20 percent say today's IT professional user groups put more effort into communicating with the membership and sharing technical content. About 13 percent indicate they feel their user group is larger today than in the past, and an 87 percent majority would recommend user group membership to their colleagues.

Uber Group
Most of today's active, professional-level IT user groups work under the Culminis umbrella. As of today, Culminis and all the user groups it represents account for 2.3 million members in 81 countries. In fact, the reorganized BCS, now called Boston User Groups, is a member of Culminis. Culminis' primary charge is to help those interested in starting or maintaining a user group to get what they need.

"We're trying to provide some level of communication and support for people starting user groups," Sanders says. "We're trying to learn and advance their skills and knowledge."


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Culminis provides a list of best practices for managing and running a user group, and tips on how to get it rolling. In some cases, it provides event funding for nascent user groups based on their overall activity and level of engagement. A group has to qualify for membership in Culminis -- they have to have at least 10 members, be non-discriminatory and be committed to actively engaging with Culminis leadership -- but once those requirements are met, Culminis will do what it can to help them fly. It also provides technical support with free Web hosting and backup, and acts as a conduit between the groups and Microsoft by conducting surveys and other methods of sharing feedback.

The group has always had a close working relationship with Microsoft. In fact, the idea for an organization like Culminis was initially fostered within Microsoft nearly 15 years ago. Microsoft was frustrated that some of its messages were lost on the IT community. It knew what it had to say, but not necessarily how to say it. Microsoft brought in Sanders and the leaders of other professional user groups throughout the United States and Canada to help them learn how to better reach that community.

"[Microsoft] couldn't understand why IT pros absolutely detest sales and marketing," Sanders says. "They said, 'When we go into user groups, it's like we're speaking a foreign language. The marketing we do to them often doesn't take.'"

Over the next 12 months, Sanders and his consortium of user group leaders worked with Microsoft to tell them what worked and what didn't when trying to reach the IT professional community. The focus groups of IT professionals were very receptive, and Microsoft was pleased with the response as well. They collectively decided to form an independent, non-profit group, and ultimately Microsoft and the leader consortium selected Sanders to run the show.

He agreed -- on two conditions: "Promise you're going to fund us for five years, and continue if we're doing the job," he says. He also insisted on a cooperative, autonomous relationship with Microsoft: "Work with us as a partner, not as a vendor." Thus was born the group known today as Culminis.


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Technology Overload
The feverish pace at which new technologies are introduced and integrated into the technological landscape helps make professional-level user groups an essential element.

"For the new generation of IT pros coming on, the technology has gone off the scale," Sanders says. "You have every kind of protocol thrown at you, computers are faster and growing exponentially. Tech professionals have a lot more on their plate to deal with."

This incessant technological upheaval naturally leads those who have chosen IT as a profession to seek out the counsel of their peers.

"We're seeing them come to user groups in swarms," Sanders says. "Their future lies in tying to existing IT pros. There's a population desperately searching for connectivity and knowledge and advancement for their own sake and for the sake of the industry."

That knowledge can take many forms and benefit at many levels.

"I train the next generation of IT professionals," says Rebecca Byrd of the Augusta Technical College. She looks to user groups for training tips and techniques.


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It's not just to do their jobs better, either. Finding their next job is that much easier thanks to the networking-that's networking with people, not cables and routers. "The networking opportunities are off the scale," Sanders says. "The way you get jobs is to network with people in the industry." Slightly more than 28 percent of the Redmond reader survey respondents indicated they joined a user group for the networking opportunities.

Many have turned to their user groups for peer-level advice on specific projects.

"I've made contacts for producing reports that other law firm [IT departments] are using," says Sandy Hagman, IT manager with the law firm Kilpatrick Stockton LLP.

Hagman also appreciates having people outside the firm with whom to share ideas.

User groups can also help members resolve ongoing technical issues. "User-group interaction has provided me with a wealth of troubleshooting and product-enhancing details I've applied directly to real-time conditions at work," says Cliff Brown, administrator for Micro Area Networks. "It's a troubleshooting collective, so to speak."


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One Face, Many Eyes
Gone are the days of the myriad special interest groups of the BCS and groups organized by application or platform. While there may be occasional specialization into a heavily used application like SQL Server or a focus area like financial services, today's professional-level user groups are mostly organized by geography.

"It runs the gamut, but over the last five or six years, more groups are going to a generic approach," Sanders says. "They're IT professionals, as opposed to working just on a single product or technology."

Most important to today's user group, though, is the personal, face-to-face contact with others who share the same issues and concerns -- the role of the user group as a massive professional support group. IT professionals come to user groups to learn, to share, to network for other employment opportunities, and some admittedly just for the T-shirt and the food. Passive participants, however, are less prevalent, in Sanders' experience, and can easily be drawn out by a charismatic user group president.


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"It's really kind of funny," Sanders says with a laugh. "Any user group has movers and shakers, soldiers and people who just come for the food. I love all of them, regardless. We've found that the more dynamic the leader, the more engaged and involved the group as a whole will be."

That's not to say that the interactivity of user group members hasn't changed with the Web, blogging and other collaborative technologies.

"Now communication with all members is instantaneous," Sanders says. "You can make serious and collaborative decisions among numerous people."

"By making user groups more readily available [via the Web], just about anyone might feel they can get some input or gain some knowledge from them," says Joe Shedlock, senior LAN administrator for Delmont, Penn.-based Dominion Resource Services.

That accessibility appeals to the many professionals involved with the user group community. "The Web has opened up many more views and solutions to problems from all over the world," says one user group member. "It's not just the local user group. You can get assistance from all over the world."

Sign up Now
User groups, at least at the IT-professional level, still provide a solid sense of community, BCS founder Jonathan Rotenberg argues. If anything, today IT professional user groups are more vibrant and germane than ever before.

"IT pros are intensely curious, intensely suspicious and intensely intelligent," Sanders says. "You can't just say you're going to do something without telling them why. You have to be patient and you have to tell them why, because they will ask."

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