The Value (Or Lack Thereof?) Of User Groups

For the past 25 years I’ve played an active role in a variety of information-technology user groups. Back in the 1980s, we called these special interest groups (SIGs). I started off with several Delphi groups and then, as my interests evolved, moved on to Paradox. After that I participated in enterprise groups centered on IBM products and open-source technologies.
Then something happened – The Internet.
When I first went online in the late 1980s with Compuserve, it wasn’t easy. I predate AOL, and though I never did find much use for it, I don’t judge those that did (or still do). I ran a few SIGs on Compuserve, or CIS, as we called it (Compuserve Information Service).
Then, as more and more people and companies moved online, a trend started to develop – fewer and fewer users attended SIGs in person. I moderate groups in the US and Canada covering mostly, but not exclusively, IBM products. I also assist IBM in building up its user-group participation. In addition, I attend SalesForce user-group meetings, since I’m both a user and my firm also does some SFC consulting and integration work.
Across the board, there has been a marked decline in user-group attendance for cities both big and small. I notice the difference when I attend and run groups in larger metrocenters like New York City, Toronto and Chicago, along with smaller cities like Buffalo, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. This summer, I hope to attend some in Europe and be able to glean some insight there.
The attendance decline brings about many challenges. I’m involved with one group that struggles each year to spend (that’s right – spend) the money accumulated through corporate membership fees. Another nagging concern is getting users to present at these meetings. The issue isn’t with the speakers, but rather with their employers’ legal teams. Many times legal restrains employees from presenting, which is a real problem when it comes down to the value of these sessions. There’s no shortage of vendors and manufacturers (of hardware and systems) who like to speak at user groups. That means these meetings can end up turning into sales pitches and commercials for software and systems. That defeats the whole point.
There’s no measure to the value of engaging with peers who face the same daily industry and workplace issues. Not only have I made priceless professional connections, but I’ve also formed lifelong friendships because of these groups. I’m never at a loss for a peer to bounce ideas off, ask  a quick question to or explore an innovative deployment tactic. The purpose of user groups is to share experiences, successes and pains. We can speak candidly on challenges we’ve faced and how we’ve resolved them. And yes, occasionally vendors step in to discuss coming releases, new features and use cases for their implementation.
Of course, user groups aren’t limited to just IT. As a weekend-warrior fitness junkie, I’m also involved in several running and triathlon clubs. As a result, I’m never at a loss for friends to join me on a long run in the evening or a lunchtime run during a sunny workday. Every group I participate in makes me better, stronger and more effective at whatever I’m focused on, be it professional or personal.
We are a tactile species. In our digital world, we forget the power of meeting people face-to-face. True, we can accomplish great feats behind our screens and phones, but forming trusting, long-term friendships usually isn’t one of them.