A New Look for the COMMON Session Grid
November 30, 2009 Dan Burger
The session grid at the COMMON Annual Meeting is almost 100 percent filled as the organization’s biggest event of the year takes shape in light of financial belt tightening, a scaled back educational schedule, reduced compensation for volunteers (particularly speakers), and questions about how the user group should be defined. Ever since the convergence of IBM‘s traditional AS/400 and AIX hardware platforms into the Power Systems division, there have been debates about whether COMMON should remain all i.
IBM makes no bones about its indifference to platform specific-ness. Religious wars on IT turf can never be won, Big Blue has concluded. This doesn’t sit well with more than a small number of folks who love the machine that most referred to as the AS/400 even though IBM dropped that name a decade ago. All of this is reflected in the COMMON membership. With the next annual conference coming up in five months, you can expect to see and hear opinions echoing off the walls of the blogosphere, down the halls of local user group meetings (in locales where they still exist), and behind the doors of companies where executives are deciding what to do with their platform-specific investments and employees with skills tied to those investments.
In a letter to COMMON volunteers that was sent November 24 from president Wayne Madden, it was noted the conference will feature more than 300 sessions plus four pre-conference workshops. It is billed as “the largest, most diverse lineup of education available.” As far as I know, it always has been and still is. But it certainly is different from what we’ve been accustomed to.
The session agenda includes 61 sessions never before presented at COMMON. A portion of those are from the “New Technology Overview” course of study that will include sessions on integration (mixing i, AIX, and Linux), encryption, cloud computing, blade computing, Web 2.0, application modernization, Web services, and frameworks.
The 2009 COMMON Annual Meeting and Exposition in Reno featured more than 500 sessions and was one day longer. During the meeting of the members session at the Reno conference, it was announced that COMMON was projected to lose well over half a million dollars in 2009. As COMMON searched for cost-cutting solutions, one tactic that was implemented involved the elimination of several expenses related to speakers and volunteers that contributed in a large degree to the COMMON conference. These expenses included travel costs, room and board, and conference registration. Several notable speakers have opted out of COMMON as a result.
“The compensation issue was simply the catalyst that got us to stop running on autopilot with doing COMMON year after year without ever truly questioning whether it was the best way for us to spend the time and money versus whether it was just easier to keep going than to consider doing something different,” says Susan Gantner, speaking for herself and partner, Jon Paris. The twosome are among the most popular trainers and educators in the IBM i community.
“In the end, when we were forced to consider the additional financial impact, we stepped back and looked at the big picture. What we found was that there are many, many things going on in the i community that we would like to be more involved in. There is a limit to the amount of time, energy, and money that we can expend, and it only makes sense that we try to figure out the ways in which we feel we can have the biggest impact on the community,” Gantner says.
Both Gantner and Paris plan on maintaining their memberships in COMMON and both have volunteer positions with the user group that they will continue.
Joining Gantner and Paris on the sidelines for the COMMON 2010 conference is Paul Tuohy, another popular speaker, who–like Gantner and Paris–normally has taught many classes at COMMON. Each has been repeatedly recognized by COMMON for presenting sessions that receive high praise from conference attendees.
Other subject matter experts who have spoken out about the decision to eliminate compensation for travel and lodging are Aaron Bartell and Scott Klement. Bartell has cut his session presentations from seven to one, so his stay will be shorter and his lodging expenses can be minimized. Klement, in a forum posting on the System iNews Web site, questioned whether COMMON was cheapening its product by trimming costs that could drive away some of its best speakers. His analogy about what his sausage-making family business would and would not do to reduce costs makes the point that costs can be reduced without adversely affecting the product.
Madden says the cost-cutting measures affecting speaker compensation had to be made and the lineup of sessions and speakers is still strong. He pointed out that 94 percent of the speakers that presented at the COMMON conference in 2009 will return in 2010.
On the topic of session selection, Madden says he has confidence that the education team at COMMON–consisting of subject matter experts–has done its job well and serves the wishes of the user group.
Session selection, Madden says, is based on factors such as session ratings provided by attendees and session attendance at past conferences. The education committee also factors in topic areas team members think are important now and in the future. This year, for instance, it was decided to expand in areas considered to be future directions. Other areas had a reduction in the number of sessions “because less people care about them,” Madden said.
For the record, one-third of this team is represented by IBMers and little less than half the sessions are presented by IBMers.
“We do a lot of surveys to ask people what they want,” Madden says. “COMMON develops a strategic plan and part of that is where we want to be as a user organization. And we have stated very plainly that we are becoming a Power Systems user organization, because i runs on Power Systems. We are going to support Power Systems i and look more at AIX and Linux and other things because our users are saying to us ‘We run all those things in our shops.’ They are giving us that input and we are trying to follow their lead. I don’t recall on any of our surveys that people are saying, ‘You don’t offer enough of what I’m wanting to learn.'”
Randall Munson is a professional speaker who has been doing sessions at COMMON for many years. His presentations on personal development have been very popular and usually require multiple sessions to accommodate all who wish to attend. It’s his opinion that COMMON is not treating its members fairly by reducing the number of popular sessions like his and that by diminishing the compensation to speakers who have presented numerous sessions based on their popularity.
“I understand the need to weather the storm of the current economy,” Munson said. “But I am concerned about COMMON’s long-term viability. If they cut back too much, will they be able to retain the critical mass needed to bring people to the conferences? COMMON has changed its focus over the years from being a user group to an education provider. In the process of looking at themselves as an education provider, they have put themselves in competition with other education providers rather than maintaining the unique position of being a large user group. COMMON is not being responsive to the members. It is forcing educational directions based on what COMMON decides what they ought to be doing. That’s not being accountable to the users. The attitude is ‘We know what is best for the users.’ They don’t know what is best for themselves.”
Munson is making presentations at COMMON in 2010, but he is not happy with the reduced compensation for speakers who are most popular and who accommodate the demand with a lot of sessions.
“I think [the reduced compensation] is unwise,” he said. “It is hurting the product that is the draw for the conferences. If they damage the product, or don’t provide as good of product, that is going to make people unwilling to come to the conference.”
Bob Cozzi is another high profile speaker with a long history at COMMON. Like Gantner, Paris, Tuohy, Bartell, Klement, and Munson, he earns money as a professional speaker and volunteers a great deal of time to COMMON.
“I think that COMMON should consider paying professional speakers, perhaps three or four pro speakers per event, but no more,” Cozzi said. He suggests this is easily possible by moving money out of the opening session budget and redirecting it to these “high-end, perhaps high-draw speakers.”
At the same time, Cozzi is not in favor of a broad program of speaker reimbursement in an organization that depends heavily on volunteers. He calls volunteer compensation an oxymoron.
“I said this nearly two decades ago when COMMON was trying to originally institute the volunteer compensation program. But at that time, COMMON had millions of dollars in reserves. So some volunteers thought that money should be given to those who contributed to the organization the most. Today, the volunteer speakers (not so much the other volunteers) seem to think this is some kind of entitlement program. A volunteer organization can’t survive with uncontrolled volunteer compensation.”
Any organization that depends on volunteers for its existence will have its ups and downs based on who enters and who leaves. Sometimes the flame gets brighter and sometimes it dims. The last thing anyone wants is for the fire to go out.
“COMMON loses and gains volunteers and speakers every year,” notes Trevor Perry in his Angus blog. Perry, an IBM i application modernization evangelist and strategist, believes the reduced size of the IBM i industry lessens the number of available volunteers, and that Web 2.0 and social networking contributes to reduced attendance at face-to-face conferences.
“There will be volunteers to step into the shoes of exiting speakers,” Perry says. “Certainly the education will be different upon removal of some of the leading educators in the field, but remember: This is a user group. It was designed to provide an exchange of information among user group members. Undoubtedly, COMMON will continue to provide that experience for some time.”