Endangered Local User Groups Need IBM
February 1, 2010 Dan Burger
Local user groups dedicated to the IBM i and Power Systems could use a stimulus program. But please don’t ask the government for money. Big Blue, this is on you.
This little rant was stimulated by the emaciation of local user groups in Florida. Both the Central Florida Midrange User Group (CFMUG) based in Orlando and the Data Exchange Bay Area User’s Group (DEBUG) based in Tampa/St. Petersburg have scaled back to only two or three meetings per year and are hanging by a thread. Jacksonville, which once was home to the Jax iSeries User Group, is no longer on the local user group map. The Miami area is not represented, either.
The days of local user groups thriving have past. Even the biggest and strongest are not what they used to be, but engaging the customer base still seems like a good idea. How about a little customer relationship management here, IBM? And how about the reseller channel? They should have a stake in this as well.
Declining attendance and difficulty bringing in speakers have formed a vicious cycle.
One thing IBM could do is help out by organizing road shows that facilitate the gatherings. A few years ago, the Power Equation Road Show used local user group meetings to get out the word of the System i and System p convergence. From the standpoint of most local user groups, attendance jumped when this dog and pony show came to their towns. If IBM believed it got its money’s worth out of the effort, it has not resulted in more road shows, at least not of this magnitude.
Some local user groups have attempted, without success, to broaden their appeal by combining i/OS with AIX and Linux topics, but the AIX community was never as strong as the AS/400 enthusiasts and those efforts have not been the needed salve. Even though there has been an effort to beef up the AIX content at the COMMON Annual Meeting and Exposition, the goal of creating a user group that is focused on Power Systems rather than the i/OS platform is a long way from being reached.
And, by the way, this is not a conundrum unique to the i/OS and AIX platforms. User group meetings for the purpose of exchanging technical information are just not what they used to be.
Frequency is an issue. Fewer meetings based around topic-specific seminars is one way to improve attendance and provide benefits that are worthy of membership. But reducing the number of meetings while not improving the quality of meetings will not revive attendance. Quality speakers are difficult to get when little or no reimbursement is offered. Even the one- and two-day annual tech conferences organized by the largest user groups are showing attendance declines. And the speakers at those conferences are usually very good.
Much of the blame for those tech conferences not doing better can be placed on companies that once supported the platform moving to a different platform, companies that have left town and maybe left the country, and remaining companies that no longer support education and training for their IT staffs.
The Four Hundred Monitor events calendar is a good barometer of these changes. As the number of local user group meetings dwindles, the number of Webinars, Webcasts, and other online sessions involving education, training, and product demonstrations has continually expanded. A great many of these are archived, which makes it more convenient to gather information compared to devoting an afternoon or evening to a user group meeting.
But it is not as simple as saying the Web has taken over the purpose that local user groups once filled. COMMON Directions, a virtual conference scheduled for January 21, was canceled due to a lack of registrations. That could relate to the difference between a free Webinar and a fee-supported conference.
In early May, COMMON will host its annual meeting in Orlando. IBM will be a big part of that, as it has been for many years. As of last week, there was no indication that the local user group, CFMUG, will have a presence. It would be unusual if the hometown user group is missing at a COMMON event. It would also be a pretty good indication that more local user groups will be disappearing.
When the grass roots die, IBM, the grass will not survive.