Like many, I have a love/hate relationship with user or IT professional groups. I speak from experience having started two groups myself in Kansas City that still operate today and being an active participant in others. There are many well-run groups in the Kansas City area but most I’m afraid have not done as well. Below are a few of the issues I have observed.
The group leaders are in it for personal reasons.
Okay, we all are to a certain extent but I have seen some painful examples of advertising firms services, pushing personal agendas or dominating the meeting with editorial comments often unrelated to the meeting topic. Great groups have passionate leaders that understand and stick to the group charter. Members/attendees will see through the muck and not return if they feel they’re being sold anything but ideas relating to the meeting topic or the overall focus of the group.
Sponsors and giveaways
It’s fine to let sponsors pay for food or provide giveaways in return for a minute or maybe two in front of the group describing their services but leave it at that. I’ve been at meetings where the sponsors move around the room before and after (sometimes during) a meeting, pumping attendees for information, potential business and contact names. Let the sponsor know their place and their limits.
Topics are presented by the usual suspects
If you see the same old faces presenting, that’s an indication of the leaders wanting to control the meetings, the groups inability or unwillingness to recruit other speakers or attendees not being encouraged to speak. Everyone gets nervous but groups should create an environment allowing first-time or infrequent speakers to present and get experience sharing their ideas
I realize budget and time (it’s a volunteer army) come into play but with minimal effort most groups can find a free venue (party room of a pizza place during a weeknight) where participants at worst pay a few bucks for a meal (they’re going to eat dinner somewhere anyway, right?). Some of the best groups I’ve been involved with get together even without a formal meeting topic to chat about issues and ideas, share war stories and have a meal. Some of the best ideas and contacts I’ve made emerged from these types of meetings.
At their best, user groups can be a great place to learn and meet like-minded people, especially those people you may want to hire, work for or work with. I would maintain that spending any amount of time at a user group meeting, regardless of how poorly it may be run or how dreadful the topic or speaker might be is typically still worth attending to get that one tip or contact that might prove useful in the future. Still, a lot can be done to make groups more effective.