Evolution critical to user group survival

Once-mighty user groups now struggle for relevancy and need to be prepared to change their agenda or risk dying out, according to group leaders.

Ironically, the Internet, the powerhouse of the Information Age, is a sizable factor in the decline of user group membership, because IT users are now self-sufficient and Web-savvy. The number and size of mergers has also played a role.

Michael Klein, chairman of HP's user group Encompass, says user groups face a struggle for survival.

"No longer is one vendor a single source of IT as customers buy from multiple vendors," Klein said. "That's not to say that vendor user groups, even Tandem users, aren't flourishing."

DEC user group, DECUS, once peaked at more than 4000 members. Now called Encompass, five years later it has dwindled to 1000.

"It was a naive view that acquisitions were good, but in reality they have been neutral," Klein said. "We get the sense that HP's market push is in other areas."

Klein said another cause of decline is the proportional rise of time-poor contract workers unable to attend meetings and conferences.

"In the past, employers were happy to pay for employees to attend user group events. User groups are still a good, informal way of building industry contacts of all skill levels and to meet technical people from vendors in a non-sales environment."

Although user groups face huge challenges, options remain to diversify into areas like benefits to contractors or even legal affairs, Klein said.

Australian Unix Users Group (AUUG) president David Purdue agrees the Internet and changing work patterns are the cause of declining interest. But by shifting focus, user groups can turn the tide.

"We've changed and better defined our focus by holding specialized conferences in addition to the annual conference," Purdue said.

"We are also sending out quarterly software packages and publishing our journal in PDF format for easy distribution."

Purdue said membership drives have seen limited success, but partnering with newer user groups like Linux Australia has proved beneficial.

Nearly 30 years wise, AUUG peaked at 800 members falling to 400 today. However, numbers are now improving.

"Unix is part of AUUG's DNA, but we have shifted our focus to standards-based computing," he said. "You have to adapt your focus and make sure you stay relevant."

Java user's group (AJUG) president David Bullock believes in promoting the value of face-to-face networking.

"The mailing list is generally reserved for wisdom questions on how to approach a problem," Bullock said. "Local programmers don't network well, so AJUG is looking at a business directory [to promote the] skills of different Java shops."

Bullock said AJUG draws 15 to 20 people to meetings over five states every month - and feels the group's relevance is now on the up.

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