by Brian Langerman
In this FORUM article, Brian Langerman takes an in-depth look into the evolution, functionality and purpose of technology user groups. Read More
What do you call a consortium of industry professionals and thought leaders who collaborate at events, seek answers, embrace education and harness valuable relationships—all in an effort to not only shape their businesses and industry, but also evolve and improve them? If you answered “an association,” you’re right. However, there is another, lesser-known model of professional aggregation that uses the same structure: the technology user group.
In 1955, just two years after the release of IBM’s first computer, a handful of the earliest information technology professionals collaborated to form SHARE, the world’s first organization of computing professionals. Nearly 60 years later, user groups continue to serve as a critical component of the ever-expanding technology industry. Much like associations, they operate as volunteer-driven nonprofits that bring together individuals who associate with a specific field.
The main difference between a user group and an association is that for a user group that field is generally affiliated with a company that is a developer or Original Equipment Manufacturer (a company that purchases a product and incorporates or re-brands it under its own name and branding), and the user group cultivates a relationship with that entity. For example, SHARE maintains close partnerships with IBM, its subsidiaries and third-party vendors. The degree of the relationship with the developer or OEM varies among user groups, but can range from a very strategically aligned and integrated partnership to one with only passive and occasional contact. For SHARE, the organization has maintained an active relationship with IBM, negotiating and executing a strategic partnership agreement each year.
In addition to serving a particular developer or OEM, a user group also directly serves the users (customers) of the developer or OEM by increasing their technological understanding and expertise, as well as contributing to their professional development and success. In addition, the user group provides exclusive information and insight that can’t be found anywhere else. Similar to how an association functions, it is because of these benefits that users will join the group. In SHARE’s case, these users are IBM’s top enterprise computing customers.
To put it simply, most user groups operate in a three-tiered ecosystem that includes:
At its best, this model delivers constructive and purposeful relationships between and among all three players and remains symbiotic in nature.
Like members in associations, users expect great value from their user group. Specifically, they want an influential group that provides access to educational opportunities, product knowledge and training, a network of experts and professionals, and quick, seamless answers to their questions. Unique to the three-tiered ecosystem, users also want an organization that remains independent so that their needs are not superseded by the needs of the developer or the OEM. If the user group remains objective, it can serve as the trusted, credible voice of its industry and, in turn, provide value to the user.
For a developer or OEM, there is a strong advantage to aligning with a user group, as it can function as a direct, two-way communication channel with its customer base. When handled correctly, a developer or OEM can leverage the information and input derived from a user group to help tailor and enhance its products, services, other offerings and overall business, which in the end generates positive results for the individual user and generates greater customer satisfaction. This can be accomplished when the developer or OEM: 1) views users as collaborators who provide critical case history and sales-building information, and 2) sees the user groups as a centralized market to gather data, behaviors and spending patterns.
As a whole, user groups deliver what can’t be bought—an opportunity for users to collaborate with their peers and have their voices heard by the developer or OEM, and an opportunity for the developer or OEM to interact directly with its customers and gain their trust. By providing innumerable benefits to both the developer or OEM and the user, a user group is able to foster trust and, in turn, encourage the knowledge, voices and interactivity needed to bring the organization to life, which amplifies the user group’s benefits to all stakeholders. By serving as a trusted liaison, sounding board and knowledge-sharing entity, a user group can realize a successful, balanced relationship with both users and the developer or OEM.
InSight in many ways exemplifies the differences and similarities between user groups and associations. Founded in 1998, InSight is the largest independent user community for McKesson Technology Solutions, which delivers enterprise-wide clinical, patient care, financial, supply chain, strategic management and software solutions. InSight’s membership base includes 9,500 front-line users, IT and department managers, and IT health care executives—individuals who rely on McKesson’s products and offerings. InSight offers three levels of membership for users:
Among its many offerings, InSight provides users with access to educational opportunities, networking, career assistance, independent viewpoints and an information exchange forum for sharing best practices, tips and tricks, etc. By hosting an annual national conference, InSight also offers users the opportunity to attend an annual face-to-face event where they can collaborate, discuss critical issues and learn how forward- thinking peers employ McKesson solutions to transform their organizations.
To keep users active and satisfied outside of its annual event, InSight has added regional events that nurture an intimate sense of community. These smaller gatherings work in tandem with the annual conference and allow for in-depth discussions regarding product updates, mandates, regulations, etc. Similar to the successful initiatives of associations, InSight also works to engage users by offering online forums where they can connect on a daily, year-round basis. Its website and social media channels serve as go-to platforms for discussion, product knowledge and training, offering value to users whenever they want and wherever they might be.
Thanks to these offerings and its expansive membership, which has grown from just 2,800 users to 9,500 in 30 months—an almost 340 percent jump—InSight is able to foster a partnership with McKesson and ensure users’ needs and concerns are communicated and addressed. This relationship has had positive results for McKesson, as well, as users who join InSight are more satisfied with the company than those who are not affiliated with the organization, and they are buying more McKesson products than ever before. These users also are more willing to try new products and services, making the introduction of new product lines easier and more effective for McKesson. And the direct channel to customers provided by InSight has made feedback much franker and quicker to obtain. As a result, InSight serves as a remarkable example of how a three-tiered user group relationship can achieve success for both the user and the developer or OEM.
While their operating models differ in many ways, user groups and associations are alike in that they are mission-oriented, nurture trustworthiness and ultimately seek transformative success within their fields. They also face similar challenges, such as remaining relevant, and have both found that they can create continuous engagement by meeting stakeholder needs through education, face-to-face events, virtual communities and networking opportunities.
So what’s next for user groups? During the past 20 years, due to the proliferation of technology such as mobile devices and cloud computing, the number of user groups entering the market has substantially increased, with more and more developers or OEMs realizing the value of interacting with customers in this way. Thanks to the association model, the technology sector has the foundation it needs to adapt and evolve amid tremendous growth and continue meeting the needs of developers or OEMs and their users.
This article was originally published by Association Forum of Chicagoland. http://www.associationforum-digital.com/associationforum/april_2015?pg=12#pg12