The Power of User Groups

Posted by Matt Berringer on May 24, 2011

By Dr. Ramiro Zuniga

User groups have been around for many years however, attitudes toward user groups vary. I have heard some people tell me that user groups are a waste of time and money. I however, argue that these individuals were not actively involved in the purpose of a particular user group and therefore not reaping the benefits. I absolutely believe in the power of user groups. This is of course assuming that each member commits to the purpose of the group. The general goal for any user group is to bring together users of a particular software system for the benefit of all. Specific objectives can vary from resolving software glitches to training issues. There really is no limit to the different objectives that any user group can meet.

What I have seen over the years at various user group gatherings is that too few members are actively involved in the mission of the user group. Most of the user group members are passively involved. Rarely do the majority of members jump at the chance to head a committee or to even facilitate a round table discussion. To me, this is a grand opportunity lost.

I have, for many years, encouraged colleagues to become actively involved in user groups. For me, the reason for becoming actively involved is so obvious. I generally frame this reason in the form of a question to my colleagues, “How can you criticize the design of your software when you don’t get involved in the design?” This question generally leads to a discussion about the value of becoming an active user group member. In these discussions, I usually cover a few important points:

  • If you speak up, the designers of the software might consider your suggestions when designing programs.
  • If several of you speak up, it’s more likely to impact the design of the software.
  • Isn’t your responsibility as an employee of your school district to get actively involved?
  • You don’t have to be an expert in software design to contribute; you just have to know what you want your software to do.

In April, I attended the Texas SunGard User Network (TSUN) Conference. I have a strong connection with TSUN, as I was one of the founding members about 19 years ago. The purpose of this conference is to bring together personnel from many Texas public school districts that use SunGard software to network and exchange ideas.

Now, the rarity of this user group conference is that the President of the company, Frank Lavelle, put himself in front of “his” users. There was no script and nothing was off limits. In my experience, this type of opportunity is truly worth its weight in gold for users. I can count on one hand the times when a President of a company has put himself or herself in this vulnerable position. In fact, I remember one gentleman at a Food Service conference that I attended a few years back that did just the opposite.

I was presenting a purchase order program that I had developed for the school district that I worked for during that time. A neighboring district was presenting a similar product. In any case, the gentleman, the President of the company, made it a point to make his presence known. He introduced himself and stated that he would be in the audience should his assistance was needed. Unfortunately for my colleagues, their software crashed. I looked through the audience only to find that the President has slipped out during the first few minutes of the presenter trying to recover.

So, for those of you that are administrators in a school system. I ask each of you to encourage your staff and colleagues to become active members of user groups that you may be members of. I also ask each of you that are part of a user group already to do the same.

After all, you owe it to your district to take advantage of the opportunities offered by user groups.