Starting a user group (Lessons learnt)

The following post was written by Chandima Kulathilake who was one of the founders and is a leader of the Wellington Sharepoint User Group.

Starting a user group (Lessons learnt)

Darryl from MSFT NZ sent a few of the New Zealand User Group leads an email the other day asking if we could come up with a guest blog entry on how we went about launching our SharePoint user group. I was delighted because I had wanted to do a post and which I had constantly put in the to-do list most of the time. So now I had an ultimatum to deliver this post which you are reading.

So how do you go about starting a user group?

Well first of all you need a topic or a subject or a common interest (typically Technology related) that you and a few people you know think is interested in. Because you are starting a “user” group after all and you need users to attend. Starting a user group and having you and your mate at each meeting would probably not be ideal. 🙂

This means that your topic of interest will have to be something of interest to a range of people who have similar interests. And you yourself as the user group leader (yes don’t kid yourself you are finally a leader) has a real passion and have a deep and meaningful connection to. (Ok I sound a bit wacky right about now but bear with me) What I mean is just don’t start something if you were told by some one that you should. Think about what you are getting into. You will have to be spending extra time organising your local events and even regional events later on when things get really humming. This means that you will need support from your work place and other community leads as well as family. Also you should have an active interest in the topic of the user group you are starting. Engage in early conversations and if you can attend a few other local user group meetings yourself. Then you will need to follow through your plan of action.

Formulating an “Action Plan”

My idea to start the SharePoint user group came about in early 2006. I had been working on many SharePoint projects and having spoken to various people in the SharePoint space I saw that there will be a benefit in starting a user group. So I started talking to a few people whom I knew had similar interests.

Contacting the right people

This is where you need to contact people of similar interest. First of all when I started talking about starting the user group I drew up a plan. And in the plan I had a list of technology companies that I wanted to contact. Ideally you should have an individual’s name from the company who you can contact. Because every leader has to have a side kick (that’s the fun part of being a leader or co-leader you get to delegate) J. So I contacted my buddy JD (John-Daniel) who worked at Intergen at that time. JD introduced me to OJ (Mark Orange). Mark like me has been a SharePoint specialist for a long while and we met over a coffee and came up with a plan to start the user group. If you have another person to share the work load things are way easier to manage. Between the two of us we are able to send the emails out and organise our events as a team. Then we asked Microsoft about what type of support we would get. Typically it’s like having a venue and drinks and pizza for the meetings. (More on this later). Ryan Duguid from MSFT facilitated our conversation with Microsoft Office Product Managers and provided the first A-List speaker from Microsoft Corp (Mike Fitz). We had our first official launch at TechEd 2006. Ryan presented at our inaugural user group event in Wellington on October 2006 and a few subsequent user group events.

Now a year down the track we have SharePoint user groups in 3 geographic locations Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland.

Creating a charter and a vision

The charter is an important thing. This does not have to be a 100 page document. A two pager with your objectives and why you are starting the group should suffice. Ours is available on our home page.  Feel free to take it but make sure you state where you got it from. That’s just what communities do share and acknowledge each other’s efforts.

The charter can also be extended to provide an indication of the events planned for the year or 6 months ahead. We typically plan out for 3 months and try to keep the topics fresh. For example since SharePoint technologies are now getting a lot of press lot of business users are interested in the capabilities. Ideally if possible try and cater for a mixture of development related content and business content should give your user group members a lot of value. Having a charter also give the group a focus and can help when you seek sponsorships.

Finding a venue

Ideally you should have a regular venue and a time. But since our user group wanted to provide the opportunity for others to share their experience we decided to host it within Wellington CBD in any available venue. The venues were allocated by who had a presentation topic and a presenter available. This also provided diversity in terms of providing opportunities to others to come forward and present. In my experience getting people involved from similar interests helps a lot in getting a venue. Since the start of our user group September 2006 we have had monthly meetings in various venues. For a list of the topics and where we held our events go to our previous session’s page on the Wellington SharePoint user group site.

Speakers and Topics

This can sometimes be tricky. Try to get participation from your own group members. If you have a web site get feedback on what types of sessions they would like to see. And try and get real world working examples or case studies to be showcased. Sometimes it’s not just about technology but how a certain real world problem was solved using a particular technology.

Secure your speakers in advance. Microsoft can help here by providing a list of available technology specialists. But in most cases members feel that members and attendees want to hear examples from actual users and developers. Try to keep a level of independence in your topics and speakers. (Don’t depend on Microsoft to provide everything.)

It’s all about networking and having fun

Provide a neutral ground for discussions and raising questions. Allow your members to actively contribute and participate.

Depending on the time you plan to have your events you will need to provide user group members time to network. This is where the pizza and drinks come in. We allow at least 20 minutes break when having a meeting. If possible break up and go to the local pub for more networking J. In terms of getting funding for the pizza and drinks try and get sponsorships. There are a lot of local technology companies that can afford the occasional pizza and drinks bill. We have a “flexi rule” that if we use a venue and a presenter then they host us the drinks and pizza. The .Net User Group has a support program in place that Microsoft user groups can leverage if they are happy to comply with its rules, so definitely investigate this option

Finally have fun! Don’t get too serious usually people come to these events after work and don’t want to have rigorous rules and process applied. Hope this has inspired you to start the next user group in your area! J Trust me it’s a great feeling when you have a room full of people that are keen to hear about a new technology or topic so keep them coming back for more by providing interesting topics!

Comments (1)
  1. Terry Donovan says:

    Hi Darryl,

    FYI, I’ve just read Greg Low’s (RD in Australia) new book called "Building Technical User Communities" and it was great. Worth taking a look at for community leaders (or prospective ones).


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