Aug 7th 2008
The first accounting system I had to supervise was an IBM product called MAPICS. I was an inexperienced newbie and knew nothing, so I joined a user group. Every couple of months we would meet at someone's office and someone would bring donuts. We would talk about our experiences with the product and try to answer people's questions. I got some excellent advice about how to handle program patches from IBM as well as where to go for programming assistance. Joining the user group was the best $25 I ever spent.
If there is one piece of advice that I can offer to everyone, regardless of the size of your company, your industry or the type of software you use, it's to join a user group. There is no better source of unbiased, practical information than other users of the same software. If there is a feature you would like to see added, getting a group of users together to request the change is the best way to get a developer's attention. If you are looking for trained staff, another user may be able to point you in the right direction. If you want to change your consultant, what better way than to ask for references from other users?
Many user groups are organized by software implementation consulting firms. I have heard these groups dismissed as being no more than upselling by the consultant. Of course consulting firms are interested in selling more software and services, but the ones I know go to great lengths to put useful content into the sessions. They know that providing practical, useful information is the only way they will get users to come back the next time.
Traditionally, however, user groups are started, organized and run by users. Vendors are often invited to make presentations, but user meetings are not about sales. When my Microsoft rep suggested I start a Dynamics NAV (Navision) user group in my area, my first thought was about all the administration of running the group. Then he told me about Dynamic Communities. They take all of the work out of running a user group, so you can concentrate on the meeting content.
All Dynamic Communities does is manage user groups, whether for Dynamics AX (Axapta), GP (Great Plains), NAV (Navision) or CRM. They just need one local person to lead and they will set up a local chapter. They will even give you a list of their members in your area. If you work through your local Microsoft rep, you can get help finding other users. Microsoft will also provide speakers if you give them enough notice. There is a sliding membership fee depending on the size of your business.
The typical local chapter has 10 - 15 members at any given meeting, with larger chapters averaging 30 - 35 members. The typical meeting goes from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm, with a networking lunch. The morning session is usually a formal presentation, with break out sessions after lunch. I asked about the split between technical and accounting members and Bonnie, the Member Services Manager, noted that chapters started by IT Managers tended to have more technical members, where chapters started by accountants had more user members. You need both.
One of the problems with user groups is their small size. A huge advantage of a centralized organization is that it's possible to put on a conference. Dynamics Communities is hosting a 2 day conference (The link is to the NAV conference. The others have similar pages.) in Las Vegas for $499 per person, with optional additional training either before or after the main conference. When you add that to the user forums available at mibuso and Dynamics' webinars, we've come a long way from a box of donuts after work!