How do YOU want to be supported?

Over the past six years I have had the honour of leading and participating in two major Canadian IT Pro user groups; I have spoken at scores of user groups across the country and around the world, and have been in touch with so many of the user group leaders from around the world, both as a speaker, and MVP, and a council member. I have heard a lot of the same complaints about the difficulties involved with running a group that I have experienced myself.

We have tried to come up with the right equation that makes things work. So let's start with a simple equation, changing the numbers because a) I do not know what the actual numbers are, and b) the math is much simpler. You are Microsoft. You have $10,000, and ten user groups that need to be supported. Of those ten groups two have the ability to raise money through alternate sponsorship and the remainder to not, but that does not mean that those groups are any less passionate… they just do not have the same advantages. You know that the IT community is important across the country you have to figure out how to best use your money to maximize the benefit across the country. How would you do it? Remember that your $10,000 is not only money that you can give them; any prizes or other benefits that you dole out must be paid for out of your budget as well.

This morning I had this conversation with someone of influence and it is not a simple exercise… it is a real issue that Microsoft Canada needs to deal with. We came up with what I thought was an interesting idea. Please let me know in the Comments field below what you think, and how you would do it.

One of the greatest requests I have heard as a community leader is the need for training. In Montreal we started a study group a few years ago that helped more than twenty members achieve their first certifications, but also gave them their first exposure to certification training, as well as a better understanding of the value that certifications hold – not to mention the value the knowledge they gained has!

If a user group decided tomorrow to hold a study group for fifteen members on Windows Server 2008 and decided to fund it out of pocket the cost would be prohibitive. The Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC) courseware that are used in Instructor-Led Training (ILT) is closer to $400 per course. However the cost of taking one of those courses with a Certified Partner for Learning Solutions (CPLS) is between $1,200 and $1,500 per week. Of course we could use non-MOC courses or books… the MS Press books for Server 2008 cost between $60 and $80 per book. Either way, the cost is extreme.

Of course those prices are what you and I would pay as individuals… but for the sake of this exercise we are Microsoft Canada… and our internal costs are a fraction of what an individual would pay… although they are still real and need to be counted in our budget. 

Now let’s switch back for a moment to being a community member, thirsty for learning but unable (or unwilling) to pay the thousands of dollars required to take a five-day ILT, not to mention the week I have to take off of work.  If my local user group were to offer the same training, but in evening sessions over the course of three weeks rather than all day over a week, would I be willing to participate?  And if so what would be the value to me, or more accurately, how much would I be willing to spend on it?  If it were offered for $150 would I even hesitate?  Probably not.

So let’s put our Microsoft hat back on for a minute; I know that I can buy ten training kits for a user group for $500.  The group can then get ten members into a study group who are each willing to spend $150 for the three weeks of evening sessions.  My $500 sponsorship of the group has now netted them ten certification kits, a full-blown study group in a box, PLUS $1500 cash!  Not bad for a day’s work!

Let’s assume our last role for this discussion; the community leader.  I am a community leader because I believe in the cause, but probably because I want to see what I can get from it as well; I want to help the community and one of the ways that I can do that is by helping them to become certified in the latest and greatest technology.  However without the sponsorship money I can’t do much.  Last year Microsoft gave me $1,000 so I was able to hold a few meetings, serve pizza, and so on; I couldn’t do much more because everything costs money.  This year Microsoft is giving me the option of sponsoring the group for $500 (times are tough all around!), or giving me ten study group kits.  I can get the study group together and charge each member $150, and rather than have half as many presentations as last year I can have twice as many, PLUS the study group!  I could go one step further… if more than ten people are interested I can invite twenty members, and charge a lower fee to the members who will not have the material… this can be a real boon for my group!

Another benefit that I see as a user group leader is the ability to tailor the sessions to my group.  I might have a couple of great MCTs who are willing to contribute their time, but how about if we were to make this more of an interactive study group instead of an ILT… we could assign modules to individuals who would have to learn them well enough ahead of time to present them to the group… each module would belong to a different member, and my MCTs could sit back and help them along, rather than present the whole module.  Not only would individual members get to know their chapters better, but after ten modules I would have ten members who now have experience presenting in front of an audience; so when Member A becomes involved in a project on Technology Q he can send me an e-mail and say ‘Hey Lead, I would like to do a presentation on this really cool technology that I have gotten into!’  Ten new potential speakers for the group, rather than always having to rely on the same folks, or the guys from Microsoft.

Change hats once more, back to the user group member: Now I am thinking that being a member of a user group really does have value beyond just going to presentations… which, let’s face it, we can go to even if we are not members most of the time.  Being a member of a user group can give me so much more… depending on what I am willing to put into it!

Back to the Microsoft Hat: So for seven of my groups this model works great… I have invested $3,500 for them and they have collectively raised $14,000… all the while delivering more value and benefits to their users, possibly building the next generation of UG leaders for when my current leads are ready to step aside, and have helped at least seventy people to earn current certifications on the technologies that are important to them.  I still have $6,500 left in my budget… I can use some of that for the groups that cannot get a study group to work, but can also use it as a travel budget to be able to send my IT Evangelists out to more cities and to do more presentations for all of the groups.  I can put some of the money towards better prizes for the UG events.  I could even add extra cities to the TechDays Canada tour if I wanted to, thus allowing me to broaden our reach… and hopefully proving to Corp that the UG community is one of the best ways to really support communities across the country!

So let’s take off all of our hats now… I am me, and you are you.  Hopefully you are a member of your local user group, and have enjoyed the benefits from it.  Do you think that this model would work?  Would you be willing to pay a nominal fee to join a study group in your area if the technology was relevant to you? 

What would you do to improve upon this idea?  What ideas would you have?  In short, how would you, as a community member, want Microsoft to support the community in a time where budgets are down and expectations (and breadth) are increasing?  Please let me know in the Comments space below, and I promise you that your ideas will be heard.

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