Colin Spofford on Revitalizing User Groups

UK User Groups

Paul Tuohy: Hi everybody and welcome to another iTalk with Tuohy. I'm delighted to be joined today by a gentleman who I've had the pleasure of working with over the last four or five years I think now―or coming close to that, anyway―so hello, Colin Spofford.

Colin Spofford: Hi Paul, how are you today? Good to hear from you again.

Paul: I'm doing very well, Colin. So for those of you―now I know and Colin won't mind me saying this, but I think the bulk of people out there will have no idea who Colin is, because Colin is one of these unsung heroes of user groups. So Colin, you are the secretary and treasurer of i-UG, the IBM i user group in the U.K., correct?

Colin: That's correct Paul. Yes, I've been in that role for about well since 2010 now.

Paul: Okay. And you’re also the representative of i-UG with COMMON Europe.

Colin: Yes, again i-UG has had a representative at COMMON Europe, I guess since 2010. I took on the role of the representative on the board since that time, yeah.

Paul: Yeah, okay. So I'm actually going to come back and talk to you about COMMON Europe in just a few minutes. So the reason I say Colin is one of the unsung heroes that’s out there is that―and I know this from having dealt with many user groups around the world―is that there is always this one person there who’s the person who does all of the practical work like organizes the hotel, organizes hotel rooms for people when it is at a conference, makes deals with hotel, make sure everything runs perfectly, gets all the advertising out to people, makes sure the website is updated. Most people who attend all the conferences and the meetings and everything sort of just vaguely know that there's this guy who walks around the scene in the background every now and again. So listen Colin, before we start, can you maybe give us a little bit of the history of i-UG, the U.K. user group?

Colin: Yes, certainly. Well we've been going really in the present form for about 24 years. We were originally known as the Northern AS/400 User Group when the old name was still in use. We were based in the north of England. Our membership has traditionally been around sort of the northern Apennines type organizations. All of our members are all related to the IBM midrange server. Then later on when IBM changed the name of the server to the iSeries, we changed the group to Nis-UG―unimaginatively, I suppose. [Laughs] Again, as I said a bit earlier in 2010, we became affiliated with COMMON Europe and that really coincided with us working to make the organization a national organization, moving away from our traditional hunting ground of the north of England. So we really changed the name to the National i Systems User Group. Again, we could still use the acronym Nis-UG―also so that worked out quite good. So we were from that point in time a national organization. That had quite the effect in terms that we could then actually target the whole of the U.K. In 2014, just a few years ago, we combined forces with an organization which was based in the south of England a lot of people may remember as the Computer User's Association, and so we merged the two organizations together. So truly, we became really the national organization representing users out there of the IBM i. We are following on from there, really. We do tend to try and set the events that we have each year across the country so that we try to get as many people to the events from different geographical locations as possible.

Paul: Yeah, so I mean the thing I find fascinating, Colin, and a lot of people will be aware of this is that around most of the world, IBM i user groups in a lot of areas are in decline. But I think you’re one of the user groups that is expanding. I know every time and I'm very fortunate every year that you guys ask me at some stage to come over and speak for you. I'm always noticing there are more people there―and if not more people, at least new faces there as opposed to all the same old faces every time.

Colin: Yes.

Paul: So how are you guys going about that?

Colin: Well, that's a very good question, Paul, and you are right. We had the same problem ourselves a few years ago, probably maybe about ten years ago we looked thin because our audiences were declining as well. Really, that’s when we realized we had to become a national organization. So we build up a database―so we market on a regular basis and we've also encompass social media a lot and especially the last two or three years. I think that is something that we have to do. I mean traditionally as you know, our audience is not long in the tooth but we're all of a certain age. [Laughs]

Paul: [Laughs] Oh my God, you're a diplomat as well, Colin.

Colin: But we have to reach out to younger people because obviously there are younger people coming into the industry. We definitely over the last two or three years we've worked with third party organizations who specialize in social media—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. It helped us really, because we were novices along that side. We feel that is certainly getting the name around of the organization, and getting the name around then obviously is the first path to actually growing in terms of members, in terms of delegates who come along to the events.

Paul: So let's talk a little about the events then, Colin. I mean do you guys sort of work on the premise that you like have a monthly meeting or do you just do it as events, a mixture of both or so what's the structure that you run with?

Colin: Yeah, okay. In the U.K., we have four events a year, four meetings or events a year. The difference between a meeting and event―we call it a meeting if it is kind of one day single stream meeting. If it is sort of two streams or two days, then we call that an event or a conference.

Paul: Yeah.

Colin: Right from the beginning we've always had four of these a year, but what we did for about 10 years―in fact this is the tenth year running that we've actually had our larger event, which is a conference; it is a multi-stream event which we actually turned into a two-day event three or four years ago.

Paul: Right.

Colin: And that this year will in June and that's known as the International iPower event based in the U.K. So yes, so we have four events or meetings a year. We always―our main hunting ground was in the north of England as I said earlier. We've been at one hotel in Rochdale, the Norton Grange Hotel to get a little bit of advertising to them. So every year that I've been involved, we've actually had at least one event at that hotel. By tradition, that's our first event of the year, which tends to be in February. One thing that we try to do to make it a little bit easier, because obviously what you have to remember is that we're―it's all done by predominantly voluntary work―is to try and make it a little easy to organize the events. We’ve actually started to replicate the agenda from the first northern event into a southern event which we hold in the center of London. That seems to be working quite well actually. In fact, the attendance for the London event is seeming to grow quicker than the one in the north, which is interesting because obviously, that's not our normal territory but it is very, very promising though.

Paul: Yeah. Yeah. Actually that's quite fascinating I mean because I do know like in other countries at times, when user groups do that and they shift something like to the capital, generally it doesn't attract people for some reason. I don't know whether it's that people say “oh the hassle of traffic or getting in and out of London or getting around London” or whatever, but obviously you've overcome the problem.

Colin: Well we have and I have to say that we weren't quite sure whether it would work, to be honest, when we first started, but we felt we had to put a toe in the water. But I think for a number of years that a lot of the capital was starved of these types of events, so I think they have welcomed us with open arms. We felt like we're actually now back in the game where we are bringing these events to you on a regular basis and it is just a question of getting the word out there. One thing that we do find, once someone attends our events, they seem to come back. Quite often we get the phrase, "Oh, I didn't know that this kind of an event existed" or "I didn't realize that you could do this with the machine.” So we really, really do provide a service. One of our major problems is actually getting people to know about us.

Paul: Yeah, so how does that work? I mean, sort of think back Colin. So when you originally got involved with Nis-UG as it would have been back then. So why? Why did you get involved?

Colin: Well again, a very good question. I used to have my own software house. We were fairly successful, and shortly after the old AS/400 came out, a kind of version of the user group we have now was created by a guy―well, I forget his name to be honest, because it is going back so long ago―

Paul: Yeah.

Colin: But he marketed it to companies, and so I used to attend just as a user.

Paul: Yeah.

Colin: Like a lot of our organizations that are involved with us now, their businesses either on the service side―or you know they're business partners because our membership is obviously a cross section between actual end users, business partners, consultants and service providers. I was one of the―my company was one of those service providers. It was quite new in those days so I just went along as a user, saw the benefit of it―really, really good at getting to people that you see on a regular basis just to chat, and I kept on going really.

Paul: Yeah.

Colin: I was, you know, just an ordinary member for many, many years really.

Paul: Yeah and you were just a normal member before you finally ended up being coerced, arm-twisted or whatever into being on the organizing side. [Laughs]

Colin: Well the―originally I became a member of the committee, so I helped. What we normally did, we had a meeting after―each meeting that we held, a couple of weeks later we had an organizing to try to start planning the agenda for the next meet. I got on the committee there. It was just a question of anybody that turned up really to throw in your ideas, and we put an agenda together. But then back in sort of 2010 to coincide when we were joining forces with COMMON Europe, we realized we had to do it on a little bit more of a professional basis. So we still have the committee, it’s a kind of loose knit committee in terms of anybody can come along and give us their ideas―but there three main members of the board if you like, and that is myself as the secretary and the treasurer, the chairman, Mike Ryan, and the technical director, who is Steve Bradshaw. So we are really the three people that I wouldn't say run the organization, but we do make the final decisions with the input of other people that want to help on the committee. All the agendas are developed from ideas that are sent through on requirements and suggestion sheets from people that attend previous meetings, really. So I'm also aware that we actually make the agendas relevant, so I guess we're at the top of pyramid us three. It needs someone like this to actually put the events together, really.

Paul: Yeah.

Colin: We also―I need to say that on the main event, International Power, we do work with a third party, a company called NC Communications, Nigel Clapham there. We've worked with them for a long, long time, got a fantastic relationship and Nigel does take a lot of the hard work out of the main event of the year. That's his company's organization. That's what they do for a living and we do work very, very closely because it actually exponentially more involved actually on a two-day event. It’s amazing the additional work that it creates, so it would be almost impossible I think for us to do it on our own.

Paul: Oh, no. That I can agree with. I mean I know that from when we run our own events, the Summit twice a year―so I know exactly where you are coming from on that one Colin.

Colin: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Paul: You go to the professionals for that kind of help.

Colin: Yeah, I think it is called horses for courses, isn't it?

Paul: Exactly. So actually Colin I am glad you mentioned that as well. Sort of coming back then on COMMON Europe. So it’s always a thing that I find difficult to try and explain, especially to my colleagues in the U.S., is this sort of relationship that the European country user groups like i-UG and this relationship they have with this body, COMMON Europe. So do you want to maybe try and give an overview of that if you can?

Colin: Yeah. It is actually a very interesting organization. I say we have been involved since 2010. There are I think between 14 and 16 European countries involved. I'm not quite sure the exact numbers, around that number. And twice a year a representative for each of those countries gets together and for a couple of days―we tend to start on a Friday or a Saturday and work over into the Sunday. We sit down at a meeting and we thrash out ideas. It’s amazing. There are differences, but a lot of similarities between every country in the organization. Obviously the U.K. is probably the one in the actual west, but we've got Russia is the next one over far in the east. Then we've got Belgium, Germany, France, who are not particularly active, but Holland, Sweden, lots and lots of countries. We all sit around this table and we talk about, you know, problems that we have in our own individual organizations, how we have overcome problems. It’s amazing how you get ideas from, you know, different countries. Then obviously the major event that COMMON Europe provides―is what they call their CEC, COMMON Europe Convention, which is in June. I think it is the week after our main event this year.

Paul: Yeah.

Colin: That involves a lot of the work and the planning from the Executive Committee and also the board of directors, which effectively is the representative from each country. It must be quite a microcosm of what it is like to be in the United Nations, really.

Paul: Yes.

Colin: Because obviously when you are 16 people around the table, you’re never going to get everybody that agrees on something, so you quite often to take a view on it, although we don't normally have to take a votes. Everybody has his or her own different view and if each country come at it from slight different angle. It is really, really interesting to sit there and just take in the views from each of the countries.

Paul: Yes, well as long as you are not―as long as Brexit doesn't affect you in any way, you are going to be OK Colin. [Laughs] So listen Colin, just to finish up, there is a lovely thing. As always when I'm doing these iTalks, I like to finish up with people something on a personal note, and when we were talking about some of your like favorite pastimes, so go on. Tell people what sport you’re interested in.

Colin: Right. Okay, well as a true northerner in England, my favorite sport is Rugby League. A lot of people have heard of rugby, but they may not have heard of Rugby League. It’s known as the 13-man game as opposed to the 15-man game, and in my view, far superior. [Laughs]

Paul: Well I, I―okay. I'm not going to argue this with you Colin. I will bow to your superior knowledge of it, but I would also say it is a little bit of a tougher game than rugby union.

Colin: I would agree with you, yeah. I mean having said that, I don't think any of these guys you would like to meet up a dark alley. They are like athletes you know can run 12-13 second 100 meters and then get hit like a boxer, then get up and do it really again, really. They are fantastic athletes, really, and I think they are all underrated. When you consider the effect you see on soccer pitches, football pitches, and people rowing. Oh, it's like taffy, it’s ridiculous, really. But yeah, it is a fantastic game. I've watched it many, many times over a number of years, got introduced to it by my father like many kids do, and I’ve just followed it from there really.

Paul: Cool. By the way if anybody has an interest in that, from the depths of my memory I dug out I remember there was a movie with that great Irish actor Richard Harris was in. We remembered it was called A Sporting Life, and that even though the game has changed a bit since then, it might give people a little inkling as to what the game is actually like. So listen Colin: I will be seeing you in a few weeks at the International Power event. I am going to have the pleasure of speaking there again this year and I hope it goes really well for you. So thank you for taking the time to have a chat with me.

Colin: A pleasure Paul, as always.

Paul: Okay, everyone. That's it for this iTalk. Tune in again in a couple of weeks for the next one. Bye for now.

Paul Tuohy has specialized in application development and training on IBM midrange systems for more than 20 years.

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