Which has a higher priority in your organization, technical support or technical training? In most shops, support wins out over training, and there’s not much you can do about it. Or is there? Purchasing off-site technical instruction is an option, as long as there’s money in the budget and as long as the end users’ managers are willing to part with their people for a half-day or a day at a time.

This week, I’d like to propose a different way to engage and educate your users about software and hardware issues: Start a company-based user group. For years, IT professionals have depended on user groups and special-interest groups (SIGs) to network with one another and to learn about new technologies. If your end users need more technical training than your IT department can provide, a user group may be just the ticket. Here are some tips for getting such a group started in your organization.

Tip #1: Schedule meetings off-site, after hours
For 13 years, Steve Goldberg has been a member of KIPCUG, the Kentucky-Indiana Personal Computer Users Group. It’s Kentucky’s largest computer club, and he’s currently serving as the group’s vice president. Goldberg started out as a support analyst and has risen through the IT ranks to his current position as developer for a home health provider. He is a long-time TechRepublic member who says he receives three or four TechMails every day.

Goldberg has organized user groups for almost all of his employers. In discussing what form informal technical training should take, I asked him what he thought of the “lunch-and-learn” model.

“I hate them,” Goldberg said. “I see them as an attempt to steal my time. If you’re going to train me, don’t do it on my time [the lunch break].”

Goldberg organizes user groups for his fellow employees using the same approach used by KIPCUG.

“I think the best way to get people interested is to schedule the meetings after work, in an atmosphere that’s comfortable and convenient.”

Goldberg schedules his user group meetings in restaurants, bookstore cafes, and other public places.

“You need some place where people can eat and where they can feel comfortable. If you try to schedule technical training during work hours, some people will attend because they feel they have to. Some will be too distracted by the work surroundings to get any benefit out of the meeting.”

Tip #2: Schedule meetings irregularly
Goldberg’s other rule of thumb for successful user group meetings is not to schedule the meetings on a regular basis. “If you schedule the meetings every month, they become routine. People will feel like it’s an obligation, not a pleasure, to attend.”

The best way to organize high-quality meetings is to recruit good speakers, Goldberg said.

“The topics for the meetings need to be topical and relate to work, but they also need to be fun.”

Tip #3: Make the meetings high quality
Goldberg rarely has a problem getting good speakers for his meetings, and they’re all volunteers.

“I’ve never paid a speaker in 13 years with KIPCUG, nor with any of my employer-level user groups,” he said. “IT vendors see the meetings as marketing events, so they’re willing to come and put on a good presentation. It’s harder to get a large vendor to come than it used to be, but there’s always someone in the local IT community willing to come and meet a user group.”

Goldberg said that if you’re not sure what kinds of topics your users want to hear about, ask them.

“If I don’t have a topic in mind, I’ll send out an e-mail to everyone a month or two before a meeting and ask for suggestions.”

For membership in KIPCUG, IT professionals pay a modest $35 annual fee. But you typically don’t charge a fee to join an employer-based user group.

Jump-starting your first meeting
It’s easy to start a user group in your organization. Select a venue, pick a date, recruit a speaker, and send out a global e-mail announcement to your fellow employees. Build the buzz around your new user group by posting the meeting on your company’s intranet calendar.

As people become involved in the group, you may discover that coworkers are forming smaller special-interest groups, or SIGs. For instance, Word users might start a Word User Group, or WUG. You can also take advantage of TechRepublic’s collection of downloads to help energize the meetings and educate attendees by providing free handouts. For example, you might want to download “Indispensable tips for Word users” and hand out copies at the WUG meeting.

Share your formula for healthy user groups

If you’ve organized user groups in your company, please share your experiences with fellow TechRepublic members by posting a comment below or writing to Jeff.