User groups: Are they worth the fees?

Derek Schauland is weighing the pros and cons of joining a user group that charges member dues. What is your experience of formal user groups? Take the poll and let us know your thoughts.

Toward the end of 2009 my organization installed a new telephone system. Being the lead on this project was a ton of work, but it was also a great experience. However, I am not sure what the best method is for continued learning and staying current with updates on this system.

Working with a reseller has been great, and they are very knowledgeable about the Mitel product(s) we are using, but some things are best learned through experience. Currently, I'm evaluating the usefulness of user groups -- the kind with meetings and dues and networking opportunities, not just forums and online Q&A.

There is a Mitel User Group which I have been considering, but am not 100 percent sure if the cost of membership is worth it. Currently, it appears that the membership fee is $249, but for new members the cost looks to be $99. (I have emailed the organizers of the user group for clarification and will follow up in the comments when more information is available.)

Worth the money?

This particular user group has an annual general meeting where members can network with Mitel employees and other members. They also have forums and other resources, like training and webinars which are made available to members. These items could be worthwhile for finding new information and getting questions answered without calling our reseller (or even in conjunction with calls to the reseller).

Does the experience in the user group really live up to the cost of membership?  In this case, because the group focuses on a specific product, it may be sound to give it a try for a year. There have been other groups, which seem even pricier when it comes to membership and meetings.

One group I used to belong to, charged a fee of approximately $100 per year, but also then charged admission (less for members than non-members) for the meetings. The cost offset the price of dinner which seemed reasonable, but to add this on and charge a membership due seemed a bit high. In my opinion, there was not enough takeaway to justify the dues and attendance costs, although the dinners were usually quite good.

Specific focus may work better

The overall nature of many user groups like AITP and other IT-related organizations might be a bit much, taking on multiple topics at each meeting rather than focusing on a core technology.  n my experience a more focused user group will benefit the attendees and members more than a group with a broad focus.

As I'm considering all of this, I was wondering what others in IT think of formal user groups where dues are charged. Take the poll below, and feel free to follow up with comments on your experience with particular groups. Are they worth the price of admission, or can you learn just as much from strictly online forums?