Thursday 27 March 2008

User Groups and Pedagogy for SMB I.T. Providers

Graham Jones has a great post on the IT Manager Connection blog: The Changing Role of User Groups.

From his post under the IT Worker paragraph:
The kind of skills demanded are also changing. Although there will always be a role for technical specialists it will be in less demand. If you want to progress in your career you will need some core technical skills married to technical diversity and business and “soft skills”. Perhaps UG’s cannot easily minister to all of this but I believe that we should be thinking about where we can contribute beyond the purely technical. Since business and “soft skills” are common across the technical landscape this links back to the potential benefits of a local Federation of UG’s. This would permit a measure of common planning around these areas and larger numbers would attract high caliber speakers in non-technical/pseudo-technical areas.
There comes a time in one's business career, no matter what type of business career that one is in, where one needs to make a decision: Do I take everything I have learned with me to the grave, or do I take on a more Pedagogical role with those around me. This is especially true for many small business owners ... especially those who are very good at what they do.

In our particular area of the world, that is the SMB I.T. industry, there is a tendency to hold our cards very close to our chest.
It is my toy.
While the quote may be a bit harsh, it can be very true.

I certainly faced this in myself. There are many negative thoughts that swirl around the brain ether:
  • He/She will poach my clients if I let them in ...
  • They will steal my revenue ...
  • They will take my ideas and run with them without me ...
  • I can't share my ideas with them ... they will steal them for themselves ...
    • A derivative of the above point.
  • I will be left behind ...
  • Why should I share what I have? I worked *expletive* hard for what I know.
While the above list of fears is by no means complete, they do aptly describe what was going through my mind and emotions when considering whether to start this blog as well as starting an I.T. focus in our training.

Contrasted To The Rewards

What comes to pass once one goes beyond those fears and begins down the road of pedagogy is probably the most surprising: One gets back a hundred fold what one puts in.

Don't get me wrong here. The actual return on the effort put into the teaching and sharing one's knowledge may not show dividends for a very long time ... if at all. The keyword here folks is show. We may be blind or not even know how our efforts impact the lives of those around us.

If we are expecting the Benz, monetary compensation, or anything along the lines of doing it for me (being the centre of attention counts as self compensation), then things may never pan out as there will be many struggles and doubts. And, just like anything else, if we are in it for the wrong reasons we will let it slide, walk away, we will let it die a death. Also, people can sense our motivations whether we realize it or not ... and may want nothing to do with us if ...

A partial list of rewards:
  • Seeing that amazing light of discovery in the trainee's eyes
  • Encouraging curiosity and thoughtfulness
  • Bringing real world experience to theoretical knowledge
  • Fine tuning the rough edges around the trainee's skills
  • Introducing a technically focused individual to the bigger picture ... business
  • Knowing that the knowledge we have worked hard for will live on
  • Building long term business and personal relationships
User Group Pedagogy

What Graham is suggesting for our User Group structure has been around, at least in my opinion, in the Trades for millennia.

Groups of skilled tradesmen and women gather around the apprentices and start working with them at the apprentice's skill level. The programme today usually has 4 tiers represented by the four year apprenticeship structure and the apprentice starts on the tier that is best suited to their skill level or lack thereof.

While that particular structure may not be exactly what is required, it does provide us with a good direction to look at when it comes to establishing the User Group as a pedagogical tool.

Some possible tiers from surface to big picture are:
  1. Technical
    • Working with various software products
    • Working with various hardware products
    • Vendors and Manufacturers
  2. Personal and Technicalese
    • Learning the needed interpersonal skills
    • Working within one's personality type
    • Learning to speak in a language nontechnical people can understand
    • Patience when working with the less skilled user
  3. Business Principles and Operations
    • Ethics and Morality in business
    • Responsibility and consequences for decisions made or not made
    • Reasons for being in business
    • Developing a business strategy and plan
    • Revenue planning and budgeting
    • Running a business and all that entails for the geographical area one is in
  4. Big Picture
    • Tying all of the above together to develop a strong perspective on providing products and services to clients
    • Developing the business and the people employed by the business
    • Team playing and team development
    • Business direction and focus
    • Business secession and planning for one's retirement
Running a business, whether it be I.T. or other, is no walk in the park.

Owning a small business is grueling. We work long, sometimes thankless, hours. The grueling pace of owning a business will ultimately be a significant contribution to our success or demise in it.

When running a small business, there are many serious decisions to make that will impact our client's futures, the future of our employees, and the futures of our families if we have one, and our own. We need to be aware of that. A pedagogical structure in the User Group would facilitate that knowledge.

This is our principle of ultimate responsibility when running an I.T. business: Our client's livelihoods and the livelihood of their employees are directly in our hands. If their I.T. infrastructure is put together wrong, doesn't work properly, or goes down altogether, we are directly responsible for the consequences.

If their I.T. infrastructure is put together right and it just works for them, we may never receive a "Thank You", but we can go to sleep at night that we have done something good and our work has meaning.

Many of the above mentioned life and business lessons cannot be learned on their own. We may discover them ... we may not discover them.

However, the best method to learn those lessons is with a mentor. Someone, or a group of someones, that have the necessary experience to impart to the young and impressionable, or the not so young but still impressionable people who are eager to learn the big picture of opening, running, and building an SMB focused I.T. business.

In my case I am fortunate to have Monique my wife and my Dad who are very supportive and provide some solid outside of the box business perspectives on an ongoing basis. Someone who was very important in helping me to develop a good sense on running and building a business based on excellent client relationships is a former employer of mine: Larry MacDonald. He is a truly gifted business man and a great pedagogical role model (teacher).

And finally, to our clients, to you our blog readers, and anyone who has provided support and encouragement to "keep on plugging away" at building a good business and developing a pedagogical role: Thank you!

One more thing: Take a look at the links to the various blogs and Web sites linked here and in the respective sites' links list. In those links you will find people who are passionate and knowledgeable about what they do (Susan Bradley, Chris Knight, Tim Barrett), people who have a really good solid business sense (Karl Palachuk, Vladimir Mazek), and someone who has built a business on being a positive mentor: Harry Brelsford. There are many more, so, please expand your horizons! ;)

Philip Elder
Microsoft Small Business Specialists

*All Mac on SBS posts are posted on our in-house iMac via the Safari Web browser.


Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,
Great post. I love the conversation that Graham has started.

Having worked as an independant IT consultant for several years before starting a Microsoft, I remember how strange it sometimes felt as I connected with some of my "competitors" and we started to work together, tentatively at first, using each others strengths to provide better services for our respective clients. We labelled ourselves as friendly competitors. Not everyone got it and there were many who couldn't get past the suspician that someone might poach their customers or take credit for their work or ideas. However, among those that did get it, developed a respect and comaderie that has lasted and is, in itself, a unmeasureable reward.

Involvement in the IT community, the sharing of knowledge and skills and the development of personal and business relationships will go a long way to mature our industry. Collectively, we can start addressing some of the issues that Graham touches on, such as declining enrolment in computer science and the IT skill shortage.

Philip Elder Cluster MVP said...


Thank you for the compliment! :)

That suspicion is indeed one of the biggest hurdles we need to overcome. I agree with you whole heartedly.

It is unfortunate that it is common in our industry though. We deal with it when it comes to hardware and software manufacturers that duke it out over patents to former employers that unjustly sue or threaten to sue over an NDA agreement they deem infringed.

However, that being said, there is no greater attraction to those outside of an industry, or interested in that industry, than seeing a group of people together who are passionate about what they do and are supporting each other through all aspects of working in the industry.

That to me will be the key to unlocking interest in our industry and enrolment in the various degrees and certification courses.

It is up to us as but is also up to the professors and teachers to be keen and passionate!

Thanks for the comment!