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Are Domino user groups endangered?

As Lotus' road map shifts, so does the focus of traditional Domino user groups.

On the second Wednesday of each month, members of the New England Notes and Domino Users Group gather in Waltham, Mass. The group of about 30 Domino developers and administrators come to learn about topics ranging from DB2 and Java to storage technologies and the ins and outs of spam filters.

"The big topics are third-party tools and productivity tools, Domino 6 or 6.5 and, to a smaller extent, the world of Linux and Unix," says Holly Campbell, president of the group. "We all want to embrace standards, like Java and XML, but, at the same time, the existing technology has to be maintained."

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The mixed focus of the Boston user group's agenda -- a little old, a little new -- reflects the situation of Lotus user groups nationwide.

"Most of the groups are interested in the long-term strategy and vision of IBM and Lotus, but they're also spending a lot of time on very near-and-dear day-to-day topics," says Ed Brill, IBM's manager of competitive positioning of Lotus products, who typically speaks at one or two user groups each month.

Case in point: The Lotus Technologies Users Group in St. Louis, which last year changed its name from the "Lotus Domino/Notes User Group." The group says the new name better reflects its members' mixed interests.

"The content [of meetings] is about half split between dealing with the standard things that developers and administrators deal with every day and by presentations by IBM or third-party vendors on products or new features," says Randall Stone, the group's president and an independent consultant. Third-party tools for making work faster and easier are popular topics, as are new IBM technologies such as presentations on Lotus Instant Messaging, and on how Domino interfaces with WebSphere, "because not many people know that," Stone says.

My job is to make sure our members aren't blindsided by the market.

Kathleen Lynch, New England Notes and Domino Users Group

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The situation is similar in Charlotte, N.C., where the Charlotte Lotus Notes User Group meets once a month.

"We've got a variety of people," says Tom Cipolla, the group's president and a messaging architect for M3 Technology Group, in Charlotte. "Most of our users are motivated to learn new technology on the side and, in fact, many of them have dual certification in Java and Notes. But 90% are Domino developers or administrators, and that's the focus of our meetings."

The group's core of 25 to 35 attendees are long-time programmers, as in Boston, but Cipolla says that new people show up every month. He notes that the group's relationship with area recruiters, as well as its annual "mini-LotusSphere" conference are two key benefits that members enjoy.

Slow decline

Not all Lotus user groups, of course, are thriving -- or even surviving. The Toronto group has shut its doors, as a group in Saskatchewan, which closed in December. And the Seattle Lotus User Group has mostly ceased to exist, according to member David Hablewitz, partly because of the dominance of Microsoft, which is based in the area, and partly because of a lack of support from the local IBM and Domino vendor community.

Domino user group membership overall has declined, says Ruth Allen, executive director of Valu.org, the umbrella organization for the approximately 50 Lotus user groups in North America.

"We probably lose six or eight groups a year, and gain two or three new ones," she says, adding that many of the long-time presidents and key board members of older user groups are retiring and aren't being replaced by people dedicated to the Domino platform.

While user group attendance has declined over the years, Lotus' Brill says he has seen a slight resurgence in the past few months. "After the urgency of Y2K," he says, "and while R5 was the newest version out there for awhile, there seemed to be a slight decline. But I really get the sense that it's on the upswing again."

That's the case at the Great Lakes Region Association of Notes Intelligence and Technical Exchange (GRANITE), the Chicago area user group. John Roling, technical director for GRANITE, says membership is up slightly after having dipped from its peak of 200 members in 2001.

Another user group, NUTS -- Notes Users of the Tri-State -- in Cincinnati, has also been rejuvenated, according to Mike Peeler, the group's technical coordinator. He credits the group's growth to more-technical topics --such as "how to code JavaScript" and "best practices in debugging" -- and fewer marketing pitches by vendors.

Allen notes that vendors can make excellent speakers, as long as they stick to technical information and avoid sounding like they're making a sales pitch. She says that opportunities to socialize and partake of free food help to ensure a good turnout: "The best way to bring people in is to feed them something. ... I'm serious."

Most people also agree that it's important to have an agenda that is balanced between current Domino-related issues and information about new technologies. As Campbell observes, user groups offer a way for members to get professional development that's virtually free.

"It's one of the few ways we can stay abreast of developments," she says. "A lot of what we do may not always be immediately applicable, but people know that they need to keep their eyes on things."

Kathleen Lynch, director of programming for the New England group, agrees.

"Our speakers address issues we face in the here and now, but I also make sure to schedule topics that expand the universe for our members," she says. "My job is to make sure our members aren't blindsided by the market."

Sue Hildreth is a contributing writer based in Waltham, Mass.

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