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User group’s demise is sign of times

Aug 25, 20035 mins

The closing earlier this month of the 55-year-old Communications Managers Association, one of the most influential organizations for network executives during the industry’s rise, points to the fading relevancy of such groups.

The closing earlier this month of the 55-year-old Communications Managers Association, one of the most influential organizations for network executives during the industry’s rise, points to the fading relevancy of such groups.

CMA’s demise comes after the closure of another broad-based user group, the International Communications Association (ICA), in the first quarter of last year.

“A widely focused group like the CMA is an anachronism in this business climate,” says Bill Moore, outgoing CMA president and telecom manager at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. “The CMA filled a viable role in getting information out to end users, but over the years, narrowly focused groups [including vendor-specific groups] have come in. I don’t think there’s much of a pressing need for widely focused end-user groups.”

The number of corporate members, who paid dues of $600 per year, dwindled from a peak of 150 five years ago to 20 at the time of closing. Membership, which mainly served user organizations in the Northeast such as Rutgers University, Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Travelers, dropped to 75 in 2002, two years after the group cancelled its once-popular annual Corporate Networks conference, and soon after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York.

In his letter published on the CMA Web site, Moore explains that the cancellation of the annual show “was the first in many blows to our operation.” The CMA struggled to find writers for its quarterly newsletter, the CMA Review, and battled with low attendance numbers to the nine seminars it held each year.

The closure of the ICA and now the CMA, which prided themselves on the networking and social opportunities afforded to members, has paved the way for smaller groups with a narrower focus. These include the Wall Street Technology Association, whose members are financial institutions, or public policy lobby groups such as the Ad Hoc Telecommunications User Committee, which represents 20 corporate members, including American Express, Sabre and Ford, plus the eCommerce & Telecommunications Users Group (eTUG).

“A lot of organizations like [the CMA and the ICA] were not effective,” says Johna Till Johnson, president and chief research officer at Nemertes Research, and a Network World columnist. She recalls being “flabbergasted” at the CMA’s unwillingness to actively lobby the FCC five years ago when carriers began raising telephone bills to meet local-access charge regulation. “These guys [the CMA] were just sitting there while their constituents were screaming. It was then that I thought they were doomed. They’re great for networking and socializing but those days are over,” she says.

Moore says the CMA’s not-for-profit and tax status prohibited the group from being active lobbyists, although it did meet with guest attorneys to discuss public policy.

The ICA began to get into public policy in the late 1970s and early 1980s, says Brian Moir, who served as counsel for the user group. But that proved to be its undoing, as it was difficult mixing the traditional networking and social side of the group with public policy, he explains. Moir is now counsel of eTUG, which was formed in 2001 by some former members of the ICA..

The Ad Hoc Telecommunications User Committee was founded in the 1960s, and members meet four times per year for intensive sessions that last a day and a half to discuss telecom regulatory issues. The entry-level contribution for membership is $25,000 for corporate members, which increases over time.

“There is room for a different model,” says Colleen Boothby, a partner at LB3, the law firm that represents Ad Hoc, whose members seek to influence regulatory decisions. “A group can be more substantive and concentrate on making an impact. At Ad Hoc, there are no trade shows, no golf tournaments, no entertainment – just substantive meetings.”

The decade-old Network Professional Association (NPA) is another broad-based user group but its members are individual network executives rather than companies. Executive Director Steve Delahunty says the NPA has suffered from shrinking membership numbers, down from more than 10,000 in its heyday of the late 1990s, to fewer than 2,000 today. Like the CMA, the NPA in 1994 also was forced to cancel its annual conference.

“We’re at the core level of our membership,” Delahunty says, citing the economy, a reduction in membership benefits (although he says the NPA has added more benefits in recent years), and a reduction in interest in professional associations, as reasons for the decline in membership.

Users also are disillusioned with some associations. Ray Barnard, CIO at Fluor, one of the world’s largest publicly owned engineering groups, says he has dropped out of a few organizations. “Most associations continue to focus on too much IT technical stuff and not enough business/transformation with my customer stuff.”

“We also have a credibility problem within IT – lack of results from massive ERP expenditures, questions around true Y2K requirements that did not transpire and the dot-com bust,” he says. “All of this drives a hesitation to spend money on associations vs. saving that money or spending elsewhere in conjunction with CFO/CEO perspectives and participation.”

As the CMA directors look into the legal issues surrounding the closure, Moore says some members are considering setting up a smaller, less formal group that will share experiences and perhaps tackle public policy.