Angus: Why ~I~ volunteer for COMMON

Ban doomEvery volunteer organization I have ever worked with has a problem. Or two, or three. Mostly, volunteer organizations have volunteers – a form of human. When there is something of note that happens, generally the volunteers hear it first out on the street, and in 100% of cases, the telephone principle applies – a standard human communication process. While ‘data’ is transferring from one volunteer to another, the message becomes distorted, confused and different than when it went in. Usually, the largest distortions come from volunteers who are narrow minded, negative or desiring attention, where the simplest piece of data can become the largest of misrepresentations. This “volunteer intelligence” serves only to cause division and discontent. Without discrimination, this applies to every volunteer organization, regardless of size, purpose or intent.

In truth, the number of volunteers who engage in this kind of politics are a small percentage, yet are the noisiest. Unfortunately, this can impact another major problem of volunteer organizations – that of finding new volunteers. And in the community in which we are engaged, the demographic, along with the AS/400 name, is aging and losing their passion for everything except retirement. Any suggestion of negativity can cool their heels more, leading to the usual attrition of volunteers being larger than the incoming batch. Apparently, this has been the case in the last week or so, with the responses to some of the more well known speakers at COMMON blogging about their choice to not speak at the next COMMON Annual conference in Orlando in 2010.

My involvement in the community has been more noisy than some, without doubt. What that does afford me is an opportunity to speak to the constituents at user group meetings and conferences around the world. Earlier this year, I presented the keynote session at the Connections conference – an in-your-face session about finding your passion for your job – again. It was my attempt to entertain while offering a different perspective on the industry and your career, while stirring something in the attendees. I was encouraged by several of the responses, one of which offered a renewed vigor for his job and a desire to “go out and do something for the community”. One down, several hundred thousand to go!

Two weeks ago at the inaugural COMMON Africa event in Johannesburg, I presented a similar session. The audience were quite the mix of ‘old’ and ‘new’. Many long time members of the community were eager to restart this new effort to engage the community, exchange information and promote the platform. Add to that a group of students and YiPs from local universities who have been learning RPG, and I discovered a major lode of that passion of which I had been speaking! What a joy to see the energy surrounding that event, and what a pleasure to be able to soak in it. I wish it could have been bottled and brought back to North America.

This inaugural event, and the surrounding energy, brought me back to my first involvement in user groups in our community. It started with a local user group in Texas, and spread to COMMON. During my first COMMON conference, I was recruited (ok, I did say yes) to volunteer and I was hooked. The sense of community was strong, and the event was boisterous, fun ~and~ educational. Some of the speakers were well known, but every one of them donated their time to the education process. Looking back, these were definitely the glory days.

COMMON then settled into a rhythm of two conferences a year and some of those speakers found that COMMON had boosted their careers. I certainly benefited from that exposure – in retrospect, volunteering at COMMON has proven to be one of the steps to improving my speaking skills and has raised my visibility in the community. There were many speakers, some of them (ex-)IBMers, who moved on to have successful speaking careers, and many well known speakers who just moved on. Most of them were sadly missed by their friends, their fans and conference attendees, but regardless, COMMON moved along. New speakers filled in the gaps for missing sessions, and in a few conferences, those who were previously “well known” were “long forgotten”. This is the nature of volunteer organizations, and is definitely one of the cultural traits of COMMON. As recently as a couple of years back, a so-called “famous” industry expert attempted to make a lot of noise about their choice to leave COMMON. It made little difference to the event as their sessions were filled in by other volunteer speakers, and their own profile continued to be stroked with continued internet exposure. Nothing changed, COMMON moved on.

The recent stirring in the community about the choice of our well known speakers not attending the next conference has been very different. There is a lot of misinformation, negativity and ignorance about their choice, and even with their explanation and clarification, the noise has been disturbing. Yet somehow, this is different. With attendance being markedly different from 2009 compared to 2008, some people predict the demise of COMMON, even though declining attendance is an industry trend, and attendance in the previous conference years had been relatively consistent. Of course, the news from COMMON at their Meeting of the Members in Reno in April about changes to the organization, driven from a financial perspective, has definitely contributed to the noise and speculation.

But, there is no difference. COMMON loses and gains volunteers and speakers every year. While the reduced size of the IBM i industry continues to contribute to fewer people to volunteer, and Web 2.0 and social networking contributes to reduced attendance at face-to-face conferences, there will be volunteers to step into the shoes of exiting speakers. Certainly the education will be different upon removal of some of the leading educators in the field, but remember, this is a user group – it was designed to provide an exchange of information among user group members. Undoubtedly, COMMON will continue to provide that experience for some time.

And there is the rub. With such important community members discussing their reasons for not speaking at the next COMMON Annual Conference, it is important for the organization to sit up and listen. Not to the noise and negativity from the naysayers, but to the perspectives of long-time volunteers who, themselves, have been strong contributors to the organization over many years. This is definitely not the status quo of speaker attrition, and it most definitely warrants understanding.

Which brings me to the reason for this post. For many years I have been a volunteer at COMMON. Certainly, the organization is like every other volunteer group, with its passion and strength offsetting a modicum of noise and negativity. With the internet providing fertile ground to sow discontent, COMMON faces some of the most intense misinformation campaigns from ignorant (lacking in knowledge) community members it has ever faced. With a reduced community, COMMON has to morph and evolve into a new organization that leverages on all its strengths, while becoming agile and relevant for our future.

Before the decisions to cut COMMON volunteer benefits were made, I decided I would run for the board. I felt it was time to contribute directly to the future of the organization, and I was subsequently elected. To that end, this blog entry has been difficult to write, as I strive to properly represent this opinion as solely my own, and no reflection of the COMMON board, staff or organization. And I remain committed to that goal. Over the last few years, with my involvement with the COMMON Community and Networking group, I have seen the evolution of the Annual Conferences from flat and educational with lackluster social events to educational, fun, passionate, joyful, inspiring and full of ‘user’ involvement, new volunteers, and more reporting than for some time. I am encouraged by the Young i Professionals who have grown out of the COMMON organization to a world-class representative body for the next generation of Power Systems and IBM i computing professionals.

It is my belief that I can best contribute to the i community by being an advocate for the platform, a contributor to the cause, and a volunteer for COMMON. For all of you who have a volunteer bone, throw up your hand and help us morph this industry into a strong future. Certainly, change is required, and is happening, at COMMON. Attention must be paid to the opinions and perspectives of industry leaders, and care needs to be taken to avoid the rantings of the ignorant and misinformed. Intelligent, informed, creative decisions are needed, and you can help this cause.

I ask, what can you do? Read the thoughts from our well known speakers who are not attending the 2010 COMMON Annual Conference, and you will see they have made a contribution. They have engaged in their own debate, and offered their thoughts without negativity and clouding of the truth. Where are your positive suggestions that can be offered to the COMMON organization? When someone offers their well thought out opinion, do you add value, or add noise? Are you vocal and hiding behind your keyboard, or are you willing to put your brain into gear, and think about solving the problem rather than interpreting the situation with a narrow and undeserved viewpoint? Are you engaging in the telephone experience, or are you searching for truth? It is time to stop the whining, and get on with the doing.

It is time to change the world.


fallingrock at 11/25/09 09:31:25 | Toyota PriusNovember 25th, 2009 at 10:42 am

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Steve BuckNovember 25th, 2009 at 11:57 am

I was at the recent launch of COMMON Africa and YiP’s in Johannesburg. I think it was more awesome than described here. The excitement, the energy, the smiles and the buzz was amazing. Maybe some folks have just forgotten that we are all learning every day and need reminding that things like COMMON are great ways to maintain the learning experience, regardless of what is learned. Sounds to me like COMMON in the US is showing signs of maturity. This is a good thing.
In my experience, all organisations driven by volunteers have occasional dips. It is a pity that in tough times the whingers seem to get more air time than they deserve. The key is this – if the aims are still relevant and you have enough enthusiasm, it will flourish. Spread your wings and fly again!

DrFrankenNovember 25th, 2009 at 4:03 pm

OK The best part of this is that Steve is more excited than Trevor! Can we circle this day? Can we make it show up in Red?

Honestly it’s sad when any respected volunteer departs, but the gaps ARE often filled by new people given a chance by the vacancy.

I wonder who will come out from the shadows and lead. Any takers?

Aaron BartellApril 30th, 2010 at 8:46 am

I think I need to visit COMMON Africa. Sounds like it is a rejuvenating grounds!

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