A Strategic Approach to Ensuring Relevance
The long-term success of an association is dependent on its ability to create and maintain a value proposition that is relevant to its members and other target audiences. To do this effectively, an association must have a culture within its board of directors that embraces change. Without that nuance, it will not be able continue to meet the evolving needs of its members.

SHARE, a technology user group that supports the enterprise technology ecosystem (mainly IBM mainframes), has embraced this philosophy since the organization was founded in 1955. Since user groups operate like associations in that they bring together individuals with similar interests, SHARE’s model for success is relatable to most associations and professional societies.

Constant Evolution

Over the years, SHARE—credited as the original computer-focused trade organization—has been successful at reinventing itself. After all, the technology it supported in the 1950s has significantly changed; if SHARE did not also evolve, the organization would have become defunct many years ago.

“We realize things quickly change in this industry,” SHARE President James Vincent said. “You have to be comfortable with change. We worked through the fact that if we keep doing the same thing over and over, nothing will change for the better. It would be a course of failure, and we would not be able to succeed.”

In order to keep pace with mainframe technology and its members’ needs, SHARE relies on many different tactics. In just the last few years alone, the organization has updated its mission and vision statements, implemented a new tagline (educate | network | influence), launched a new website and continuously refreshed its education and networking offerings. And, in January, it launched a new logo that better represents the organization’s new brand.

These changes were guided by research projects, member surveys and detailed analysis. The board regularly directs its staff to engage SHARE’s 1,500 member companies (which translates to 20,000 delegate members) and 200 volunteers and ask them about their interests as well as their general thoughts about SHARE and the industry. The board also gains insights from focus groups with members, attendees and sponsors, and one-on-one meetings with premier sponsors.

“The board is always excited to try something new and different,” Vincent said. “However, we do not change for the sake of change. The SHARE board is exceptional at analyzing key data points, setting priorities and establishing strategic plans.”

zNextGen Project

In recent years, the SHARE board recognized that a sizeable portion of its membership was nearing retirement and the talent pipeline behind the baby boomers was less sizeable.

“We looked around at the attendees of our events and the people within the industry and they were getting older,” Vincent said. “We knew we had to adapt. We had to look at what the younger generation wanted. Fortunately, that is what our board does very well. We know it is not what we want; it is what the next generation wants and needs in order for them to be successful. Our board is very driven to make this happen.”

To help ensure its ongoing relevancy and sustainability, SHARE launched its multifaceted zNextGen Project, which supports a community of more than 1,000 IT professionals new to IBM’s z Systems technology as well as experienced mainframers willing to mentor younger professionals (often referred to as “Gen z,” a play off of IBM’s z Systems, not the post-Millennial demographic known as Generation Z).

As an extension of the project, SHARE and IBM recently partnered to host an invite-only, two-day focus group “SHARE/IBM Gen z Workshop” last October. The organizations carefully selected 13 individuals with less than eight years of experience with mainframes and one college student studying computer science to provide insight into their perceptions of SHARE, mainframes, the overall IT profession and what they need to have successful careers. To help the participants feel comfortable sharing direct and unfiltered information, SHARE and IBM did not have any executives present at the workshop and used a professional facilitator to lead the discussions.

“We asked them to focus on their education, engagement and networking needs,” Vincent said. “We wanted to know how they felt about SHARE and their time thus far working with mainframes, and then take that output and determine what the board could implement to support their needs both in the short and long term.”

The three most active participants from the workshop presented the group’s findings in person to the SHARE board in November. After reviewing the data, the board identified six short-term actions it could implement within 60 to 90 days, which would align with the start of its next event, SHARE in San Antonio. The list included:
  1. Move the zNextGen networking event to the start of SHARE in San Antonio to enable younger professionals the opportunity to meet each other, network and plan their week together at the onset of the event vs. three days into it;
  2. Better leverage the SHARE booth at the event tradeshow, including dedicating space for zNextGen professionals to network and engage with each other throughout the course of the event, scheduling “meet the experts” sessions, and providing a “genius bar” to give the zNextGen crowd access to more seasoned mainframers in a casual setting;
  3. Update the attendance justification documentation to provide information specifically designed to help zNextGen professionals secure approval and funding to attend the event;
  4. Increase the number of education tracks that are relevant for zNextGen attendees and better identify them online, in marketing collateral and in the event app;
  5. Launch various social media groups on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn specifically dedicated for the zNextGen community; and
  6. Leverage Slack, a real-time message service that enables collaboration and virtual conversations, within the zNextGen community.

In addition to these short-term enhancements, the workshop participants also helped the board identify several longer-term projects. Vincent and the board is most excited about restructuring the overall zNextGen Project into a year-round zNextGen community consisting of three primary subgroups based on years of experience—one to five years of experience; six to 10 years of experience; and 11 or more years of experience.

The idea is to create a long-term professional development system that integrates younger professionals with more experienced mainframers, thus providing mentoring opportunities. The board plans to launch this new updated community by the end of 2016.

Vincent sees this as an opportunity to ensure SHARE continues to meet the education, networking and engagement needs of its younger members as well as a means to increase the number of future leaders for both SHARE and the IT industry it serves.
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