A Common Century

The world of business computing was a different place in 1960 when Common, the primary IBM midrange user group, was born. Today, Common's common denominator is still the so-called midrange AS/400 platform. But, in an age of networks, the midrange identity can chafe.

"Midrange" no longer accurately describes either the platform or, typically, a Common member's computing environment. In fact, there may be no other user organization that comes closer to reflecting the business computing community as a whole. Common's objective, and challenge, has been to bring what was once an IBM System/3X user group, with IBM System/3X concerns, into a changing, multi-platform business environment.

Accordingly, Common has made organizational changes to ensure access to fresh ideas and a more responsive management. It is restructuring and adding new value to the educational sessions presented at its two annual conferences. And, looking ahead, it is exploring new ways to reach and serve IT professionals, both in North America and internationally.

"We hope we can reach more of the AS/400 market," says David Dunne, Common president and board chairman. "Today we're probably only reaching three to four percent of the potential members just in North America. At the same time, we hope to provide more of a total solution in education, a solution that will reach everywhere in a heterogeneous enterprise."

This is not to say that Common membership is flagging. This year's spring Common conference in New Orleans drew nearly 5,000 attendees, one of the largest in the group's 38-year history. Corporate memberships number over 6,000, which translates to several times that number in terms of individuals.

Success has forced internal changes, according to Nora Craig, Common board member and director of marketing and strategic requirements, as well as a Common member since 1985. In 1989, Common instituted term limits on both board members and officers and on volunteer committee service. What had been an insular group of perennial volunteers, inclined to do things as they had always been done, was opened to new blood and new ideas.

"The membership was increasing," she says. "It was obvious that unless there were some changes in the way we did business internally we wouldn't be able to keep up with the things we needed to do."

The fact that the reorganization closely coincided with the announcement of the AS/400 was remarkable timing. Craig points out that as AS/400 sales took off and S/3X users began to move to the new machine, Common became one of the few available sources of AS/400 education, and membership burgeoned.

As a consequence, Common reached another organizational milestone in 1996 when the board approved the hiring of a permanent professional management staff. "In the last ten years, due to the success of the AS/400, we have really grown," says Dunne. "We now have a ten million dollar annual operating budget. When you reach that size you need a lot of day-to-day tactical management."

Over the same period, the educational offering at the Common conferences has been given new structure and focus to reflect the changing platform and a changing industry. According to Bob Lane, Common executive VP, what was once a slate of general conference sessions which might total over 1,000, has been reorganized to identify areas of specific related interest.

"Someone with a specific AS/400 interest used to have no direction for choosing the sessions he or she should attend," Lane notes. "We moved our educational delivery system closer to a university model. We now present what we call a ‘Courses of Study’ concept. We have identified forty subject matter areas, such as object oriented programming, programming in Java, or Year 2000 issues and recommend the track of sessions an attendee should take to benefit the most."

The Course of Study approach can also be used to prepare for IBM certification. "At the 1998 fall conference in Anaheim, we will publish the track of sessions you should be following in order to be ready to sit for the certification exam," Lane says. "For example, if you want to take the exam for AS/400 Systems Operations, we list the sessions you should attend during the week of the conference. On the last day you will be ready for the exam."

Common's on-site certification program is done in partnership with IBM, which administers the exam and awards certification. Common attendees have been able to take the certification exams at previous conferences, but this is the first year Common has established a curriculum to prepare for them.

While still answering the needs of its core AS/400 constituents, Common is adding educational coverage of other products and technologies, notably the new IBM Netfinity servers and Microsoft Windows NT.

"We're trying to go deeper into AS/400 education and provide better quality and value, but we're also trying to expand across the horizon of available solutions,” Dunne says. “Netfinity is a natural fit, and a natural link to Windows NT. It's exciting for Common to get into NT education in a big way.”

David Hildebrandt, Common director of alliances, observes that today most companies with an AS/400 are using it for business critical operations. However, the AS/400 is increasingly surrounded by other platforms. "At this point, it looks like the platform that will surround it the most will be Windows NT," Hildebrandt says. "It only makes sense to provide education in both areas."

"For two or three years Common has provided sessions on making the AS/400 work with Windows and Windows NT," he continues. “But we recognize that we need to embrace Microsoft more than we have in the past. The result will be that we will offer a far better educational opportunity for those using Microsoft products."

Common is also investigating ways of extending educational services beyond its own conferences. During the past year, Common launched the Common Educational Foundation, a philanthropic subsidiary group to be funded by outside donors, that will provide services in business computing, possibly including scholarships or chair endowments, to educational institutions.

"The intent is to bring day-to-day business computing to young people," Dunne explains, "to show them that the world is not based on PCs. They now can get a lot of training in very specific types of computing. But they are not being taught how to use it to make a business successful as much as we think they should be. Since Common is so focused on business, we think there is a wonderful opportunity for us to step into that vacuum."

Another possible future direction for Common or the Common Educational Foundation may be to extend Common's services to the undeveloped world. Common North America already has 20 sister Commons in developed countries including Europe, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Latin America. But, in Hildebrandt's opinion, there could be more. "One of the strategic goals of Common is to become the global voice for IT. The only way to be a global voice is to be global," he says.

According to Hildebrandt, Common is currently working with the United Nations to explore how Common, or the Common Foundation, can achieve Non-Governmental Organizational (NGO) status, which would allow it to be part of UN economic or social missions to developing nations.

"The goal for Common would be to contribute its wealth of experience to develop ethical and moral IT strategies in small, emerging countries," Hildebrandt says. "The opportunity is there. If Common is accepted as a NGO, we can participate as an invited UN envoy."

To Hildebrandt, this is a logical evolutionary step. "We've been dealing with these issues for 38 years," he says. "It's time to do more than just help ourselves. There's a saying in education: You don't know what you know until you teach others. By going out and teaching others we will find out what we know and how to improve on it."