One of the LinkedIn groups I belong to has a great discussion started by Tom Burgmans , Enterprise Search Specialist at Wolters Kluwer, a publisher. The group is Enterprise Search Engine Professionals and has over 1,600 members. Tom began a discussion with this question: FAST Technical Users Group? As I read his call to action by the FAST user community, and the subsequent cheers in response from group members, I was delighted to see the swell of support. Here’s why.

This is a perfect example of where social tools meet a need. A suggestion I also made as a panelist at FastForward 2009 has emerged spontaneously as a direct result of market forces. My observation had been that the FAST user conference was largely attended by IT folks, and the overwhelming number of keynotes and session topics focused on social tools, not especially tied directly to search either. A recommended call to action directed to Microsoft was that they host a platform of social tools to facilitate genuine user community sharing around the FAST product. The people who most need this are search administrators and content managers who presumably have some governance responsibilities for searchable content.

In Tom’s suggestion we see the effective use of a social tool to generate interest among members, a large and focused audience who serve as a great test of the viability of his idea.

That is neat!

Almost 30 years ago when I ran a software company, we (the company) organized and ran annual user group meetings in tandem with a large professional conference that most of our customers attended. These meetings were very successful, well attended by 40 – 50% of our customers. Over almost 20 years the group spawned a lot of professional and collegial relationships that gave our small user community a sense of collective investment in furthering the improvement and support of the product around which they met. Efforts to turn over total control of the user group to the community were not successful because, in those days, the infrastructure needed for planning, organizing and running meetings across the North American geography did not exist. My company provided that support mechanism out of necessity.

However, three regional user groups began their own programs to share knowledge, and the entire user community collectively published a “cookbook” of source code for reports that many of the users had built for use with the database application and wanted to share with others.

Today the opportunities for building these communities of practice have a vast number of “free” social tools to employ, so that barrier has gone away. More important, the benefits to the user community are limitless. It gets to drive discussion about the product, share hints, workarounds, and tips for successful implementations. The user community gets to decide what is important, what is needed in the knowledge-base of operational information. It can call for product changes, improvements and use social platforms for galvanizing the community around specific issues.

One of the best outcomes we saw with our own user community was around a visitation day at our offices for customers to meet together to “test-drive” an alpha version of a major new release. We purposely stayed out of the meeting for an extended period. Later we learned that when each had developed a “wish list” of changes and tweaks to the release, some rather marginal choices had died a natural death as a result of the “wisdom of the crowd.” This was an ideal scenario for us as a development company because we did not have to disappoint any individual users with a unilateral decision to reject their ideas.

Trust me when I recommend to the enterprise search user community, you will empower yourselves in ways you can’t imagine when you join forces with other customers to drive the improvements and success of any product you use and value.