Bulletin, December 2006/January 2007

IA Column
Building IA Means Building Local Groups

by Stacy Merrill Surla

Stacy Surla is the Bulletin's associate editor for IA. She has served as chair for the IA Summit and is on the IA Institute Board of Directors. She works at MITRE Corporation and can be reached at ssurla<at> MITRE dot org.

"I'd been struggling for years to build online communities for information architecture and user experience," said Javier Velasco, an information architect working in Santiago, Chile. "Why were people so excited about doing things when we talked in person, but when I followed up later via email, nothing happened? Only this year I arrived at the conclusion that there's a strong cultural framework in my country where face-to-face contact is fundamental."

Almost 6,000 miles away, Jason Hobbs deals with different obstacles to building IA community. "When the dot com crash happened, the IA role [in South Africa] disappeared. People hunkered down into roles that could be justified, like visual design and programming. I know maybe 10 IAs in the whole country. Though," he added, grinning, "I've heard rumor of perhaps five more." 

The right kind of local group can be hard to find even in locales with many user-centered design practitioners. When asked what it takes to get a local IA group off the ground, Mary MacDonald shook her head. "In the Boston area there are lots of professional groups, but no social groups. There's no place to go to talk about issues at work. We need a place to have human contact and talk about professional IA."

Market conditions, Web maturity, IA population density and culture do vary from one place to another. Yet IAs everywhere seem to need very similar things from their local communities and face similar challenges in getting local groups off the ground.

Where Everybody Knows You're an IA
The IA profession is growing, but a large proportion of IAs still work in relative isolation. Few organizations can boast an internal IA practice, so many rely on individual contractors – IAs who have to work on their own. Even companies with IAs on staff often lack managers who understand and care about information architecture. 

Local groups allow IAs to have regular social and intellectual contact with peers. They afford validation and connectedness and are crucibles for new ideas. Volunteer projects help IAs network and establish themselves in the profession or in new geographical locations.

But local groups are more than just a nice thing to have – they're the key to the future. Building IA as a profession requires building IAs as professionals. This process happens one person at a time.

Simple geopolitics will make it easier or more difficult to build IA community. Wolf N๖ding explains, "In Germany we have five or six big cities where IAs could work, but these cities are far apart. You would drive two to four hours from one to another. So the IA scene is not well established here. The Netherlands has one main city. They have a local group and are meeting regularly. I'm very jealous of places like Amsterdam where people can get together and drink beer and talk about IA."

When interest in a local group begins to gather momentum, it can still be hard to know how to start – and once started, how to keep going. "There was a randomness in participation," Javier said when describing planning for the first big Chilean IA event. "A problem of commitment, time and availability; perhaps a cultural problem of collaboration versus individuality. I'd get people on board, rowing happily. Then everything would stop. We had to constantly regroup the team and get people back in the row." 

The catalyst for the Chilean group was a usability conference featuring a big-name international speaker. Since then they've organized a successful local event for World Usability Day, a website for the group and an Information Architecture Retreat this year, and they meet monthly for informal discussions and occasional special guest presentations. Individual members are working on the next challenge: books on IA in Spanish. 

DCIA, the local group I helped instigate in Washington, D.C., also has a long-running track record. Events range from low key, after-work socials and book group meetings to moderately ambitious affairs, including a deliverables show-and-tell and annual reduxes of the IA Summit. 

The lessons are similar wherever you are. Event planning and volunteer leadership are skills that can be learned. Real community-building across long distances is becoming feasible as we get more inventive with Web-based tools like Skype for conversations, Basecamp for project collaboration and Second Life for visual, virtual meetings. What's needed next is a way to share these practices, so folks don't have to figure it all out on their own. 

A Call to Action
If IAs work in isolation, then IA leaders toil at the center of a black star. Jason summed it up when he said "information architects are the lone wolves in their companies, so it's often the case they're the ones promoting IA. However, the average IA is not a rock star in persona. She's thoughtful, slightly quiet, considerate – an unlikely candidate for evangelist in many respects. Feeling there's a community behind you is a big support – even if it's invisible, even if it's present only in the imagination."

National and international organizations need to get behind local groups – and stay behind them. Giving would-be local leaders the Local Groups Checklist can be helpful, but it's not enough. Local leaders need tools, but they also need infrastructure, recognition and the weight of established organizations behind them. ASIS&T has provided these elements with the annual IA Summit. The IA Institute is currently strengthening its local groups’ program with guidelines for forming and managing local groups, a directory to help IAs find one another, recognition of local leadership and local group activities, and online tools for networking, collaboration and delegation. 

Local leaders make a global impact, and Javier attests, "I've felt a great appreciation from outside Chile as well." Face-to-face or across networks, local groups are bringing an ideal into being – a place where people can get together, drink beer and coffee, spread their deliverables out on the table, share encouragement and ideas, and plan the next Big Thing.

Referenced Links
Javier Velasco – http://mantruc.com/
Jason Hobbs – www.jh-01.com/
Mary MacDonald – www.mmacdesign.com/
Wolf N๖ding – http://ia-wolf.blogspot.com/
Chilean Retreat – www.cwr.cl/events/retreat2006/
DCIA – www.dc-ia.com/
IA Institute – http://iainstitute.org/
Skype – http://skype.com/
Basecamp – www.basecamphq.com/
Second Life – http://secondlife.com/