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Local SIGs: Dealing with Change

Richard Anderson

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Very little remains static. Sometimes, things change that affect, or should affect, local SIGs.

To what changes should local SIGs be alert? What effects can various changes have? What changes can local SIGs prevent or otherwise influence? What changes must ACM and/or SIGCHI address?

This column documents examples of change that have affected, are affecting, or will affect local SIGs.

Change Within a Local SIG's Constituency

Constituency changes can be significant enough to shake up a chapter; some can or should prompt chapter renewal; some can hold great promise for a chapter's future. Constituency changes of such significance have been or are being experienced by, among others, GB/SIGCHI (Greater Boston), TriCHI (North Carolina Triangle), CHIFOO (Forum of Oregon), and KC-CHI (Kansas City). Here are short, first-hand descriptions of those changes:

"In the ten years since the founding of GB/SIGCHI, the business landscape has changed dramatically. Gone or much reduced are the local minicomputer companies. Companies such as Wang, Honeywell, Data General, Prime, and especially DEC were the main employers of CHI people in those days. The main employers now are companies that didn't exist or were barely noticeable ten years ago, or are the CHI people themselves."
Kate Ehrlich, GB/SIGCHI's first Chair

"One of the real problems we face in terms of membership is that there are many fewer human factors professionals in the area than there were when we started in 1994. At that time, IBM alone employed over 100 such people in the area. There are now approximately three or four dozen in the area, at most. Probably a third of those are scattered and hard to reach. Most of the people who are no longer doing human factors work in North Carolina have moved to other parts of the country."
Diane Wilson, TriCHI Acting Secretary

"We are a group that used to have an active membership with a different focus. Over the last couple of years, as the early membership was waning, the chapter attracted a number of members who are active in user interface design, development, and usability. These new members have caused a change in focus that feels right for the local community, but means that our members of long standing have mostly dropped out."
Kristine Maneely, CHIFOO Chair

"Forming a new chapter takes considerable effort and time. In fact, the effort doubles if the area does not have too many technology-oriented businesses or institutions. In this respect Kansas City has been going through a major change in the last five years. Now it is not unusual to see software companies popping up every other week in the KC area. AT&T, Sprint, MCI and small telecommunication companies are moving their operations to Kansas City to take advantage of low overhead (e.g., buildings, land, tax) and low cost of living. This type of change in the area is important for groups such as KC-CHI to survive."
Alp Tiritoglu, KC-CHI Chair

Is your local chapter watching for or making adjustments appropriate to these kinds of constituency changes?

Change in Cultures & Boundaries of Locations Served

Constituency changes like those described above can sometimes produce changes in the culture and/or boundaries of the area a local chapter serves. However, this section is intended to address the move of local chapters into locations with cultures and boundaries for which some ACM policies and perspectives affecting local chapters don't necessarily fit.

As I reported in the January 97 Local SIGs column, good reasons may exist for local SIG boundaries to be equal to the boundaries of a country in some cases, such as in the reported case of The Netherlands. However, it is also possible that some local SIG boundaries should overlap. Consider the example of France, as described in these first-hand accounts:

"IHM Toulouse is an active, developing local chapter. The context of its formation is linked to characteristics of the French human-factors community and policies of the ACM. There are probably three local areas in France with sufficient numbers of HCI professionals to create local CHI chapters; these are Paris, Toulouse and Grenoble. At the same time, there is interest in many parts of France, from Nancy to Nice, in a CHI-oriented organization or association.

At the same time, current ACM rules prevent formation of local SIG chapters on a national basis; in France this rule is seen as inappropriate for Europe, where research and practice communities are largely defined along national lines. Consequently, a sort of substitute national organization for CHI was formed called IHM France. Thus the SIGCHI local SIG in Toulouse finds itself as a single entity with links to two different organizations: formal links to SIGCHI and informal links to IHM France. At the same time, the HCI research community in Toulouse has applied for recognition as a French national laboratory for HCI. In practice, some of these distinctions tend to blur. For example, the leaders of IHM Toulouse typically attend the meetings of IHM France, and the mailing list of the proposed national lab may be used to announce meetings of IHM Toulouse."
David Novick, IHM Toulouse Executive Committee Member

"Over the last decade, the French HCI community has been growing steadily. In 1989, we organized the first of a series of workshops and conferences entitled `Journees IHM'. In 1995, 120 people attended the conference; last year, 90 people attended the workshop; this year, we expect over 150 people to attend the conference in Poitiers.

Over the years, it became clear that some type of organization should exist for this community to live between these meetings. In 1995, under the advice of Wendy Mackay, I got the Local SIG package from SIGCHI and started the chartering process. I even got 16 signatures from ACM voting members to charter the chapter. But we wanted the chapter to be the French local chapter of SIGCHI, and we discovered that ACM's policy was that local chapters had to be ... local. We could have gotten away with it by calling it the Paris SIGCHI and have people from all over France involved in it. But non-parisians didn't like the idea, and I realized that this problem revealed a misunderstanding by ACM and/or SIGCHI of various aspects of professional communities abroad.

There were (and still are) very good reasons for this: the community is not very large and apart from a few places (namely Paris, Toulouse and Grenoble) no other place has enough activity to create a local SIG. Yet it is precisely those places that would benefit most from a `local' SIG.

Last year, in June of 1996, we created a non-profit organization (`association' in French) named AFIHM (Association Francophone d'Interaction Homme-Machine), of which I am the president. It has over 150 members and new members are coming in every month.

Even after AFIHM was created, I didn't give up on the idea of a French chapter of SIGCHI. On-going discussions with ACM and SIGCHI and external events (namely the creation of an Italian chapter) resulted in ACM accepting the creation of a French (and a Dutch) local chapter. So we are now ready to establish AFIHM as the French local chapter of SIGCHI. In fact, we had this in mind when we created AFIHM since our bylaws are copied from those in the SIGCHI Local SIG package. And as it turns out, we would have had to create a French `association' anyway to be legal even if we could have created the French chapter in the first place.

What this story tells me is that we have a lot of work to do to implement international organizations. If SIGCHI is to be an international organization, it has to adapt to social, cultural, organizational and legal differences."
Michel Beaudouin-Lafon, AFIHM President

"(Note, by the way, that Greater Boston SIGCHI includes all of New England, an area almost as big as France. Some full ACM SIGs have as few as 40 members, such as SIGForth. So size and number of members do not make good precedents...)

I can give some historical perspective on this situation, since most of the people involved were not around when the rules were being created. We had a problem with the Russian local SIG: basically, a group in Moscow and another group in St. Petersburg each wanted to be the `Russian local SIG'. This was particularly a problem, since we had a budget of $500 for start-up costs for each group. To any U.S. or European group, this is a very small amount of money. Useful, but not of great consequence. To the Russians at that time, since it was in `hard' currency, it represented a huge amount of money, equivalent to several months of salary. The SIGCHI executive committee and the ACM SIGboard (I was on both at the time) agreed that the simplest solution was not to choose between the two groups, but to ask them to each be associated with their local city. (The currency issue was handled as an exception.) The resulting `rule' has now been applied blindly, with unfortunate consequences for the already-active group in France."
Wendy MacKay, former SIGCHI Co-Chair and present resident of France

Change Within a Local SIG's Leadership

Local SIG leadership changes over time, and given the great effect a leader can have on the success of a local chapter (see my April 97 column for a short discussion of the key role a leader can play), leadership change can be strongly felt.

Smooth leadership transitions are often assisted via mechanisms that have new or the next leaders serve in an official capacity at the same time as the previous or current leaders, respectively. Italy SIGCHI is planning to use a mechanism of this type, where the present, founding Chair will become Vice Chair after the first official election.

However, sometimes leadership change occurs unexpectedly, as was true in Los Angeles:

"Within the past year, we have had two chairs that have left relatively abruptly due to changes in jobs out of the area. Our current chair has had a difficult time generating enthusiasm among a membership that now senses a loss of direction."
Sandra Newsome, LA-CHI Council Member

A few years ago, the Atlanta chapter's founding Chair could never find anyone willing to take over as leader, and he eventually left the area. The effect in this case was as dramatic as it could be: the chapter died.

Involving multiple people in significant ways in a local chapter's leadership may help prepare a local SIG for dealing with even the most unexpected leadership changes. (Note that ways to get people involved in chapter leadership were addressed in Kate Ehrlich's January 95 Local SIGs column and will be addressed again in an upcoming column. Note also that interest has arisen in resurrecting the Atlanta chapter; hence, recovery even from leadership loss may be possible.)

Changes in Relationship with ACM and SIGCHI

Unknown to many within local SIGs is that local SIGCHI chapters are chartered by ACM, not ACM SIGCHI. This official "disconnect" between SIGCHI and local SIGCHI chapters has been responsible, in part, for a practical and psychological disconnect -- a disconnect in mutual understanding, support, and, in some cases, respect.

The official disconnect appears likely to disappear. As Mike Atwood and Guy Boy reported in the Jan 97 SIGCHI Bulletin, SIGCHI and ACM are working on changing the official status of SIGCHI from that of "Special Interest Group" to that of "Society". Likely to accompany this change is both a strengthening of the connection between the new society and the local SIGs, and a weakening of the connection between ACM and the local SIGs. Exactly what this all means for local SIGs remains to be determined. However, this is a change with which all local SIGs will need to deal, and it is a change which local SIGs should be able to influence. I'll keep you abreast of developments in future columns.

Richard I. Anderson,
Local SIGs Chair
rianderson@acm.org

P.S. My thanks to those I've quoted in this column. Most of the quotes come from contributions to the Local SIGs Workshop held in Atlanta GA USA in conjunction with CHI 97; my October 97 Local SIGs column will describe that workshop.

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