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August 10, 2010
How to Start an Occupational Peer Group
Only a few years ago, camps were the new way to gain industry insight with peers -- face to face. You may remember, or even have attended a camp lately of some sort -- a BarCamp, a Social Camp, or even a Bacon Camp.

BarCamps and their sister events changed the way we attended professional conferences. Suddenly, we shifted from sitting cocooned in an auditorium, passively listening to an industry expert, to lounging in a classroom, lunchroom, or a bar, engaging with our local contemporaries.

One of the reasons these camps were successful was their intimate nature and direct access to fellow practitioners. There were no rigid requirements, no sense of ultimate authority, and no question you couldn’t ask. Open conversation about social media, iPhone development, Twitter adoption, and Facebook’s latest features or mishaps replaced our passive observation.
We left camps with new connections, WordPress plug-ins, and aggregators to toss.

Enter the occupational peer group

Occupational peer groups (OPG) take the camp concept to a new level, making it even more casual. OPGs are places where peers, competitors, colleagues, etc., gather regularly to share ideas, trends, and insights. While this is not the place for discussion of corporate secrets and new clients, it is a fantastic forum to share challenges, successes, and failures.

OPG meetings have the opportunity for intense brainstorms -- with each comment inspiring new thought, ideas, and perspectives. This is the nirvana of peer groups.

At a peer group meeting earlier this summer, I posed a problem about the functionality of a new product we were developing. One of my peers made a suggestion that hadn’t occurred to me or my colleagues, and I honestly dismissed it until later that evening when I had more time to reflect on the suggestion. The peer’s suggestion was spot-on, but I had been too close to see it on my own. It was the classic “can’t see the forest for the trees” phenomena.

Why OPGs, and why now?

As professionals, we must beware the stifling echo chamber. A professional echo chamber is created when an individual is repeatedly exposed to the same people with the same information and perspectives, hence the “echo.”

OPGs are homegrown

Odds are there hasn’t been an OPG started in your area, but it’s easy for you to start one. You need only a location that’s conducive for conversation and a time that works for most folks to get crackin’. The people you’ll want to invite can be found on Twitter, Facebook, or traditional professional organizations of which you’re already a part (PRSA, AAF, AIGA, etc.). Resist the urge to only invite people you know and don’t feel odd about inviting people from competing companies. Odds are they’ll be intrigued and will accept your invitation. Once they understand there is no competitive nature to the evening, you’re set.

You’ll want to establish a facilitator and set ground rules, expectations, and an agenda.

Ground rules must be conveyed on the front end and should include: Do not interrupt, do not dismiss other’s ideas, do not dominate the conversation, be humble, and stay on topic.

Set the expectation. (And stick to it.) Attendees should be aware of duration, fees, and location. Also, be sure to advise peers when your meeting venue expects attendees to buy food or drink.

Facilitators are essential. They are tasked with maintaining the loose structure of the meeting. The organizer is not necessarily the facilitator. Some peer groups have rotating facilitators, and this is particularly helpful when participants are traditional competitors. It must be stated that the facilitator is not the subject matter expert. If not expressly stated, other attendees may be turned off by their own assumptions of the facilitator. Facilitators should have good meeting skills and prod any persons seemingly not contributing to the discussion.

An optimal OPG size is six people. If more are interested, you’ll need to consider breaking the group into smaller discussion groups and appointing a facilitator for each.

Agendas can be impromptu or set in advance. Fallback agendas that I’ve never seen bomb are Yay/Boo and Challenges. With Yay/Boo, each attendee shares a success and failure of his or her own, or some common industry entity. Challenges are each person sharing his or her biggest occupation-related challenge followed by feedback from the group.

Most of all, have fun, grow, and avoid extinction.

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Dave Barger founded and runs Memphis Web agency, LunaWeb. He regularly feeds his addiction to unconference type events throughout the southeast and has been the principal organizer of five of them. He’s a participant of three different peer groups; one of which he started. He founded TribeCamp, the Social Expedition, and is cofounder of Launch Memphis, which develops a local community supporting entrepreneurism.
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