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Confessions of a Listserv Mama.

Four years ago when I started to work for the IMA, I didn't know what a listserv [*] was. Neither did most nontech people. (If you're among the many folks who still don't, check out the sidebar on p. 74.) My job, editor/director for Member Interest Groups (MIGs), primarily involved writing and editing newsletters.

But the IMA was beginning to inch its way onto the Web with the help of Rutgers University, which provided the server and invaluable expertise. (In those dark ages, organizations our size were just venturing into the electronic era.)

While our first efforts at creating an Internet presence may appear unsophisticated by today's standards, opportunities for the future were beginning to take shape. Among them were possibilities for creating Member Interest Groups that interacted and shared information over the Web rather than through in-person meetings or print publications. In line with that, early in 1997 members of the Controllers Council and Cost Management Group were offered the opportunity to join listservs provided by Rutgers. In July '97, after the Small-Business Council was formed, its members were given a list of their own.

Back then the listservs weren't user-friendly. Technical commands and confirmations were required, which were daunting to many prospective subscribers. Still, some members persevered and began exchanging messages through the lists, giving us a glimpse of the potential for this communications vehicle.

SOFTWARE OPENS THE DOOR

The big breakthrough came in 1998 when IMA's webmaster found and installed the user-friendly interface we sorely needed. Now members could sign up for and navigate the listserv lists with a click. Accessing past messages became easier; searching the archives and digesting messages became possible. But access was still restricted to MIG members--less than 6% of all IMA members.

With new software in place, we set out to expand listserves beyond MIGs. The first one open to all IMA members was the Financial Management E-Mail Exchange. I used the term "e-mail exchange" rather than "listserv" in an effort to make the name more descriptive and less nerdy. As it turned out, it was also the legally correct thing to do. The Financial Management E-Mail Exchange was also open to members of the FMA (Financial Management Association), with whom IMA has a strategic alliance, and membership grew at a fast pace. Other free e-mail exchanges open to all members were started in quick succession: Health Care, Not-for Profit, Manufacturing, Government, Family Business, and Utilities.

BEHAVE, BOYS AND GIRLS

From all this growth and change, within a few short years I found myself spending as much time administering and monitoring the e-mail exchanges as writing newsletters.

What's to monitor, you ask?

Well, the theory behind our exchanges is that a member sends an e-mail to the group address with a question, say, "What's your opinion of XYZ Software?" That message is automatically forwarded to everyone in the group, typically a few hundred subscribers. Some folks respond. The responses likewise go to everyone on the list, creating an open dialogue.

Most of the time, the lists work as intended. Questions and answers flow with varying frequency, and they're generally professional and cordial in tone. But on occasion, controversial topics crop up, and disagreements arise. In extreme cases, one subscriber may question the wisdom or sanity of another or use a sarcastic or hostile tone. Sometimes a subscriber will start a thread unrelated to business.

The Financial Management E-Mail Exchange, the earliest and biggest, for a time broke into two camps on that last issue. On one side were the free speech advocates: "This is my listserv, and I can say anything I want on it!" On the other side was the more restrictive group: "Hey, guys, this is a professional list. Let's stick to financial and accounting subjects."

I GET TO PLAY MOTHER

Using the same expressions I'd honed to perfection while raising my two kids, I'd send out messages beginning with, "This is not appropriate..." And like my kids, the listserv folks didn't always listen.

So I took the next step, which was to write rules of netiquette for the lists. As it turned out, many listservs have had these same issues, so I was able to cull ideas from other groups' netiquette guidelines. We've also found a way to enable subscribers to opt out of discussions that stray from professional issues.

Despite occasional eruptions, the lists have largely settled down. It seems, like all nascent endeavors, they have growing pains. Most members show courtesy and consideration to each other. Messages of appreciation are commonplace, as members thank each other for information, advice, and leads. (No, I've never had to tell someone to say "thank you.") Participants have come to realize the destructiveness of rudeness and flaming (hurling insults) since members scurry to the exits to unsubscribe when things turn unpleasant, depriving the lists of valuable input in the future.

DIFFERENT LIST PERSONALITIES

Like people, each e-mail exchange has a distinct personality. Some are more active, some are chattier and wander off-topic more, some are more technical. On a few lists, leaders have emerged whom others seek out for guidance.

Once a list establishes its identity and people come to know each other, they often provide support and career advice. This recent message, for example, elicited dozens of responses: "I accepted a new job...now my boss has made a counteroffer... What should I do?" Similar requests for advice, such as how long to stay in a job, the pros and cons of different industries, and how to handle a difficult colleague, have drawn many thoughtful replies. Sometimes members of a list collectively commiserate with a colleague who's been laid off or congratulate someone who was promoted.

MY CONFESSION

Perhaps I need a 12-step program to cure me, but I actually like being a listserv mama. I'm constantly made proud by the breadth of knowledge IMA members have and their willingness to share it. There are lots of clever, funny members to make me laugh. As for the troublemakers--you know who you are--I sometimes even get a kick out of them.

Because the e-mail exchanges have been so successful, we've recently expanded the Industry-connected lists to 13 (see adjacent sidebar) and integrated them into the new "Industry Sectors." Part of the IMA website, each Sector has its own page where members can sign up for the e-mail exchange and access the archives, take part in mini surveys, find other members through a directory, and link to other useful industry-related sites.

I'm confident that everyone can find the e-mail exchanges useful. So check out www.imanet.org, join an Industry Sector, and take advantage of the opportunity to participate in its e-mail exchange.

Karen Sanders is editor/director of IMA's Member Interest Groups.

(*.) The term LISTSERV is a registered trademark name for L-Soft's computer program used to manage e-mail lists, including the IMA lists. LISTSERV should not be used to refer to the actual lists themselves, says L-Soft, even when L-Soft programs are used to manage the lists.

How IMA E-Mail Exchanges (Listserv Lists) Work

The purpose behind IMA e-mail exchanges is to promote communication among members on topics of professional interest The exchanges, as all listservs, enable you to send questions comments, and responses to a group simply by sending one e-mail. As soon as you join an IMA list you'll receive a message explaining how to participate. The most important information is the group address.

* Sending a message: Compose your message as you would any e-mail, and send it to the group address.

* Distributing the message. The listserver automatically sends your message to all members of the group.

* Sending a response. Compose your response as you would any e-mail. If you hit "reply," your message will go to everyone else on the list. Normally, that's what you'll want to create an open dialogue. If you choose to send a reply privately, you must use the address of the intended recipient in the "Send to" field.

Netiquette: Listservs have developed their own rules for what's proper and what's not. A couple of tips:

* Always put the subject in the subject line. This enables participants to easily screen for subjects they're interested in.

* NEVER USE CAPITAL LETTERS. This looks like you're shouting, and nobody wants to be shouted at:

E-Mail Exchanges You Can Join

The IMA offers a total of 21 e-mail exchanges. Thirteen are part of the new Industry Sectors. You can join right after joining the Sector of your choice. Just go to the IMA website, www.imanet.org. Under the Interest Groups button, select Industry Sectors.

The industry Sectors and their listservs are:

Academic

Communications/Telecommunications

Construction

Government

Health Care

Manufacturing

Natural Resources

Not-for-Profit

Services

Technology

Transportation

Utilities

Wholesale/Retail

There are five nonindustry-connected e-mail exchanges: Family Business, Financial Management, International, Certification (for CMA and CFM candidates), and TechServ (for technical advice). You can join them via the Benefits and Services Overview page of the IMA website. Be aware that some lists are very active. Financial Management, for instance, has more that 1,000 messages in a month.

In addition, there are three MIG e-mail exchanges that are limited to members of the Controllers Council, Cost Management Group, or the Small-Business Council. If you're a member of one of these groups, you can join its e-mail exchange at the MIG section of the IMA website.
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Title Annotation:listserv administrator outlines use and etiquette of e-mail exchanges
Author:SANDERS, KAREN
Publication:Strategic Finance
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2000
Words:1556
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