Informed Business Services, the recommended training organisation for CompuServe and Mercury Business Intelligence, launched its Internet training courses in 1993 when there were few Internet magazines or user guides around. Consequently, Karen Beesley of IBS found that participants were using the company as an unofficial Internet advice line.

Beesley looked around in vain for a UK users' group to recommend and, finding that none existed, launched UKIUG (UK Internet Users Group) at the Online 94 show. Immediately 40 people signed up; by last year, membership had swelled to 600.

"From the outset, the group's remit was seen as first, educational, and second, networking, with a longer-term lobbying remit," she explains. "The group held meetings twice a month, the first dealing with issues, the second an opportunity for ISPs and other vendors to demonstrate their products and services."

Beesley was anxious to split the group's meetings into two areas: if people wanted to know more about suppliers and vendors, they had the chance to attend those meetings, but if they wanted to be sheltered from the "hard sell", they could network at seminars on intellectual property, advertising standards and legal regulations instead. Membership costs pounds 24 annually for individuals, with provision for small businesses and charities at pounds 80 annually, rising to pounds 240 annually for corporate membership.

Jo Dobson, information officer for Zurich Re (UK) Ltd, has found the UKIUG's provision as a group of like-minded professionals most useful. "I am interested in the Internet, both on a personal level and a business level; prior to joining UKIUG, I had been using it as a haphazard method to obtain information.

"I wanted to join a group with a strong information-professional basis. The seminars are useful and topical and are often followed by discussion, which is valuable." Dobson uses UKIUG to keep up to date on issues that help her prepare papers and presentations as part of her job.

Nigel Miller, a commercial and IT lawyer, uses the group as a networking forum and values information gained through seminars and newsletters; he found his current ISP through UKIUG presentation evenings.

It is also geared towards developers such as Wendy Brooke, information manager at the Henley Centre, the commercial analysts. Brooke was working as a Web developer at the London Business School when she joined the Henley Centre and now manages an intranet at Henley, finding UKIUG useful for keeping up with intranet development issues.

"The Internet has allowed us to communicate more effectively, avoid duplication and locate information within and outside the organisation," Brooke says. "It will develop to become the most important communication tool the Henley Centre has."

Brooke has hired consultants to work on technical projects at the Henley Centre, both through contacts in the group and, as a result of her membership, through attending the Intradev conference.

Karen Beesley is very pleased with the progression of UKIUG but concedes that, in the long term, IBS may not need to be so heavily involved. "I feel that the group has provided a vehicle for users' interests to be represented and concerns to be voiced, and from which good relations can be fostered with relevant bodies."

As part of her consultancy work for the United Nations Economic Development Organisation (Unedo), Beesley is already looking to use the UKIUG format in a wider context. "Following on from representation at the EU working party on illegal content on the Internet, where the case for the user was successfully put, the group has been asked to look at the possibility of creating a European network of user groups," she says. "And, through my own work in assisting with the creation of an information sector in developing nations as a consultant for Unedo, I have successfully floated the idea of creating a network of user groups for the developing nations."

She believes a natural progression of UKIUG would be as a pool of business people who could be called on for their opinions and experience of using the Internet in the commercial arena. "UKIUG has already started forging a relationship with Ispa, the Internet Service Providers Association, in readiness for the day when members' interests need to be safeguarded. From the outset it was instrumental in calling for the provider community to organise itself more formally"

Sophia Chauchard-Stuart