Irecently enjoyed a great evening with a bunch of other IT professionals from the Toledo, Ohio, area. We met to discuss our trade, have a few drinks and enjoy a meal together. The experience got me thinking about the importance of groups like ours, and I\u2019d like to share some of my thoughts with you.We call our group the Toledo Area CIO Forum. It was conceived in 1996 over a lunch I had with Owens Corning\u2019s CIO at the time, Mike Radcliff. We both had been CIOs in other communities and were familiar with the benefits of these types of organizations. We agreed to create something in Toledo and see how it worked.During the past five years, we have met, perhaps, a dozen times. At each of these meetings there have been more CIOs who considered the group worthy of their involvement, and there has also been a better job by the meeting\u2019s host (one of the group) on facilitation and presentation. There are few other times when CIOs can sit in a room with true peers, and this group has become an important part of our working lives. I find it invigorating and helpful in my personal growth as well, and I know some value rolls over into my company too.Strength in DiversityFor the most part, the companies represented in our forum don\u2019t compete. This makes it all the more legitimate. We have some automotive supplier companies, several glass industry companies and a few health-care industry organizations, and we\u2019ve recently added a few members from the academic and public arena.The mix is broad, but the conversation never slows because we share similar challenges. Whether we\u2019re in charge of the IT agenda at a museum or a petroleum company, most of the entrees on our respective "plates" are common. The best approaches to solving these common problems are not always the same, but the value of discussing them in this informal setting is immense.Not only have we learned that we share many of the same issues, but we have become close as a group. We don\u2019t hesitate to call one another to inquire on a specific issue, request a benchmarking session or propose a collaboration. We have discovered that many of us are "drivers" at the office?that is, we strive to load up and execute. At our forum, on the other hand, we "chill." We listen more and appreciate the wisdom that surfaces. It is not unusual to have someone pull out a PDA and jot notes.Over the years, the group has focused on many topics, some specific to the times (Y2K), others a bit blue-skyish, and most very predictable. We have had a few professional service companies come visit, with the intent to spread the word on what one of the forum members might feel is important. We have always warned the provider not to sell, as the group would not tolerate that after 6 p.m.We\u2019ve also collected statistics among us as to how many seats of a particular product we collectively had or how much in the way of traffic goes through our telecomm lines, and this has netted us a stronger position with several vendors?many of which showed little interest in us individually. For instance, two years ago several of our members were having trouble getting Microsoft\u2019s marketing attention, so we invited some representatives from the company to a meeting so that we could introduce ourselves. We counted the number of Microsoft operating systems represented around the room, and that got their attention. Lo and behold, we were subsequently invited to Microsoft\u2019s headquarters for a visit. We are planning to do this "rollup" again so that we can take advantage of more opportunities to spread our tail feathers, so to speak, to the vendor community.Looking ForwardIn the past couple of years, Owens Community College and The University of Toledo have joined us to learn about our present and future staffing needs. We ask them to encourage students to understand that this largely industrial town is full of IT positions and opportunities. These academics have added much as they bravely challenge our CIOs to lay out what it is they expect the schools to deliver.In the past year, an organization called ITANO?the Information Technology Alliance of Northwest Ohio?evolved in our big-little town. At first I avoided ITANO, thinking that any such publicly funded "coordination" group was just a front for a time-wasting, fund-raising entity that would merely tap us for knowledge to share with politicians.I was very wrong. ITANO is made up of a number of small to midsize companies that represent a wide range of the IT players in the region, from one- or two-person startups to large organizations. The group takes a practical approach to linking providers with users at many levels. ITANO has positioned itself as a neutral player between the IT organizations in the large, manufacturing-oriented companies that make up the base of our local economy and the growing, entrepreneurial businesses thatzrepresent the possible future?bringing together both ends of the spectrum. Acting as a regional trade association, ITANO helps facilitate training seminars, technology updates and networking events that are instrumental in building the industry in our town. We have even asked ITANO to facilitate our forum in the future, since it can both do a more professional job and also use the forum to reach further into the community?a clear win-win.Our group is also considering joint application development that would allow us to broaden product specifications to meet all of our criteria and harvest it as a group. We suspect that the investment would be less, overall, and the product more complete than what we\u2019d achieve individually. Plus, complex problems requiring high investment of resources could possibly even be contracted to the smaller companies represented by ITANO, supporting this growing industry while solving our challenges at the same time.Finally, there is tremendous value in being able to associate with fellow CIOs in a setting that\u2019s not so large you get lost in the shuffle. Particularly if you live in a nonmetropolitan area where chapters of associations such as SIM don\u2019t exist, consider organizing an informal forum like ours. You will learn that there is great value to getting professional IT people together even just two to three times per year. Magazines, conferences, e-forums and other activities for networking are wonderful, but nothing can provide more consistent, gratifying and intimate results as a local gathering of birds of a feather.