10 RAFM Issues: Education

This is the second in a series of 10 pithy posts about the trends, risks and challenges facing RAFM. Unlike a conventional survey, for ten consecutive Wednesdays I will present opinions about topics that concern practitioners, then rank the seriousness of each subject based on the number of hits and shares on the web and social media. Today’s post is about a perennial issue which never seems to reach a satisfying conclusion: the training of we specialists who work in the complicated and demanding niche of RAFM.

10 years… and what do we have to show for it?

The closing panel of the RAG Summer Conference was asked to review both the event itself and the status of RAFM today. Panelist David Smith made his views plain: not enough had changed over the previous decade. David then proceeded to dust off a proposal for the collaborative development of an RA education program that he drafted in 2006, back when he was a director of the Global Billing Association. Though the syllabus would need some updating to reflect changes in comms technology and business models during that period, and would need to be expanded to cover fraud management, credit risks, and other aspects of risk management, it was clear that the audience wanted the kind of education program that David proposed. So how can 10 years have gone by, without anyone satisfying this obvious demand?

The answer to the previous question is simple, but inconvenient. Nobody has delivered a comprehensive education program because there is not enough money to be made by doing so. The people who are competent to develop and deliver a training program are expensive; there are other ways they can command a good salary.

In contrast, the expectations of people working in the field are out of line with the limited generosity of corporate training budgets. I have dealt with plenty of people who only have experience of working in a single telco, but who think that an industry training course should perfectly match their needs because they assume their telco is just like every other. They are wrong, and this creates a lot of problems when investing in the development of training materials. The more advanced the training required, the harder it is to generalize. As a consequence, most training courses have been developed for the junior end of the market, presenting introductory concepts to novices. This is where it is easiest to satisfy the greatest number of customers for the least amount of investment in developing a course.

Long roads, short cuts and consequences

David Smith’s suggestion of a collaborative approach is appealing because it promises to bring together the expertise of different people, and so offer a more comprehensive program than could be developed by an individual working in isolation. However, getting people to gift their knowledge is going to be difficult for several reasons.

Money is made from training when the courses are delivered, not when they are developed. That means there is little financial incentive to give intellectual property away, especially when it may end up being abused by some other party who free-rides during the collaborative development stage.

The minority of individuals who are willing and able to supply valuable intellectual property are typically going to be thought leaders, which is a nice way of saying they are likely to be egotistical. If they do not ask for money they will still want to receive widespread acknowledgement of their contribution. This is a problem if the person actually running a course wants to maximize the money they receive by promoting themselves. And being egotistical, the suppliers of content are quite likely to disagree with each other about the priorities and details to be included in any training syllabus.

Collaborative development can hence be a very long road, and the failure to deliver more extensive training programs partly reflects the inability to keep enough fellow travelers working together for long enough.

There is a potential short cut. Instead of trying to bring several people together and getting them to collaborate, one person could develop a training course single-handedly. The best-known RA training course was developed that way, by Papa Rob Mattison of GRAPA infamy. The weakness with this approach is obvious: there is very little chance of finding a single person who has all the requisite skills and experience to develop a comprehensive course, especially in a field as dynamic and varied as RAFM. And even if a lone expert puts themselves forward, who will endorse that expert and so provide comfort that the trainer is competent and the materials adequate? Mattison made money by sidestepping the need for collaboration and developing a training program that he alone owns. But to market himself he had to create an elaborate pretense of committees and town hall meetings that supposedly endorsed every single word he wrote.

So we can spend years failing to develop the training course that are needed, or one of us can save time by leaping straight to the money-making part of the deal (and lying a lot to justify themselves). But nobody has been able to foster enough collaboration and converted that into a training program which can be delivered in such a way that it generates sufficient financial returns to justify further investment in the course materials and syllabus.

Off-road and online

There are many reasons why people want education, some of which I will cover in my next post, which concerns the professionalization of RAFM. Nixon Wampamba of MTN Ghana also spoke at the RAG Summer Conference, and he observed that African practitioners have a strong desire for education that helps them get ahead in the job market, but the costs of delivering training were often a severe obstacle. Educators may be unwilling to fly to African telcos to provide them with classroom training. Flying large numbers of staff to another country would be prohibitively expensive. But maybe the solution is that customers of education drop one of their most common demands: that training be supplied on a face-to-face basis with a trainer.

In fact, the premise of a trainer who spends all their time on the road should be obviously flawed. If someone flies from country to country giving lectures, what is the chance they spend any time doing the work they are supposed to be teaching others how to do? And if their training program is not overseen by working practitioners alone, then how can they tell if the instructions they give are genuinely useful? Clearly the model of the full-time on-the-road trainer is unlikely to succeed in the global domain of RAFM.

E-courses have been developed for RAFM before. They have their advantages (in terms of cost and convenience) and disadvantages (the lack of interaction and support for the pupil). More can be done to bring together training materials, especially to deliver more advanced instruction to students. I consider Michael Lazarou of MTN Cyprus to be a pioneer in how he systematically takes and reviews data science MOOCs. Much can be accomplished by pointing people to relevant courses they can obtain from various online sources, and encouraging them to assemble an e-training program that fits their personal needs.

However, we can be more ambitious and so seek to deliver human interaction too. We work in the communications sector; is it really that difficult to imagine the construction of virtual classrooms, where a living educator leads the instruction and interacts with students in real time, although those students are scattered around various countries? The challenge here is one of imagination. Too much of our approach assumes we will borrow from norms developed by others – but the niche yet global nature of RAFM means there is much more reason to develop a virtual classroom for this field than for many others. I believe the conundrum of education in RAFM will never be truly addressed until we square the circle of costs, geographic distribution and teacher-student interaction by producing both a collaborative course and a virtual classroom environment where it can be delivered cost-effectively to anyone with a decent internet connection.

Whilst the RAFM community can be proud of all the pioneering and innovative work it has done, we have been laggards when it comes to education. But maybe we can reapply our innovative nature, and the resources of our telcos, and so come up with new education solutions that fit the peculiar demands of RAFM. And if we do, then maybe those solutions may also be applied to other fields where a small number of widely distributed people need a high standard of very specialist but not easily standardized training.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.