The Sweet Return of RAG Conferences

The last couple of years rank amongst the most difficult of my life. You already understand the impact of the pandemic, so you can appreciate what trouble it caused for the small team of staff and volunteers that run the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a nonprofit that was forced to cancel a year’s worth of conferences scheduled for Denver, Manila, Accra and London despite relying on event sponsors for most of its income. Many people still ask if I live in Canada or the UK, but the prolonged 5,000-mile separation enforced by travel restrictions ended my relationship with my Canadian partner. And a few months ago I had the shock of needing an ambulance to take me for surgery in the middle of the night. But last week was glorious, despite all the travails that led to the first in-person event run by RAG since our Delhi conference in February 2020. A total of 74 people took the time and trouble to congregate for RAG London 2021. It was an enormous pleasure to be in their company, washing away the stress that came beforehand.

Hardship can lead to a better perspective on priorities. It was frustrating to receive apologies from 20 different registrants saying that yet another unexpected crisis, the shortage of fuel for Britain’s cars, would prevent them from attending. This came after a string of bad news from telco employees who wanted to come but were told their company policies prohibited them from doing so. Even during the conference there were two parents who needed to leave early because of phone calls saying their children had the symptoms of COVID-19. The turnout of 74 attendees was almost 100 fewer than the number who participated in RAG London 2018, the last time we ran a conference in the UK. But after a fall you pick yourself up and continue your journey. 74 is the smallest attendance that RAG has ever had for a two-day conference in the UK, though not everything can be measured with numbers.

I like risks to be quantified whilst quality is paramount when people interact. That was why I especially enjoyed the panel discussions, including our session on the future of RA with (pictured from left to right) Kathryn Garland of Jersey Telecom, Debdatta Mallick of PCCW Global, Ben Hooper of giffgaff and Adrian Harris of XINTEC. The quality of the interaction that occurred throughout the event is also why I feel confident that RAG is now back on track, and I was heartened that many others felt the same. For those of you who could not come to RAG London, let me share some of the lovely feedback from attendees.

Fantastic two days at the RAG Conference London. Excellent to re-engage with existing contacts and great to meet and connect with new ones.

The content whether Fraud, Revenue Assurance or Cyber Security was excellent.

Leading UK operator

Great event and thoroughly enjoyed it. After 32 years in the industry… still took some takeaways.

International mobile group

I thoroughly enjoyed the event which to me was quite informative.

Tier 1 carrier

Thanks for the last 2 days. I really enjoyed it and got a lot out of it.

Fraud and data consultancy

Many thanks for a stimulating day yesterday at RAG – great to be actually meeting people again.

Global RAFM vendor

The entire event… was very smooth with a positive vibe. We’re very excited about the potentials and possibilities.

Software developer

I share these quotes because the prolonged disruption to our community may lead to doubts about how professionals should engage with each other even when COVID-19 is fully under control. Some may spend the rest of their careers working from home; I can hardly blame them as I have spent the last decade doing the same and can vouch for the benefits, both in terms of lifestyle and productivity. The internet enables new ways of interacting that deserve to be more actively embraced by businesses. It is hardly surprising that one of the very last questions asked during the conference was the following.

Will there be options to join future RAG remotely? Many participants might not be able to travel.

The circumstances leading up to RAG London had already prompted me to think deeply about the potential for more conferences that are held purely online, and those which involve the hybrid combination of a physical meeting with remote attendance. However, the answer to the question is that RAG will not run any hybrid conferences, and will run purely online conferences only when there is a proven demand for them. The best explanation for this policy comes from observing how people behaved during the coffee breaks and buffet lunches at RAG London. Nothing can replace the experience of talking face to face with old friends or being introduced to new individuals who can offer different perspectives and insights. It is difficult to imagine a genuine substitute for what happens when a circle of people talk when some are well known to each other whilst others are strangers. These conversations lead to happy coincidences that are almost impossible to recreate online. There is no way to measure the benefits that flow from such interactions, but I believe them to be vital to the progress of our discipline.

The freer the conversation, the likelier it will be productive in ways that are difficult to forecast. Sometimes one person knows of a novel solution to another person’s problem. At other times a new solution is born of an agreement to cooperate between two people who have never met before. RAG conferences are not just a string of lectures to be absorbed passively by an audience that remains silent. Nor are they conference calls where a select group can talk to each other but others need to be excluded. The point of RAG is to help professionals do a better job of managing risk, and that requires the active contribution of as many people as possible. It also means encouraging interaction between people who do not already know each other. RAG must motivate professionals (and their employers) by limiting participation in some kinds of events to only those people who traveled there in person. That is the only way to realize the unique benefits that stem from their being in the same room as each other.

It is easy for me to think of examples of the interaction that only occurs at RAG conferences, though people who have never attended RAG may struggle to imagine them because they are trying to extrapolate from their experience of other events. Things happen at RAG conferences and they also happen between the conferences; most conference organizers foster no activity between their events. The difference between RAG and some events that target the same audience is that those other events include a lot of talk about the idea of collaboration but provide no support to those who might turn ideas into reality. When a telco manager comes to a RAG conference and asks about an initiative like the RAG Wangiri Blockchain, a real-time mechanism to share intelligence that is now used by over 100 telcos, they are not meeting salespeople who are trying to promote a product. They can speak directly to many other users who will talk honestly about why and how their businesses contribute data on a regular basis. Those professionals have no reason to exaggerate or mislead. This environment provides a hothouse to grow collaboration between comms providers.

There are some professionals who believe they and their businesses can tackle every risk without needing help or advice from anyone else; such people have no need for conferences or collaboration, except when they want to show off. The rest of us benefit from working together. RAG conferences are a place where people get the information, form the relationships, and make the compromises essential for real collaboration. Compromise is vital. Any fool can talk about their utopian fancies but demanding perfection is usually an obstacle to making progress. The compromises that occur when people meet and agree to work together leads to initiatives like the RAG Wangiri Blockchain and the RAG Leakage Catalog, the crowdsourced inventory that is now the telecoms industry’s most comprehensive elaboration of all the causes of revenue and cost leakages. At RAG London we launched the new RAG Fraud Catalog, a sister inventory that will capture all the kinds of frauds perpetuated on communications providers. And because we launched it at RAG London we were able to rapidly engage far more volunteers who offered to contribute their insights than would have been possible anywhere else.

There is also a need to deliver content online, because not everyone can travel to every physical meeting. My personal commitment to producing online content for professionals should be obvious from this website. However, it is not necessary to present online content using a format that mimics the attributes of an in-person conference. The streaming of television has enabled binge watching, but few choose to spend eight consecutive hours passively watching the same show, only to do the same thing the following day. So why should RAG distribute online content in day-long batches when any online event has already foregone the advantage of facilitating conversation during the breaks?

The pursuit of efficiencies in marketing offers one reason why others may prefer to run online conferences: it is more cost-effective to advertise one extended activity than many smaller separate activities. Another reason to run online conferences is control: taking payment for access or managing registrations is also easier for a single large event than for many small separate events. Neither of these is an advantage for RAG. The once-a-week format for each season of the RAG TV interview show has proven that the best advertising for a live streaming episode comes from the episode that was broadcast during the previous week. And RAG’s goal is to remove barriers to entry, instead of imposing controls over who is in the audience. That is why anyone can watch RAG TV by simply visiting the RAG website, without ever needing to register. The audience can watch live if the priority is to ask questions of the expert guests, or watch the recording of the show if the priority is choosing a convenient time to consume the content.

I believe it is better for RAG’s community if we maintain a clear distinction between the series of in-person conferences that occur four times a year, with each being held on a different continent, and the RAG TV interview shows that are broadcast via the internet for around 90 minutes each week, in seasons that are 10 to 20 weeks in duration. This combination will allow us to satisfy the widest range of audience members with the resources at our disposal. It also avoids the trap of encouraging comms providers to prohibit travel. We must dispute the myth that an online conference can accomplish all the same things that are achieved when people meet in person. Or to put it another way, why would modern technology make it unnecessary for risk and assurance professionals to meet to find ways to better help each other succeed, when so many executives still consider it necessary to fly to places like Barcelona for events like Mobile World Congress?

The next RAG conference will be RAG Dubai, to be held February 15-16 at Le Meridien Dubai Hotel & Conference Centre, next to Dubai’s international airport. We are hopeful of a big turnout, not least because Dubai is also the host of the World Expo that has just begun and will still be running in February. As usual, employees of comms providers are welcome to attend RAG Dubai for free; you can register here.

The Dubai conference will be followed by RAG’s first return to the USA since RAG Kansas in 2018. RAG New Orelans is scheduled for April 5-6 with the venue to be confirmed and announced imminently; comms providers can reserve their free seats here.

Between the next two conferences we hope to cater to a wide range of professionals working in the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and both American continents. That will leave us only needing to finalize our search for a venue convenient for comms providers in the AsiaPac region to complete the global tour.

RAG is rolling again. We appreciate the patience of everyone who has been waiting for the return of our in-person conferences. Be sure that we will come to a country near you as soon as we can. Please help us to recapture our momentum and drive forward progress in the management of risks by joining us at the conference closest to you. After such a long time apart, we are looking forward to seeing you again.

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.