I have been entangled in quite a few different negotiations and disagreements since the beginning of 2019, but the conflab that recurs most regularly concerns the decision of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG) to hold its big two-day European conference in Bonn rather than London. This has upset quite a few British professionals. I can understand why they feel another London conference is in the best interests of RAG; the onus is on individuals like me to explain why we believe otherwise. RAG held successful two-day conferences in London during 2016, 2017 and 2018. The 2016 conference was RAG’s first two-day event. RAG London 2018 (pictured) attracted the largest number of attendees in RAG’s history. RAG was born in the London offices of Cartesian during 2004, and Cartesian welcomed telcos to RAG meetings in every year since. So it may seem obvious to continue with a winning formula that places London at the heart of RAG’s program of conferences. However, there are good reasons to expand RAG’s geographical sphere of influence, and 2019 will be the year that RAG will pivot by running all its major conferences outside of the UK.
A number of reasons have prompted this decision. Foremost is the recognition that RAG needs to keep moving forward to avoid stagnating. If we go to new countries then we will engage with new telcos and expand our global community. Whilst London is one of the world’s great cities, and is an attractive location for people to travel to, we may be near to maximizing the turnout from British telcos. Every telco everywhere tells me about pressures on travel budgets; it is only fair that we sometimes rotate conference locations so other professionals find it easier and cheaper to take part.
The level of engagement from British telcos makes me proud, but the appetite for RAG in new countries has demonstrated that other regions have been chronically underserved. Professionals elsewhere are sorely lacking the networking and educational opportunities that Brits may sometimes take for granted. For example, last year’s Nairobi conference came very close to matching the turnout at RAG London, and probably maintained a higher average number of people in the auditorium across both days. RAG’s generous sponsors fund four big conferences per year, so leaving London fallow in 2019 means we can direct limited resources towards strengthening the connections we have made in other countries like Germany, which hosted a successful RAG conference in 2017.
Many Brits are tired of talking about another ‘B’ word – the prospect of Brexit. Whatever your beliefs, we can all agree that Brexit creates uncertainty for travelers, and this would likely depress the turnout for a UK-based event. In fact, Brexit has already impacted the schedule of RAG conferences, with Deutsche Telekom originally intending to host RAG in early April. The conference was postponed to June because of the risk of travel delays in the immediate aftermath of a potential no-deal Brexit at the end of March. Perhaps the politicians will conspire to prolong the uncertainty, but I hope British professionals will continue to show their fraternity with European colleagues by making the relatively short journey to Bonn. There are return flights from Stansted Airport advertised for as little as GBP30 so many Brits will find it cheaper to fly to RAG Bonn than to purchase train tickets to central London.
BT have been fabulous hosts of RAG conferences and supporters of all RAG’s activities though we should be wary of drawing from the well of their generosity too often. Another good reason for a fallow year in the UK is the lack of any other major British telco offering to host the conference. Perhaps everyone has grown accustomed to BT carrying the burden. This is dangerous for our community. Complacency can lead to disaster. Just a few years ago RAG was entirely dependent on Cartesian to host and sponsor its meetings. It was only in 2016 that the RAG Committee took the important decision to diversify the range of backers for our activities. After 15 years of continuous support, Cartesian decided not to sponsor RAG in 2019. This illustrates the true meaning of the phrase “strength in diversity”; RAG might not exist today if it had remained totally dependent on a single sponsoring company. RAG will have a healthy future if it can call upon a multiplicity of willing sponsors and hosts. The sponsoring vendors are showing how much they like RAG’s approach; some very positive announcements will be made soon. Telcos need to match the enthusiasm of the vendors, and Deutsche Telekom will provide top-notch conference facilities for this year’s European conference. I hope that stepping away from BT this year will prompt other major British telcos to offer to host future conferences, and thus reduce RAG’s reliance on existing supporters.
Running RAG’s conferences gives me plenty of opportunities to tell the same old jokes to new audiences, and one of my oldest gags is about flying a long way to tell people we should have spoken by telephone instead. I keep hearing other old pros using a different recurring line, but it is one I find less amusing: they say they want telcos to work together at a global level, but they manage their affairs so participants are always expected to attend meetings which are only ever held in Europe or North America. This may suit cliques that attend those meetings each year, but ultimately the strategy is self-defeating. We will never have a truly global community if it is run for the convenience of Americans and Europeans, and we cannot deliver diversity without taking active steps to increase access for professionals from all around the world.
London is a truly cosmopolitan city; I know its inhabitants will understand that an event in London may attract people of all colors and faiths, but that is not the same as giving every person an equal chance to participate. That is why RAG’s roadshow of conferences is the foundation for a more extensive program designed to support online collaboration between professionals living in every quarter of the planet. Meeting with those people helps us to attain the critical mass needed for a genuinely global program of work; spreading the burden of travel shows that we are serious about treating everyone as equals. The act of traveling to a new country means we introduce RAG’s online activities to professionals who were not aware of them before. Though RAG’s internet capabilities are still a work in progress, we are already obtaining promising results from our online education platform, RAG Learning. The user data reinforces the theory that people are more likely to engage remotely if you have already met them or their close colleagues. For example, enrollments for RAG Learning have risen significantly in the Middle East following RAG Bahrain in January.
I appreciate why not holding a conference in London during 2019 may come as a disappointment to some. It would have been natural to assume RAG would repeat past successes. However, we must fear complacency. Professionals often say the telecoms industry is always undergoing rapid change, so we should not rely on familiar patterns of events occurring year after year. In January RAG went to the Middle East for the first time, in June we will return to Germany after a two year interval, and later that month we will hold our first conference in Canada. The objective data shows RAG is making a difference to telecoms risk and assurance professionals around the world. There is no shortage of first-time attendees when RAG holds events in new countries, and we are excited by the growth in the number of users of RAG Learning. If we can bring together the best that every country has to offer, then we will solve the problems of this global industry at a rate which has never been seen before. I believe we can do it. London was where the journey started, now we must accelerate forward.