On Friday I was invited by Marketing Leeds (thanks guys!) to attend the Yorkshire International Business Convention (YIBC) in Harrogate. I have to be honest and say that, until Marketing Leeds extended the invite, I had never heard of YIBC.
I also have a second confession to make - despite the fact that my previous encounters with Marketing Leeds have involved interesting and interested people, and the opportunity to make new connections was a part of my decision to go along, the real draw was the key note speaker - Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the (British) inventor of the World Wide Web.
There are lots of things I could say about this event, many good and some not so good (like the fact that there is nothing remotely international about it). What I want to focus on here, however, are the opportunities missed by the way the event was, or wasn't curated, and to share some thoughts about what the organisers might do in future years to create something more... well, meaningful I suppose.
For information, and in addition to the aforementioned Berners-Lee, the 2011 YIBC speakers were Roy Walker (comedian); Terry Hill (Chairman, Arup Trust); Monty Hall (former Royal Marine turned tv presenter); Caroline Marsh (property developer); and Harry Grasham (Look North presenter) in conversation with Andrew Strauss (England Cricket Captain).
'Winners: Inspiring people, inspiring people' was the theme of this year's YIBC and looking over the list of speakers one thing seems clear, the event aims to inspire by programming speakers who can offer the business community a different perspective on things by talking about their achievements. This is what happened but, with the exception of Terry Hill's neat presentation about the impact of employee ownership, all speakers forgot something quite crucial - to form a link between their insights and the needs of business today. For me, this made for a rather uninspiring event.
A conversation about the immediate needs of Yorkshire businesses did take place just after lunch when a panel discussion was held between the Chairs of the three regional Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). Fielding questions from the audience, the Chairs reflected on how the region adapts to life after Yorkshire Forward; the role of LEPs; and how the high funding thresholds in the new regime translate into support for Small and Medium Enterprise (SME). Listening to this conversation I started to wonder, if these were the immediate concerns of the business community, what would the event be like if the speakers responded to them.
To illustrate what I mean, I want to offer an example using Sir Tim Berners-Lee's address. Let's say that, instead of retelling the story of the creation of the internet (which was fascinating to a technophile like me, but perhaps not critical to business - I overheared a handful of people expressing this sentiment) Berners-Lee talked about networks and 'network culture'. Let's imagine that he had been prompted by the organisers to reflect on how network culture can benefit an ecosystem like Yorkshire's business community. One of the things he might choose to talk about is 'resilience', a term always on the periphery of conversation in business today. He might talk about how resilience, as used in systems theory, is a term that describes how a system (a regional economy, for example) adapts to cope with a disturbance in the external environment (the closure of Yorkshire Forward, or the restricted access to funding for SME's, for example). He might point out that most systems (I'm taking a bit of poetic license here) adapt by cutting out 'redundancy' (capacity that is spare) which in turn cuts down 'requisite variety' (narrows a system's options - if you don't have spare capacity it might be harder to spot and exploit new opportunities, or to take risks, for example). He might go on to highlight that the ability to network computers has done something very interesting in this context - rather than one computer's processor reaching capacity and slowing down a process, it can borrow redundant processing power from another computer on the same network. As a whole, the network can cooperate to ensure that the system is fulfilling its maximum potential. To bring it back to business, and the physical world, Berners-Lee might challenge the regional community to think about how bigger businesses with spare capacity (financial or otherwise) can cooperate to speed up growth, perhaps by creating space for risk in the SME sector by increasing their 'requisite variety'. In this way the speaker would be inspiring action. Personally, I'd have found that more meaningful to the future development of our business than listening to Grasham and Strauss talk about the uncertain future of test cricket.
In his opening comments the convention's organiser, Mike Firth, had referred to the event "cutting its cloth". This was translated, by some of the people I met, to mean that they had not been able to afford an ex-president or mega star as the keynote speaker, as in previous years. I was left feeling that, if this event is to be scaled back in future, the organisers need to think less about the who, and place much more emphasis on what speakers have to say, that's of relevance to the convention's audience.
I think the fact that a third of the audience left before Berners-Lee took to the stage illustrates a disconnect between the industries of today and those of tomorrow. This was further emphasised by the arrival of two groups of college students and colleagues from a number of the region's key digital agencies precisely as Sir Tim took the stage. With this in mind, I also think something the organisers might want to consider is how they engage with people from emerging, knowledge-based industries, across the region. For our part we are here and always happy to help!