Assured and Direct: Report from the Subex User Conference

After writing 638 posts for talkRA, I may not be the ideal advocate for the principle that ‘less is more’. However, I passionately believe that good decision-making demands a sharp focus on the goals you most want to accomplish. As a risk manager, I recognized that businesses cannot identify and measure the risks that will prevent them meeting their objectives, if they have not yet agreed what their objectives are. You cannot prioritize risks, if objectives lack any sense of prioritization. Prematurely diving into data will never deliver optimal outcomes. Pouring through detail, and searching for specific points of failure, will not force us to examine and overturn flawed assumptions. In the best organizations, tactics come before operations, and strategy comes before tactics. So whilst employees working in the field of business assurance are supremely capable at dealing with the volumes of data that flow from operational activities, they cannot do much to help their business if the corporate strategy is fundamentally unrealistic or full of contradictions. And when it comes to strategy, less is definitely more. Michael Porter summed it up far more elegantly than I can, when he said:

The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.

I doubt that Subex, or any other vendor, would ever brand a user event with the theme ‘less is more’. When it comes to sales, more is more! Like any sensible supplier, Subex would like to increase sales to their existing customers. But after attending their 2013 user conference in Dublin, I feel that ‘less is more’ is the best way to summarize my feelings about their event. Over the course of the two days, I gained a strong impression of where Subex is headed. I also saw how Subex’s roadmap is likely to double as a guide for how some industry practitioners will develop their own careers.

Subex’s refreshed business model is designed to play to their strengths, not wasting any effort on peripheral areas. Their core strength is in the gathering and analysis of operating data, as found in telcos. Whether supplying the software or providing a managed service, Subex will take the core skills and methods learned from fraud management and revenue assurance, and they will intelligently reapply them to the kinds of challenges which are most susceptible to those techniques. Natural extensions of scope include partner settlement and asset assurance. In contrast, Subex was relatively silent about some of the sales opportunities pursued by their rivals. Their agenda excluded customer experience management, and sophisticated phoney baloney models to calculate risk. Per Porter’s view of strategy, these omissions from the agenda are the most revealing elements of Subex’s strategy. I anticipate that Subex will focus resources on driving up market share in the areas where they are already in a position of strength, whilst judiciously choosing a few key growth areas where there is most overlap with their existing technology, skills and experience.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates spent much of his life protesting how little he knew. When the oracle at Delphi said that Socrates was the wisest of the Greeks, the old philosopher was initially baffled. How could he be the wisest, when he admitted to knowing so little? But when Socrates questioned many other Athenians who were considered to be wise, looking for who was wisest amongst them, he solved the oracle’s riddle. Socrates found that other men were not as wise as they believed themselves to be. And so, by recognizing his own ignorance, Socrates was wiser than any of them. This same deep wisdom – that less apparent knowledge can be a sign of more real knowledge – recurs in the field of business assurance. RA and fraud managers are well aware of how little their businesses know. They also know that ignorance can lead to a false sense of security. Being aware of our own ignorance is the vital first step in managing the consequences that flow from ignorance. Subex’s strategy of sticking to the knitting reveals a wisdom about their own business, and their customers. Instead of creating pompous nonsense models for the calculation of risk, or trying to identify what leads to superior customer satisfaction, Subex will stick to topics that they thoroughly understand. This means they will deliver the most value, at the least cost. And crucially, Subex repeatedly emphasized that they intended to move forward in partnership with customers. Instead of selling themselves through a mystique of authority and expertise, Subex would be humble, listening to and learning from telcos. To my mind, this reveals the same kind of deep and humble wisdom that Socrates tried to teach, thousands of years ago.

Many times I will sit at the back of a conference room. From that vantage point I can still see and hear the presentations. From there, I can also track something just as important: the reaction of the audience. Sitting at the back of the room on day one, I was able to monitor somebody else who was also sitting at the back, doing the same thing as me: Subex CEO Surjeet Singh.

Many of us will recognize how some CEOs interact with a large audience. They are introduced, they speak, they make their apologies for being busy, and they leave, presumably because they need to do deals with important people outside of the conference chamber. Whilst Surjeet’s CV includes stints as CFO of much larger businesses than Subex, I saw none of the signs that are typical of executives who rely on middle men to manage relations with ordinary customers. On the contrary, he attentively watched and listened throughout the day, only choosing to speak at the very end. And when he addressed the room, he reiterated the theme of listening to, and learning from, customers. Instead of talking at length about his plans for Subex, he soon sought feedback from the room, inviting criticism of his company. A less confident CEO would not have taken this risk. But this CEO clearly saw the benefits in hearing a range of opinions from his customers. The exercise also demonstrated Surjeet’s commitment to listening to customers, and working with them for mutual benefit. It was an unorthodox way to end the first day’s proceedings, but I believe it confirmed Subex’s strategic intention to be a business that creates superior value from superior intelligence about telco requirements.

On the other side of the fence, good practitioners can also benefit from this kind of relationship with a vendor. With the right partner, a capable manager is rewarded when helping an external software developer to fulfil a need and better serve the telco’s requirements. Too often, vendors have taken the attitude that they know best. They seek only token approval from a few cronies that work for telcos, and the bulk of customer-vendor communication occurs in one direction only. Like the antagonists of Socrates, these vendor ‘experts’ can spend so much time spouting ‘wisdom’ that they never learn how ignorant they truly are. They first tell the telco employee what systems to buy, then train them how to use the systems, and then proceed to tell the gormless lackey how to do the rest of their job! Superior telco managers will see more advantage in dealing with a supplier like Subex, willing to learn from the customer’s insights and adapt their offerings in response. Better tools lead to better managers, and better managers will seek suppliers who can give them the best tools, where both parties understand that the best is not judged solely according to what is offered today, but also considers what the supplier is constructing for tomorrow.

Subex’s approach of sticking to the knitting also suggests a way forward for developing careers within telcos. If Subex sees commonalities between RA skills and the skills needed to address challenges that have not yet been addressed by telcos, then telco employees should see parallel opportunities to reuse their skills. By so doing, telco staff have the opportunity to extend their scope, having mined most of the value delivered from their existing expertise in fraud management and revenue assurance. Whilst the leap from RA to customer experience management was too far for Subex, and may be too far for most telco employees, the jump from RA to asset assurance is more realistic for both. As such, Subex’s stripped-down and focused roadmap gives telco managers a window on how they can maximize the value derived from their existing skills.

One area where Subex has needed to improve efficiency is with the core of their revenue assurance and fraud management platforms. Whilst they might argue they have genuine market-leading products in both domains, Subex was at a relatively disadvantage compared to rivals who built both their RA and FMS offerings on a single, common core. The separation between Subex’s products added to costs and made Subex vulnerable when faced by telcos looking to reduce costs by having a single supplier for both RA and FMS. Subex’s product roadmap now includes a common core which will be rolled out to existing RA and FMS customers as they upgrade their products.

The principle that ‘less is more’ was evident in various other aspects of Subex’s user conference. There were fewer telco presenters than found at comparable events, but the quality of their presentations was very high. Overall, the telcos conveyed a strong sense of forward progress. Practitioners talked in some detail about what they had recently accomplished, and what they planned to do next. There was no sense of telcos repeating old successes, and very little pie-in-the-sky abstract waffle (except during my presentation, of course).

It would not be fair, nor reasonable, to recap all the good presentations that I saw. Nevertheless, I will do a slight injustice to other speakers by singling out the case study given by Rajeev Davé of Verizon. Rajeev crisply ran through the impressive enhancements his project had delivered. Whilst our community often talks about RA managers putting themselves out of work, Rajeev’s measures of success revealed how Verizon had placed as much emphasis on manpower efficiency as other success factors like improved speed of reporting and lower hardware costs. The true meaning of ‘less is more’ was apparent when Rajeev highlighted how Verizon had consolidated 56 distinct reports into just 6 reports that focused on the key essentials. In total, the better use of automation and streamlining of work reduced the manual workload of the RA team by 45%. And to prove the point that less is more, Rajeev completed his presentation in just 15 minutes.

I caught up with Rajeev in the pub afterwards, and was struck by how he tied the goals of his project to the company’s overarching goal of maximizing shareholder value. When I challenged Rajeev that not all RA practitioners are as quick to link their work to the interests of the company’s owners, he modestly excused his ‘naivety’. If this is an example of naivety, then all telcos would benefit from a little more naive simplicity! Bright guys like Rajeev sometimes engage with revenue assurance for short periods only, as they rapidly take their career forward. It would be a sign of genuine maturity if career paths evolved in such a way as to allow individuals like Rajeev to satisfy their ambition and realize their potential whilst continuing to enhance the telco through business assurance. Subex’s synergistic and added-value assurance roadmap might be one way to engineer such a career path.

Fitter, faster, leaner, healthier, more productive… I could almost be reciting lyrics from a song by Radiohead. It is possible for revenue assurance to be lean without being mean, especially if there is a natural progression where skills perfected in combatting one area of leakage are used to tackle sub-optimal performance elsewhere in the telco. The message that less is more was embedded in the original RA maturity model, most obviously when stating that RA departments should grow to a peak and then diminish in size as leakages are increasingly prevented before they even begin, and as assurance responsibilities are distributed across the whole company. The principle that less is more could also give a strong sense of direction to practitioner career paths, and to the suppliers who make the tools they use. It makes sense to extrapolate next steps from our present skills. This user conference confirmed that the way forward for Subex will involve taking the paths that most directly lead from their current strengths. It will be very interesting to see how many practitioners will accompany them.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is a recognized expert on communications risk and assurance. He was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and others.   Eric was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He was a founding member of Qatar's National Committee for Internet Safety and the first leader of the TM Forum's Enterprise Risk Management team. Eric currently sits on the committee of the Risk & Assurance Group, and is an editorial advisor to Black Swan. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.   Commsrisk is edited by Eric. Look here for more about Eric's history as editor.