Demanding Change, with Neural Technologies

I drove down to Petersfield, mindful of my double duty. One of my roles was the self-appointed citizen-journalist, a position I had long adopted because of frustration with the alternatives offered by others. What began ten years earlier as an experiment in learning by networking has morphed into my quasi-vocation. This citizen-journalist drove to Petersfield because it is home to Neural Technologies, vendors of fraud and RA software, and I was scheduled to conduct a sequel to my 2015 interview of Luke Taylor (pictured above), Neural’s Chief Commercial Officer. The other hat I wore was that of committee member for the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG). The RAG is also an experiment in education that has persisted much longer than anyone anticipated, having first met in 2004. Their mission – to get people to learn by talking to each other – was one that always appealed. However, there are limits to how many people can fit into the same room at the same time. After completing my no-strings interview with Luke, I knew my next task would be to beg for money, so that RAG could spend it on inviting more telco people to larger rooms in a wider variety of countries, and also on beaming them education through the internet, straight to their desks. And just like Commsrisk, all of RAG’s content would be given away for free, though somebody must contribute it first.

It was a sign of how much Neural already supports RAG that I recognized the person who answered the door; Michelle Norris recently volunteered to be the Secretary for the RAG Committee, and she immediately led me to the kitchen and poured me a mug of coffee. I was early for the interview, and Luke was on a conference call, so another energetic member of the RAG Committee, Hayley Daniels, popped up and volunteered to introduce me to Neural’s entire office. Thinking about my past life as an auditor, I was not sure if they all wanted their work to be interrupted by some idiot stranger who had wandered into their building. But there was no arguing with Hayley, who introduced me to everybody, whether they wanted to meet me or not. My fears were misplaced; the friendliness of Neural’s team soon became apparent. What was also obvious was the pride they felt in working for Neural. I noticed long service awards prominently displayed on several desks. Julie Benham’s stated she had worked there for 17 years, which says a lot about a business that celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2015. When I chatted with Julie we agreed that a stable team is also an advantage for customers, because the establishment of trust and the building of relationships is vital to a working partnership.

Loyalty is no obstacle to innovation, and whilst Raf Wane has been with Neural for over 15 years he was very keen to discuss the projects being undertaken by the engineering team he leads. We agreed that the telecoms industry has seen tremendous change since Neural was founded, and that we cannot afford to rest on our haunches, especially if talented British professionals are to remain competitive with growing numbers of engineers educated in developing countries. I hope and expect that Raf will be sharing his ideas with Commsrisk readers in the near future. And he should, because Commsrisk also has followers inside Neural, as was pointed out when I met Chris Sheerin, a member of the engineering team who introduced himself as a regular listener to the Commsrisk podcast. Based on our conversation I want Chris to be a guest for a future podcast, along with his colleague John Colman. Whilst it is natural for sales and marketing people to take a lead with communication, Commsrisk has a highly engaged audience with an unusual appetite for the nitty gritty detail, and that means we need to hear more from the techies who understand the inner workings of the tools sold to RAFM practitioners.

In particular, I hope that the Neural team will talk at length about their work on visualizing the meaning of data. Chris, John and I discussed how it is insufficient to have data or even to process data, you must also make better business decisions as a result. Human beings communicate in many ways: in words, through body language, using mathematical notation and also by drawing diagrams. Visualization of data is an important area where improved communication will lead to better decisions, especially as we cannot expect every user to be a trained data scientist. The irony is that we have to use some other forms of communication – like the written or spoken word – to explain how the technology is improving, and why it will lead to more effective interaction between humans and computers. This is a bit like displaying an advert for a new high-resolution television on an old low-resolution screen. Superior human-computer interaction is an area that Neural believes is a crucial differentiator for them. To succeed with this strategy they should explain their thinking to all the early adopters who are most receptive to novel ideas. Commsrisk is maintained as a platform for people with something to say; I hope the Neural team will take advantage.

Having completed the office tour with Hayley, I joined Luke, Sara Whitwell, Neural’s ever-lovely Marketing Manager, and recent recruit Cameron Kent. Cameron was hired as a Marketing Assistant just three months ago, but clearly believed in Neural as much as the old timers. Whilst I describe myself as a citizen-journalist, Cameron is a professionally trained journalist with experience of working for news bureau ITN. That said, I believe there is a need for people like me because I can draw upon a working knowledge of my domain that a typical journalist will lack, much in the same way that an old sportsman can contribute additional insights when commenting upon a sporting competition. Whilst I would not expect Cameron to have much grounding in RAFM after such a short period, he seemed very comfortable with the subject matter, and that may be partly due to Neural’s outlook. Though their business involves the development and supply of niche technology, they repeatedly emphasized the importance of supporting and leveraging the human skills of their customers. Instead of blinding people with science, Neural places the emphasis on how technology can help people to do their jobs. By putting people first they make it easier for anyone to understand what they offer. Luke underlined this by telling me that “half of any project” is the process of discovering the telco’s data and understanding what it means. Neural works closely with the telco’s staff in order to do this, and the process often reveals gaps in the knowledge and understanding of those working inside the telco. So whilst the ultimate goal may be the implementation of an automated system, the foundations are laid by collaborating with telco people to grasp the significance of data they already possess. As Luke explained, you have to first understand the data to make good use of it, and “no technology will solve that.”

Luke’s enthusiasm was exemplified when he described why telecoms is such an interesting sector for an innovative firm wanting to construct new solutions.

Telco is a great industry to be in. It’s exciting, it’s changing, it’s challenging, it’s always moving forward. There’s new services, there’s new technologies from whatever it might be: handsets to network infrastructure. There’s always something going on.

Companies have to make sure they’re evolving with it. That’s a problem – some are becoming too risk averse. If we sit down for a year discussing an issue, how much money do we lose whilst we’re sat there, chatting about it, thinking we’ll put a strategy together?

There’s going to be new challenges. Let people question the norm.

Neural has several African customers, and I observed that African telcos are amongst the leaders of change, because they are inventing new norms for the delivery of products and services that extend way beyond the traditional limits of telecommunications. Luke agreed that African telcos also set precedents when dealing with risks like fraud. Sara also chipped in, singling out Kenyan operator Safaricom for their openness when dealing with fraud.

I think Safaricom, for example, have been talking about [fraud], whilst other operators don’t talk about it, they brush it under the carpet. Safaricom have been very open.

I asked Luke and Sara if Safaricom are industry leaders in his opinion. He agreed, noting what a diverse range of customers they serve. Sara observed that they are leaders in banking especially, and Luke agreed that they are doing innovative work in areas like microloans and micropayments. I pressed them on the specific point of whether Safaricom is a leader at dealing with fraud.

In fraud and law enforcement they are definitely very proactive. Kenya is probably quite unique regarding its geographic location. It’s got some terrorist activities, so they’ve got some issues internally, and I think they’re working very well with their law enforcement, utilizing the information we’ve got in our system…

We’ve been looking at situations where law enforcement have already identified an individual – caught him with an elephant tusk under his arm – they’re looking at his phone, looking to track all the people he’s been traveling with and communicating with… Law enforcement is looking to use the telco information to find the gang, and close them down.

I asked which other telcos Luke considers to be leaders in fraud management and revenue assurance.

We have customers like T-Mobile [USA] who we might not talk to for two years, but we go there in two years’ time and they’ll have this huge configuration to do lots of things… They’re very proactive and constructive with what they’re doing with the system, always looking to take it one step further.

Turkcell are another very switched-on, proactive telco, always looking to stretch, automating analysis as much as they can… They’re looking at ‘holistic risk’; they want to look at risk from all aspects, look at [you] as an individual doing things with your friends and family, and want to look at you as an employee… They’re looking at ways of finding areas of potential loss that nobody else is looking at.

Talking about Turkcell’s business intelligence team led to a conversation about data science, and if that represents the way forward. Luke gave his opinion about the importance of data.

…as a company we have fraud and RA and credit risk etc, but we’re saying revenue management can be a lot of things, and the crucial thing is data. The best fraud system in the world… is useless if we can’t get data into it.

If we can… integrate the data, understand the data, that’s crucial for operators or any customer.

At the moment there are domain experts in fraud, in RA, and then there are data experts in data. Data scientists can find loads of things in data but are they relevant to revenue assurance? to marketing? to customer care?

Whilst Luke passionately believes in exploiting data, he observed how it must be made pertinent to customers by giving them the kinds of results they value. An ‘interesting’ finding is worthless if nobody in the business is going to do anything different as a result. Instead of talking about ‘big’ data, Luke prefers to think of ‘smart’ data. When analyzing data, the findings that are truly interesting are the ones which prompt change, because the business then decides to do things differently. Cameron added some observations about the graduate fairs he had attended on behalf of Neural, and how young potential recruits want to emphasize their data science skills. After all, data scientists are considered to have the best job. This prompted me to make a new observation: perhaps one difficulty with new data science graduates is that it is a field where young people can get very excited about the potential to drive change, but they lack experience of what it means to foster change in an established business. It is not enough to simply find revealing results in the data, because somebody has to be persuaded to do something about them, and that is usually the hardest and most time-consuming challenge. We must invest in both technology and people who can bridge the gap from abstract observations to driving improvement.

This brought the conversation back to a subject raised by Chris and John at the start of the day: visualizing data in order to draw the best inferences and so make the right decisions. The goal of Neural’s products is not just to assist data scientists, but to lever data in ways that help individuals who do not have sophisticated data analytic skills. Luke agreed.

We’ve got to be agile. This is a tool; however clever we make it, it’s a tool. We’ve got to convince them to buy it initially, and you’ve got to provide them something tangible, like: “this is monitoring X, it’s saving you this, or identifying this, or protecting this.”

With all this talk of agility, I was forced to ask a simple question, that perhaps should have opened the conversation. Though Neural is best known as a supplier of fraud solutions, what now is the pithy description of the market they operate in?

We [provide] revenue management and data integration, more than anything else. That means we’re looking at traditional things like fraud and revenue assurance. We’re also looking at data transformation and all this disruptive technology… we can mitigate your risks, not just financially, but around how you put those [disruptive, big data] systems in.

I pointed out that many firms claim to be able to exploit data. What gives Neural a competitive advantage? Luke’s lengthy answer came in two parts: they have experience at working with the technology of data, and experience at delivering value from that data. So I had to ask: how does he demonstrate that Neural’s people have the superior skills and experience needed to reliably deliver that additional value? Luke’s answer was straightforward:

We’re reliant on our customers to be our reference, to promote us… They all will say they have a positive experience.

We have a lot of long-standing customers as well. Telkom South Africa have been with us since 1999. MTN South Africa has been with us since 2006. They’ve been through a lot of changes with us.

As risk expert Nassim Taleb points out, the best indicator of what will occur in future is the history of what happened before, and the longer that history of results, the greater the confidence that those results will continue.

It seems that Luke and I have similar opinions on what is required for this market to flourish. That explains why I was happy to accept Sara’s invitation to visit Petersfield; sometimes I fear being treated as a free conduit for sales material. Without prompting, Luke brought up RAG in the context of a dialogue about the need to spread new ideas in order to grow our market.

Eric: Like our conversation last year, you’re just throwing out brilliant ideas and I really appreciate you doing that because you’re helping the industry move forward by sharing these ideas as well as giving some of the character of your business.

Luke: To come back to the RAG… it’s a bit of a breath of fresh air. It’s not amazingly new, but it’s allowing people to speak and talk openly, and feel like they want to contribute.

Luke contrasted his positive impression of RAG with the frustration he felt towards some other associations, where there was insufficient interaction between speakers and the audience. He was especially critical about times when vendors like Neural are excluded.

But we’re trying to help [them]. If [they] make us leave we’ll have no idea what [they’re] on about. We don’t want to hear all your sensitive data regarding your financial losses… but what are [they] getting hit by, what are [they] being impacted by? If we learn that we can actually configure a product to solve it. We need to have that part. You can’t hide that part. You can’t say ‘we’ve got a fraud problem but we’re not going to tell you what it is.’

Luke also identified what he especially liked about the RAG format: the panel sessions where a variety of people are invited on stage to engage in a real debate.

All events should be similar to [RAG]. Not: ‘let’s just get four vendors to speak because they’re paying to speak about something and to advertise their wares.’ Nobody wants to listen to that. If people want to buy something they’ll come and talk to you directly at some point. They don’t want to sit there just because we funded an event.

Luke went on to observe how other events get it badly wrong, and what a poor return Neural receives when it sponsors them. He talked about ‘jollies’, an English euphemism for parties paid for by corporate benefactors where no real work is done.

They’ve all gone for a jolly. They go to the meetings or maybe they don’t, maybe they go to do their shopping or whatever – that’s not going to be productive for anyone.

Luke definitely has a point. Telco staff complain about reduced budgets for staff development, meaning there are fewer opportunities for them to attend conferences where they can network and learn from their peers. But when you look at some of the locations chosen for events, it is no wonder that executives question if they were selected because they are a good place to hold working meetings, or because they are popular holiday destinations. Talking about one association in particular, Sara had this to add:

They’ve picked some very expensive hotels in the last year.

Our conversation continued in a similar vein as we headed to the pub for lunch, and this confirmed that my role as interviewer had come to an end, and it was time for me to argue the merits of RAG.

RAG wants a better deal for vendors, as well as for telcos, by focusing on real learning experiences and real innovation in our field. We want to be talking about agendas that will lead change in the industry, and that must recognizing the need for disagreement and debate, because it is impossible to have significant change that everybody agrees to without hesitation.

Telcos have to change; they cannot simply milk their customers by offering the same old products and services. Neural recognizes the truth of that, and their African customers are amongst the telcos who have furthest stretched the boundaries of their business models. Change promotes risk, but that is not a bad thing for risk and assurance professionals; those risks are also an opportunity to add value and get an advantage over rival telcos. With the help of collaborators like Neural, risk and assurance professionals can extend their art in new directions, in the same way that Turkcell and T-Mobile USA are doing. If we do that, we can then convincingly argue for greater investment in our field.

I enjoyed listening to Luke, Sara and Cameron as they talked about their plans for Neural, and they also proved to be a receptive audience. They agreed to make Neural the first ‘foundation’ sponsor of RAG, providing financial support to cover RAG’s overheads as well its events. This will allow RAG to develop an e-learning program, and so encourage further innovation in telcos by highlighting sources of value that have yet to be widely exploited.

With the help of Neural, and other like-minded vendors, we can do what Luke talked about with respect to his customers: we can show where to deliver greater value, especially in the midst of disruption and change. Believing in the need to invest in our discipline, and wanting a better return than they have found elsewhere, Neural has chosen to support RAG. Now I want them to enjoy the benefits of leading the charge for better education, better networking, and better realization of the potential of risk and assurance professionals worldwide.

They say what goes around will come around. If that is true, then Neural can look forward to a positive future, supplying their eager customers with ground-breaking solutions that none of us have imagined yet, but which we will construct sooner if we have the courage to talk about the changes we want and need. They are in their 26th year, but Neural continues to lead change, not only with respect to their technology but also with their approach to the market. Neural sets an example that others should follow.

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.