From Ensemble to Horizontal – what makes RA special

It is good to be back in Britain. After three years away, I have busily reacquainted myself with what Britain does best: bangers ‘n’ mash, Sunday newspapers, walks in the countryside, magnificent museums, gastropubs and real ale. Watching the success of the London Olympics and Team GB had left me even more homesick, and eager to return. So I was especially flattered (and daunted) when I received a call from revenue assurance’s equivalent of Team GB: the ‘RAG’. Though largely unknown to the rest of the world, the Revenue Assurance Group has been bringing together Britain’s RA managers for the last ten years. Affectionately known as the RAG, their regular London meetings are an opportunity for veteran practitioners to share their war stories and talk about the latest developments in the industry. And unlike many other industry events, the RAG is exclusive, non-profit, and completely disinterested in self-promotion. So if you are reading this from outside of Britain, that explains why you have probably never heard of it!

Being asked to present to the RAG is possibly the closest I will get to the feelings a musician goes through, when invited to perform at Carnegie Hall. The audience may not be the biggest, but it is the best. RAG attendees are knowledgeable and discerning. They have an eye for detail but no stomach for marketing flim-flam. The hosts, Cartesian, knew from the start that telco people would come back if they could talk to each other, and would stay away if they were forced to listen to a string of sales pitches. That is why RAG has always been an opportunity to talk, with everyone encouraged to voice their opinion, and no tolerance for nonsense. So when I was invited to give a presentation by the current RAG organizer, Jonathan Miller, and my fellow talkRA contributor Rob Chapman, I had no hesitation in giving my answer: no! Any fool can tell Gadi Solotorevsky how to do revenue assurance (and my guess is that they have). And even Papa Rob Mattison can seem knowledgeable, if you put him in a room of people who started their RA career last Tuesday. Now imagine me, trying to say something new and interesting to the most grizzled, most combat-hardened, most battle-scarred RA veterans that have ever been assembled in a single trench. That is a tough audience. A few anecdotes about the good old days is not going to humour that crowd. They were not only there in the good old days, they remember they were bloody awful! Thankfully, Jonathan said I could talk about blogging instead. At least I know something about that topic (any comments to the contrary will be severely moderated).

The wisdom of avoiding a presentation on hardcore RA was underlined when I arrived and found I recognized the majority of the faces in the room. Drawn from the wide spectrum of communications providers based within range of London, it was heartening to see that the UK industry had retained their skills. One of the newbies introduced himself; he quickly explained that he had seen me give a presentation at the first RAG he had attended – seven years ago. Draw your own conclusions about how often I get invited, and the experience of the average RAG attendee. As I proceeded to explain, the RAG had been one of my inspirations for using social media as a way to improve communications within the field of RA. The best learning often occurs from informal, generous, unstructured exchange of stories and opinions. Whilst a large number of telcos are headquartered within a train ride of London, all of them are connected by the very services we provide. Right from my first blog post, I was hoping to use the internet to recreate the same kind of friendly conversation that is still found at the RAG. The point was never to have one voice calling the tune for RA, but to encourage the development of the RA ensemble. And that is what the RAG keeps doing, in its own quiet, unheralded way.

Later in the day, I was heartened to see some evidence that the digital conversations at talkRA could reach forums like RAG. Regular readers of talkRA will remember a pair of guest blogs by Shahid Ishtiaq of Etisalat (see here and here). In those posts, Shahid discussed his ‘CRAWLER’ project, which has greatly improved the productivity of his team. It seems I was not alone in thinking about how to bring together data so it can be more efficiently utilized by the business assurance analyst. Cartesian had also identified the similarities between CRAWLER and their own ideas about ‘horizontal assurance’. I like to see credit go where credit is due. Cartesian deserves credit for transparently referencing Shahid’s influence when they wrote their horizontal assurance whitepaper. And whilst the whitepaper is very balanced, it crucially challenges some prejudices about how to do revenue assurance. As Reena Sharma pointed out when presenting to the RAG,

The approach is to look for a broad perspective across many systems for one subscriber and repeat for a suitable sample, rather than a narrow but deep approach that covers all subscribers. The result is a real‐time 360‐degree view of the customer.

A 360-degree view of a sample of subscribers? Some people would call that heresy! They had better write a new ‘standard’ to outlaw that immediately!!

But seriously, the concept of horizontal assurance gives me heart, in several ways. It shows that vendors can still listen to customers, and to the industry at large. It demonstrates a continued willingness to embrace cost-effective and pragmatic solutions. An earlier RAG presentation had talked about ‘big data’. In contrast to big data, I like to think of horizontal assurance as cleverly skimming important information from the surface of very many systems already deployed in the telco. Then, as is customary with the RAG, the RA veterans of Team GB discussed what they liked, and what they did not like about horizontal assurance. In particular, there was a concern that horizontal assurance is an attempt to automate the detective thought processes of the RA practitioner, and that it would never succeed, because there would be too many systems to interrogate, and never enough artificial intelligence to know how to interrogate them. Like I said, the RAG is a tough audience. Given the choice, they will always trust their own brains before relying on somebody else’s promises. But I have some optimism that horizontal assurance will emerge as a way to augment the detective skills of the RA practitioner, because it will reduce the need to copy-and-paste data from different systems. This should allow the RA practitioner to concentrate on what makes his intelligence unique: the ability to spot unexpected but revealing patterns between disparate systems that are rarely considered when determining how the customer has been treated. The best reason to be optimistic comes from guys like Shahid, who will invent his own version of horizontal assurance if he cannot find it somewhere else. And for myself, I rather like the idea of a customer-centred approach to assurance. It does not stop any telco from doing any of their standard data-crunching reconciliations. Horizontal assurance is not an alternative to standard controls. But it does focus attention on the customer, ensuring all those recs and all those controls really do add up to genuine, comprehensive assurance, to the benefit of both the telco, and everyone who pays its bills.

I find that the most special moments in this frustrating, infuriating line of work occur when hearing many individual voices, and then discovering a new harmony amongst them. And for all the years they have been meeting and talking, the veterans of RAG are well worth listening to.

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 Director 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.