10 RAFM Issues: Professionalization

This is the third in a series of 10 articles about issues that matter to RAFM practitioners. These posts are being published on consecutive Wednesdays with the goal of executing a reverse survey, where the importance of the subjects is determined by how many people read each post, instead of asking people to submit answers to a conventional survey. The content of this post continues some of the themes discussed in the previous article, which was about education. There are several reasons why practitioners want better education, but enhancing their professional status is the crucial motivation. Or to be even more blunt, they want more pay.

Forming a guild

This article could waffle about professionalization, talking about standards and ethics and qualifications and whatnot. What really matters is that everybody wants to earn more. Professionalization is a form of exchange; an individual undertakes the hard work necessary to prove their abilities as a professional, and employers reward those individuals by paying a premium for guaranteed competence at performing particular roles. So all the issues in professionalization can be reduced to this fundamental dynamic: which skills are needed; how the skills can be obtained; who vouches that the individual has really acquired those skills; and what employers are prepared to pay for those skills.

Strategic thinker Hugh Roberts said at the RAG Summer Conference that risk and assurance professionals need to form a ‘guild’. That is a good word to use. The original guilds were associations of people with common skills and trades – merchants, craftsmen, and the like. They cooperated to improve the quality of the products available to their local market, and to exclude charlatans and unskilled workers who might lower prices by selling inferior goods. As such, a guild exhibits characteristics we find in modern-day professional associations but also aspects of trade unions and cartels. The concept of the guild reminds us that modern professional associations also embody some of the roles played by trade unions and cartels. Whilst a word like ‘cartel’ might have a negative connotation, nobody complains that their surgeon earns an improved wage because they joined the ‘cartel’ of qualified medical professionals!

The idea of a guild appeals, but somebody has to take the steps necessary to form that guild, and its formation must involve an element of mutual compromise as all agree to abide by common rules. You cannot even maintain a cartel unless everybody in the cartel follows the same rules about pricing, production, and so forth. However, we would be trying to create common rules for a very diverse group of people. Whilst we do similar jobs, and many of us can communicate in English, a worldwide guild of communications risk and assurance professionals will not enjoy the common culture and history that helped the members of the original guilds to come together for mutual benefit. And the international nature of the comms industry means the guild has to operate worldwide, or its purpose will be easily defeated.

Who pays the piper?

Forming a guild will require some people to take a lead with coordination, which means the people forming the guild must be rewarded if their efforts are to be sustained over time. One kind of reward is that membership of the guild confers improved pay – so long as the people paying them recognize the standing of the guild. But running the guild may also require full-time administration, so the administrators would need to be paid by the members of the guild. A tricky balancing act must be performed; the amount paid to the people who run the guild would be a slice of the increased earnings enjoyed by the members. So the members have to receive those increased earnings, and a fair share of that must then be shared with the administrators. As with the cartel analogy, if too many try to gain the benefits of membership whilst breaking the rules, or if the administrators are too greedy, then the cartel will break down. Or, in this case, the guild will never get started in the first place.

There is an old saying in English: “he who pays the piper calls the tune”. It means the choice of the music is determined not by the musician, but the person who pays the musician. In this context, who should make the initial outlay to form a guild, and so determine the rules to be followed by members, when the purpose of a guild is to bring all the relevant skilled workers together by common consent for the mutual benefit of all?

The guild administrators might be first to pay their money. They could bear the cost of the overheads of constructing the guildhall where members meet, do the work needed to advertise the first meetings, maintain the records of who is a member and how they qualified, and so forth. But then they are taking a chance – what if they expend all that money and effort, but nobody agrees to pay the membership fees afterwards? That can be a difficulty in this era; consider how many web-based services are popular only so long as they remain free.

Perhaps the members could pay first, raising the money needed for a guild by everyone making a contribution. In the modern era we might think of this like a Kickstarter project: if enough people make the same donation, the activity is funded and work can commence. However, Kickstarter takes money from anybody, and a guild needs to restrict its membership to only those who deserve to belong. So that makes it hard to envisage an approach which encourages enough of the right people (i.e. competent practitioners) to contribute, whilst stopping the wrong people (incompetents, cheats, etc) from also buying their way into the guild.

And ultimately the employers and customers – the telcos and other comms providers – must recognize the value of the guild. Either they may pay the membership fees directly, or they will give bigger salaries to guild members, or they will only give jobs to guild members. But how might we get them to buy into the idea before the guild has been formed? Or how long could we persist before any guild would collapse because it had not received support from the ultimate paymasters? And how many telcos even appreciate their own need for competent professionals in RAFM roles?

I can imagine various scenarios which could lead to the formation of a guild. Perhaps a big international telecoms group might impose their own professional standards on their RAFM people. They might then reach a common agreement with another big international telecoms group and then you could have the beginnings of the transferable value of guild membership, as all their staff would have to comply with the same standards. A different approach might be national in nature. Suppose a group of practitioners meet regularly over a long enough period of time, and hence learn who is competent and who is not competent by simply talking to each other. If they could convince their employers to value this nascent guild, they could seek to boost their earnings. They might also use this national approach as a way to resist efforts to offshore the work done by skilled practitioners. And there are other possible formation scenarios, including one historical example that went badly wrong…

How not to form a guild

As much as I despise Papa Rob Mattison, it was pretty obvious that he always wanted GRAPA to be a guild for revenue assurance professionals. The reason I despise him is that guilds are formed by common consent, whilst he just appointed himself the boss and signed up every chump who would believe the nonsense he spouted or were prepared to follow him for their own selfish reasons.

Mattison started by focusing on RA but later expanded his remit to providing a guild for fraud managers, internal auditors, uncle Tom Cobley and all. And that pretty much explains why his model of a guild will always fail. Guilds cannot work by simply accumulating the largest possible membership. To get the most members, you allow everybody in. But if you let everybody in, then there is no value in being a member. The whole point of GRAPA has hence been to present itself as guild, and so receive money from telcos that think it is a guild, without demanding the standards of competence which would have excluded a lot of people who are now certified GRAPA ‘professionals’. The pieces of paper he sell are like phony degrees from bogus universities – some people might be fooled into thinking they prove some accomplishment by the individual whose name is written on them, but the true worth is zero.

I suppose some might accuse me of bias. To my knowledge, I am the only individual who was ever denied membership of GRAPA. So if GRAPA was a guild, then literally everybody else is qualified to work in RAFM, but I would not be qualified by virtue of my pointing out the chief administrator is a liar. When put that way, I hope everyone can see why a genuine professional association cannot work like that.

Mattison’s motive was always profit, and so he wanted a big chunk of cash in return for amounts he spent on setting up GRAPA – which were the paltry amounts involved in setting up a website, compiling a spam email list, writing his one-man set of rules and qualifications, and issuing lots of spam marketing. People may forget, but he was incredibly naive at the outset. He set up literally hundreds of web forums, which were his equivalent of the guildhall where members meet and interact. He thought people would just flock to forums and post lots and lots of brilliant advice for each other. They never did, probably because they guessed that Mattison wanted them to gift their valuable knowledge, just so he could later charge them for the right to say they knew it. That was why he ended up faking the votes to ratify the training program he developed single-handedly, and talked a lot about committees and town hall meetings that never met or never occurred. Only two of his web forums received more than a couple of posts. They were the one dedicated to the ever-tedious and completely unproductive debate of ‘how to define revenue assurance’ and the one which debated the name of the titles to be handed out to members. This latter debate ended suddenly when Mattison personally intervened to prevent the forum selecting “Certified Revenue Assurance Professional” as their preferred title. And therein you have all you need to know about the quality and competence of these initial members of GRAPA, though none of them were ever turned away.

Supply and demand

In conclusion, the nodding heads indicated that most people agreed with Hugh Roberts’ vision of a guild for risk and assurance professionals. And maybe the industry will form that guild eventually. We do not know who will take the lead; it could be a telco, a vendor that grows dominant in the market place, an existing professional body moving into RAFM, or perhaps a new organization. I expect some of the fraud management bodies already consider themselves to be a guild, although they mostly trade intelligence instead of seeking to enforce professional standards. The demand for a professional guild is vaguely there, but we do not know how much the demand would be maintained when invoices are issued for membership fees. And we are unsure where the supply will come from. Somebody needs to do the hard work of defining professional standards for competence and behavior, and the much more unpleasant task of excluding those who do not conform to them. So both supply and demand are ongoing issues for the professionalization of RAFM, and we cannot predict how and when they might be resolved.

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 Chief Executive 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.