Ants in the Telco Anthill

It is no exaggeration to say that Güera’s recent post on revenue assurance and banking, and the comments in response, are some of the best new revenue assurance writing I have seen in years. That is very encouraging, to see our authors generating such high quality output and realizing the talkRA mission in practice. But enough of me patting the backs of the talkRA crew, as the post and the comments have prompted my thinking to go in a completely unexpected direction (which is another welcome, if unpredictable, bonus from this kind of discussion platform). My thoughts are too leftfield to leave as a comment to Güera’s post, but to begin with, let me flag up the debt it owes to ideas she first expressed.

I know that Güera is very interested in what people do, and I have often said that revenue assurance pays too little attention to the dynamic of managing and training people, instead putting too much emphasis on the relatively profitable and controllable subject of what automated systems do. The main thrust of Güera’s observations are that human behaviours are different in banking and telcos, and this is the primary reason why banking transactional integrity is superior to that of telcos. So why would human behaviours be different between banking and telecoms? Then I thought back to some of the themes in my own last post, on revenue assurance evolution and revolution (which was itself prompted by the post by David Leshem on revenue assurance doublespeak). In short, I wondered to myself whether it is worth considering how the business of banking and telecoms has evolved? And how human behaviours, which can be slow to change, have been influenced by that evolutionary process?

Think of it this way. There are lots of people in the world. We do things differently but, in many ways, human behaviours are remarkably uniform and has become more uniform over time. As different cultures have got in touch and interacted with each other, human norms of behaviour have become more standardized all over the world. (I will let you decide for yourself if that is a good or bad thing). To take some simple examples: the consistency of business dress worldwide; that red traffic lights mean “stop” the world over and other standards that influence how people behave (thanks to standardization through bodies like the UN); and the increasing popularity of the “Western” diet and its adverse impact on health in many nations. The telecoms industry is in the forefront of this normalization of human behaviour across all borders. This talkRA site is itself evidence that people scattered across the globe can and do find ways to adopt common behaviours for mutual gain and pleasure.

Technology is one factor in standardization. People use mobile phones the same way across the world partly because they work the same all over the world. However, human desires and psychology is just as important. Mobile phones are popular not because they are a good technology. They are popular because human beings have basic needs and desires to talk to other human beings, no matter where they are.

One difficulty in analyzing the human race is that we are all ants in the anthill. How can a single ant “see” and understand the behaviours of millions of ants? How can he see, and then hope to influence, the net effect of millions? Ashwin quoted Einstein in his comment: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” If there is something about the behaviour of the whole anthill that can be improved, how does a single ant identify that, never mind try to address it?

The problem of seeing are behaviours, and how we all interact, is not just a problem about the numbers of people. Time is a crucial factor. It may take decades for human behaviours to normalize. To take a simple example, I have often commented, all through my career, that I never reinvent the wheel if some other people have spent decades already working out how to solve a certain kind of problem. Their trial and error is built into the wisdom of the solutions they use, so it makes sense to borrow from it rather than start my own trial error. However, if I was unaware of the work of others, or if I get rewarded for delivering something tomorrow, rather than something better (and better researched) the day after, I probably would just start from scratch. But if problems are fundamentally similar, then over many years the solutions will converge too because even the weakest forms of shared research and knowledge (I am thinking here of what I have previously called the collective ‘memory‘ of revenue assurance) will slowly lead to an improvement in performance.
But most of us are going to live less than a century. Which of us is prepared to adopt plans and try to influence behaviours over the span of decades? Which of us could or would be rewarded for taking such a long-term view of modifying human behaviour? So whilst normalization takes a long time, it is not a rational process. Our behaviours evolve, usually at a level below that of consciousness for the people who are subject to the evolutionary process.

Okay, so how does this link back to banking and telecoms, and likelihood of transactional errors in one but not the other? I do not have time here to do a thorough piece of research, but here are some big starting points to consider. First, how old is banking compared to telecoms, as a business model? It says in Wikipedia that the first modern bank was founded in 1406. Communication has been around a long time, but ignoring similarities to postal systems (which stretches the analogy too far, if you ask me) you could only start arguing for the emergence of telecommunications businesses in the 19th Century. Second, for how long has there been international normalization of training and the other factors that determine human behaviours in banking compared to telecoms? This is harder to answer, but my guess is that it is a lot longer as well. Religious edicts may force different approaches to financial management in different parts of the world, but ultimately there will have been a high degree of knowledge sharing, not least because banks need to be able to deal with each other, either to process transactions for their customers or because they lend to each other – though recent events has shown that even in banking there are problems with the quality of information available. A simple example of the kinds of important “normalized” behaviour which are not necessary to make banking possible, but which definitely aid effectiveness and help to make it less error-prone, would be double-entry bookkeeping. It is so pervasive now, that we may forget that somebody had to invent double-entry bookkeeping. People are not born knowing this powerful and systematic method of recording transactions, but now a great many people, all over the planet, will have been trained in double-entry bookkeeping, even if they will rarely or never do it themselves. According to Wikipedia double-entry bookkeeping can be traced back to 12th Century accounting in the Islamic world. As a measure of how long it takes for ideas to become norms, it was being used in Venice in the 15th Century, and only reached Japan in 1870. Third, how many people work in banking, compared to the number working in telecoms? That is another hard one to research, but a simple search showed me that the US employed 1.8m in banking in 2004 and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics said the same number was working in banking in 2006. In contrast, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics says there were slightly less than a million employed in the US telecoms industry in 2006. If the US is representative of the world, that would mean roughly double the number of people work in banking than telecoms.

Put this data together, and what simple, crude, but rather compelling conclusion do I draw? If evolution is a key factor in developing and determining human behaviours, leading to them becoming more efficient, more effective, and less error prone when it comes to realizing the ultimate goal, then banking should be more evolved than telecoms. The banking anthill is much older, and quite a lot bigger than the telecoms anthill. That means banking ants, without perhaps appreciating the reason why, benefit from many more years of collective human wisdom. In banking, there has been more time for trial and error, there is a longer and superior collective memory, there is a greater volume of publicly-available data for academic and commercial analysis, and there are greater cost efficiencies in delivering high-quality training due to the larger numbers of people who will receive it. I know I have made some conceptual jumps, but I think this basic argument is strong simply because of the scale. Of course, banks still make mistakes, but they are not making mistakes at the same low level as we are seeing in telecoms and dealing with in revenue assurance. In telecoms, we still spend so much time trying to get the basics right, we might forget that telecoms has its own version of higher-order failings too, on a par with those which have caused the current banking crisis (let us not forget the dotcom boom, Worldcom, or the many billions spent on network infrastructure that, excuse me, has not actually generated the shareholder returns that were originally promised). Irrespective of higher-order mistakes, banking does seem to have a lot less lower-order mistakes, and that would fit with a hypothesis that the behaviour of banking staff is more evolved – it has normalized over a longer period of time and over a larger number of people – than the behaviour of telecoms staff.

So what, as mere ants who work in telecoms should we do? Well, the conclusion is pretty simple. Do not try to be clever and create a better way of working from scratch. Do what Güera did. Learn from banking. Take the ideas and copy them. Replicate, in the hope that you will benefit from the greater pool of accumulated wisdom in banking, and hence leapfrog some of the mistakes that inevitably come when applying a trial-and-error evolutionary approach to making things better. Study banking and reapply what it does in a telecoms business context. This approach will not be perfect, and doubtless copying banks will lead to some different mistakes that would otherwise have been avoided, but if, overall, it gets us to where we are going, but sooner, it is a good thing. That is how I see things, at least from the top of my anthill ;)

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.