Biggest RAG Event Sparks Even Bigger Ideas

I find myself in an impossible situation. Normally I like to occupy a niche that few others can, providing an impartial perspective on developments in telecoms risk and assurance. Having brought so many speakers, sponsors and attendees together, the Summer Conference of the Risk & Assurance Group deserves to be reviewed. However, as one of the architects of the agenda I must rely on others to supply that review. If asked who was my favorite from the 38 speakers who took part, my answer would have to be all of them! I can only express immense gratitude to everyone who took the time and trouble to contribute to last week’s conference, whether they were on stage, in the audience, providing sponsorship or performing all those supporting tasks which are so vital to success. Thank you all.

Though I cannot provide an objective review, I must find a way to reflect on a conference that I believe will prompt important changes to how we approach our duties. Writing just two days later – when I would like to be relaxing – I must observe how much more work I now need to do. Let me call for your help, just as many of you helped us with the RAG Summer Conference. Many hands make light work, and whether you traveled to London or not, we will need many more helping hands to realize the ambitions that came out of the event. Over the course of two days we were presented with idea after idea that deserves to be acted upon. Based on the surveys we ran and the audience response at the event, there was plenty of support for the proposals. So rather than reviewing the conference, let me summarize some of the big ideas that were put forward, and which we now need to act upon.

Education, Education, Education

It was no surprise that education would feature so heavily, with several telco managers covering education as part of the case studies they presented. Keynote speaker Bernice DeMarco set the tone by emphasizing the importance of developing and retaining the people in her team whilst explaining the evolution that had occurred within BT. The audience’s interest in education partly reflected dissatisfaction with what was available on the market. This was made obvious when Marcus Bryant interrupted his case study on MTN’s RAFM education program to poll the audience about training providers they had used.

I was surprised at how few of those polled said they had used GRAPA, though perhaps some were intimidated by anti-GRAPA comments during earlier presentations. Nevertheless, the low scores given by the audience for the effectiveness of training confirm we have a serious problem with the choice of training options available. I would go further and speculate the scores would be even lower if effectiveness was more explicitly linked to relevance. As Marcus pointed out, accountancy training may be excellent but will not be necessary for most RAFM tasks. One action to take away is to build upon Marcus’ findings by doing more extensive research on the training courses that telcos want for their risk and assurance staff. Marcus may also come under pressure; he was asked to release the MTN training content to a wider audience. I can imagine rival telecoms groups would prefer to buy that content rather than duplicating the effort Marcus put into developing MTN’s program.

Part of the problem with asking for training material to be released for wider use is that it ignores the important role played by the tutor. Online courses are useful, but there are limits to what can be done without a human teacher in the room with the student. But when we get tutors involved, it becomes challenging to find the money to pay a suitably-experienced tutor to fly to the students or vice versa. Nixon Wampamba also observed the difficulties of getting decent RAFM training in Africa during his presentation, and whilst Shoaib Qureshi shared some examples of the excellent ERM training and awareness program that Ooredoo developed he also told us how cunning he had to be in order to get executives to back his program.

There was one aspect of education that needs improvement and which does not need a tutor to be in the room with students. Hugh Roberts pointed out, then Mark Yelland echoed the need to apply statistical science to our work. It was telling that when Hugh asked who had received formal education in statistics only one hand in the audience – Anat Hoida of FICO – went up. I had to sadly counter that the chapter on statistics in Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers was probably the chapter readers were most likely to skip. Teaching statistics will achieve little unless practitioners are encouraged to incorporate statistics into their work. But it is right that we should be using more statistics, and that begins with ensuring everybody has the essential skills, raising us toward the standard of data scientists.

On the topic of improving education the conference generated more questions than answers. However, David Smith may have gifted us a way forward. He opened our closing panel with his personal ‘audit report’, which emphasized that most of the challenges we face today are no different to the ones we had ten years ago. With characteristic generosity he offered to share his formal proposal for a collaboratively-developed training program with inputs from both academia and industry practitioners. David’s proposal was also written 10 years ago, when he was a director at the Global Billing Association, but my reading of it confirms it as pertinent to today as it ever was. So now the onus is on me to drive the formation of the working group that David envisioned in his proposal, by pushing the RAG to review and adopt David’s proposal, whilst I promote it on Commsrisk. This will occur in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!

Guilds and Trusted Intermediaries

It is easiest to visualize education as a formal, classroom-based activity. However, the importance of networking, communities, informal relationships and the sharing of advice was also reiterated throughout the event. That came through very clearly when I asked Stacy Graham of ANPI why she devoted so much of her own time to the running of the CFCA. After all, Stacy had flown from the USA to talk to us about the CFCA’s global fraud survey. Nobody in the room could fail to be impressed by Stacy’s answer, which expressed the pride and pleasure she takes from the opportunity to meet and connect with her fellow professionals.

Perhaps Hugh Roberts found the best word to summarize where RAG should be headed as an organization. He called for the creation of a guild of professionals in our line of work. I agree with Hugh, and feel that is what we are working towards, though we will only get there through a patient incremental approach. The need for a guild was reinforced when chatting to speakers and other guests during the evenings. Colleagues like Stacy, Rene Felber of the TM Forum and Theresa Whelan of the International Telecoms Risk Forum were keen to explore how we could collaborate further. I was also glad that several of the visitors from overseas talked about bringing RAG-type events to their countries. Given the effort involved in planning the RAG Summer Conference it is important not to promise too much, but we should give this serious consideration.

Jack Wraith knows a few things about managing communities of professionals, after running the Telecommunications UK Fraud Forum for 16 years. His closing advice was that information sharing is most likely to occur when there is a trusted intermediary who can collect the intelligence that telcos are willing to share, then pass it on to others so the source remains anonymous. He also said this would be a full-time job for somebody, which implies raising the money to pay that person’s wages. RAG is not in a position to do that, but I think the advice is sound, and we need to think about funding models as we go forward. On the other hand, I am very keen to ensure we maximize participation by minimizing the costs of taking part. These conflicting goals will be difficult to reconcile, but maybe we can find ways to imaginatively close the gap by ensuring everybody gets valuable intelligence which can equally well be applied to enhancing operations inside telcos or refining products developed by vendors.

The Low Hanging Fruit?

It can be hard to visualize progress when we talk about ideas that are so big and intangible that we struggle to imagine the small steps needed to walk towards them. So here is a brief (and incomplete) list of other actionable suggestions that came out of the event. Let us see how many we can put into practice!

  • Jack Wraith pointed out the conference agenda failed to cover the liaison between our functions and law enforcement. He was right to do so. We should look to address this failing by featuring law enforcement more prominently in our future agendas; perhaps we should begin with a special session at our Winter RAG meeting on November 3rd?
  • David Morrow put forward the theory that telecoms fraud could be tackled by a new and imaginative application of the UK’s existing Proceed of Crimes Act (POCA), thus creating a mechanism for the confiscation of the profits generated via fraud. I do not know enough about the law to confirm his interpretation, but his proposal is definitely worth attention. If Dave is correct we should lobby for law enforcement to use their powers to further crack down on fraud. Expect to hear more about Dave’s POCA proposal in the near future.
  • Participants of our ‘other industries’ panel, including Joaquim Teixeira of Energias de Portugal, Miguel Mendes of WeDo and Ravi Rao of Infogix observed the potential to keep bringing telcos together with other businesses so they can learn from each other. Whilst it is hard to devise an agenda that will satisfy everyone, perhaps we should welcome suggestions for how RAG might run a multi-stream event so utilities, retailers and financial businesses might join us at a single location and participate in some shared sessions, whilst also enjoying other content that is streamed and focussed for each sector.
  • Nick Mann predicted that an increasing number of organizations will appoint Ethics Officers. As RAG embraces areas like ERM, perhaps we should also seek to take more of a leading role in defining what should be the qualifications for an Ethics Officer working for a telco, and describing the common ethical challenges they will face?
  • Andy Gent of Revector pointed out the difficulty of formulating a response to OTT bypass, and this linked to observations that Hugh Roberts made about net neutrality. RAG could seek to lobby regulators in order to highlight the potential impact of regulation on poorly-understood issues like OTT bypass.

Having written myself a long to-do list, I also need to step back and think about what are realistic targets for RAG. We want to keep moving forward, and ambition is good. We also need to be practical; little good will be done if the volunteers on the RAG Committee burn themselves out. Now is a good time to contemplate ways we might reform the structure of RAG, so the load can be spread across a greater number of shoulders. We see we have sympathy and support for what we are trying to do, so let us also see if we can harness that enthusiasm and put it to good use.

A lot of work went into the RAG Summer Conference. I am grateful to everyone, from the fabulous BT auditorium team to the eager microphone handlers to photographer Tom Luddington who captured so many golden moments, some of which have already been uploaded to the front page of the RAG website. Chairman Rob Chapman worked like a Trojan and handled proceedings with aplomb. Hayley Daniels moved mountains and did so much to manage the sponsorship and logistics of the event. Though unable to attend, John Preston continued to provide wise counsel to his fellow committee members. Thanks go to BT for welcoming us to BT Centre, and we are grateful to their executives for already offering their auditorium for next year’s summer conference. And I am doubly thankful to Bernice DeMarco, who was a gracious and generous host, and who gave a compelling keynote presentation.

I expect that Bernice and many of the RAG crew feel the same way as I do today: like a marathon runner recovering from the latest test of his stamina. But the funny thing about endurance events is that after you have accomplished them, you have a strange hankering to go even further next time…

Update 14th July 2016: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Marcus Bryant created the MTN Group RAFM training program. The program was developed by Elgiva Sibisi and Ritu Hukku of the MTN Group Processes and Controls team.

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.

6 Comments on "Biggest RAG Event Sparks Even Bigger Ideas"

  1. Avatar Mike Willett | 11 Jul 2016 at 12:40 pm |

    Hi Eric,

    A great post that no doubt makes your readers from outside the UK and Europe envious.

    I find it interesting that education and training continue to be such a hot topic. Especially, when I think of the thousands of slides that hundreds of people must have put together over the last fifteen (or more) years. Perhaps even more surprising given that many of the fundamental messages of RA seem unchanged.

    So perhaps it is time to reconsider how training is delivered for RA. Perhaps it is the case that another series of slides and practical examples (perhaps with a fair amount of copy and paste) delivered by a trainer in a classroom setting is not the answer.

    I expect you would like me to now give you the answer but the reality is that I don’t have that but perhaps I can put forward some questions or observations that others might add to.
    – generic RA training will only ever go so far and is perhaps beneficial for the RA novice who has only a vague concept of what RA is.
    – business context is everything in RA. I hypothesise that many leakages are unique in that the systems and processes involved in causing any specific leakage are unlikely to be exactly replicated anywhere else (I expect this may be challenged and hope it is). What this means is that application of case studies is difficult to transfer from one telco to another.
    – If RA were just about reconciling data and checking its conformity to agreed business rules, then this would be challenging but achievable. The reality is though that the data analysis aspects of RA pale in comparison to gathering of the right data in the first place, acquiring of agreed business rules, validating exceptions as valid, seeking business agreement on the leakage size, identifying tactical remediation work and root causes and then aligning the organisation to get this work all done. The framework to do this may be “easily” taught but requires ongoing self awareness and practice by the individual (outside the classroom) to master.

    So what might this mean then for RA training? Well, perhaps it is more than classroom based; perhaps it requires collaboration and tailoring to adjust to each telco; perhaps a combination of external facilitator and individual telco knowledge are needed; perhaps it is about developing a series of individualised experiences that stretch, while protecting, the RA practioner to gain the skills needed; and perhaps responsibility sits with the RA practioner to continue to push themselves beyond their comfort zone.


    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks for another great comment. This one is good enough to have merited being posted as an article ;)

      I’m not sorry to hear you’re envious. If there is enough envy then maybe one day you’ll be helping us to bring the RAG down under. And we’d surely want you to be a speaker.

      You’re right about the volume of work that has been put into developing training materials over the years, but that’s part of the problem. We’ve always had a lot of people duplicating each other’s efforts. Partly that is because their work is not coordinated. Partly it reflects the differences between telcos. Somebody could offer to accumulate and manage all this material, but they’d have the thankless (and unpaid) task of indexing and then editing the content to make it more useful to those who just want the material that fits their needs.

      In answer to your points, I’m minded to draw on my personal experience and think about what it was like to be trained as a chartered accountant. Obviously very different kinds of businesses all maintain accounts, so this gives some insight into how you can have a single discipline whilst knowing there will be a lot of variety in its application; accounting for a property management firm is not going to be much like accounting for a car manufacturer.

      One important observation that people may be reluctant to accept is that there are no short cuts; if you want skills that can be applied across a wide variety of domains you need to learn abstract principles and then have either the hands-on experience or agility of mind to relate them to very different contexts. I think some people would like to believe they can command huge salaries based on only the knowledge they acquired during a couple of weeks’ training, but that makes no sense. Even if somebody did enjoy that kind of success, it would beg the question why they got that job, instead of all the other people who could have completed the same training course.

      The temptation to pursue short cuts stems from the reluctance of private businesses to make adequate investment in staff. They wouldn’t employ a corporate lawyer whose CV only says they took a 2-week course in the basics of law. We need to work to realign expectations for our field. I think Hugh’s observation about creating a guild is a helpful way to think about how we can work as a community to realign expectations.

      A guild could also address some of the points you make context, self awareness and the like. Accountants belong to a professional body, and the point is not just to receive classroom training but have access to resources and fellow professionals who can provide guidance and specialist advice.

      Thinking practically, I’ve always realized one major problem with my analogy is that there are a lot of accountants and not many telecoms risk and assurance practitioners. That causes problems with obtaining critical mass in any specific location… as made obvious by the fact that we’re discussing this over the internet but you couldn’t come to the Summer RAG in person.

      I think one way forward is that we stop talking about training for RA and reset our horizons to cover a much broader domain – which is why I routinely talk about ‘risk and assurance’ and increasingly avoid the term ‘revenue assurance’ unless I’m talking about that specific subset of a much greater universe. This would help us to attain critical mass – why not train somebody to do fraud management, credit risk management, ERM, cost assurance etc, at the same time as we prepare them for an RA job? That is no different to expecting an accountant to learn a lot about tax calculations even though their work is in audit, or teaching them the essentials of contract law even though they will spend most of their time doing management budgets. It would be harder work for the individual, but that individual would benefit by being much more highly skilled and ready to compete for a much wider variety of jobs. They would also have a good understanding of how their job links to related jobs, just as most people in a finance function have a decent understanding of the roles performed by other people in that function, even though those roles may be niche.

      A difficulty here is that more education means more investment in the individual – and the money has to come from somewhere. Most practitioners are looking for their employer to pay that bill; they are not so keen to put their own hand in their pocket. This is understandable; investing in your own education is more appealing if there is some confidence of a well-rewarded job afterwards. I think we’ll get there eventually, by way of the concept of a guild and incremental steps towards this wider view of what our discipline is. It’ll take a while, but that’s why I’m in RAG – it’s a long-term program, unlike the quick win bullshit offered by Papa Rob and GRAPA. (His interest was only ever shoving money into his pockets as quickly as possible – and how much better is the industry as a result?)

      We can do this, but we can’t expect to just adopt a single plan, execute it during a spare hour every other week, and witness tangible progress during the space of a year or two. To me, this feels like growing a garden on what was previously bare earth. We could throw money at it in the hopes of a dramatic transformation – employing an army of gardeners with all the tools etc – but we don’t have the money, and none of us have the time to work like full-time gardeners. But we can till the earth, plant the seeds, and care for what grows. It will take time and some will struggle to visualize how the garden will look in future. But we can do it, and I know the contribution of people like you will be crucial.

  2. Michael Lazarou Michael Lazarou | 12 Jul 2016 at 6:26 am |

    Yes, we are all envious; even those of us who were closer to the UK and had the opportunity to attend. I will second the comments on education and for the need to create a skillset that will be more generic but applicable to RAFM or telecoms. A data scientist is one who possesses both technical skills but also the domain expertise of his field. And since telecoms are lagging behind in this compared to the companies posing the greatest threat to them (apple, google, microsoft) it is about time they get their act together.

    Personally, everything discussed here has “bothered” me since I entered RAFM and I believe that Mike succinctly summarizes what continues to bug me: “The reality is though that the data analysis aspects of RA pale in comparison to gathering of the right data in the first place, acquiring of agreed business rules, validating exceptions as valid, seeking business agreement on the leakage size, identifying tactical remediation work and root causes and then aligning the organisation to get this work all done. The framework to do this may be “easily” taught but requires ongoing self awareness and practice by the individual (outside the classroom) to master.”

    The fact that the discussion revolves around education, which is the first basic step in anything we undertake, might also be a symptom of working in a field that is not exactly defined. Therefore, what Eric mentions, to focus on a broader domain, is a solution that could/should/will work. In the short term, RAFM and other risk activities need to find a way to add value that provides the necessary motivation for management to pay for education.

  3. Avatar Marcus Bryant | 14 Jul 2016 at 7:57 am |

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks for the kind words. It was stimulating and productive couple of days. I would like to point out however that the MTN Training Programme was not developed by me. It is owned and developed by Elgiva Sibisi and Ritu Hukku of the MTN Group Processes and Controls team. As an external consultant, I have advised and supported.


  4. Avatar Sara Whitwell | 14 Jul 2016 at 12:31 pm |

    Great article and great event. May I personally give my thanks to my team in the Neural Technologies UK office who helped with the lanyards, delegate badges, printing agendas, designing and producing the sponsorship banner.
    Extreme effort was also made to make sure the bar was dry on the excellent networking evenings :)
    Kind regards, Sara

    Sara Whitwell
    Marketing Manager – Neural Technologies

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