Duplicate Data, Duplicate Costs

You cannot have a debate if you only hear one side of the story. Unfortunately, sometimes you only get to hear one side. A few weeks ago, I visited Gadi Solotorevsky’s blog. He had written a piece which, put simply, argued that revenue assurance vendors like his employer, cVidya, are better than vendors that offer alternatives that will save their customers’ time and money. He did not mention his employer, but that is not the point – his recommendation reflected their best interests. I posted a comment questioning whether this recommendation was motivated by getting the best results for the customer or by increasing the revenues for cVidya by doing unnecessary work. It has not been published. Given that Gadi has only ever received (or at least published) two comments in total, that both came from cVidya colleagues, and that the most recent one was posted 10 months ago, you would think he would be glad to be getting some response, even if it is negative. Not so. Last time I blogged about Gadi’s pro-cVidya slant on revenue assurance, Gadi responded, and I published. You can read Gadi’s comment here. So why is Gadi not returning the favour? I think I know the reasons why.

In Gadi’s post, he argued that revenue assurance data should only come from primary sources. That is a wonderfully purist attitude, if you have an unlimited budget to spend. But it is not good business practice. The theory goes that only data from a primary source can be trusted. All secondary sources, so the argument continues, are less likely to be reliable. Of course, this is not true. Secondary sources may be just as reliable as primary sources. Adopting a simplistic and dogmatic rule makes no sense in the real world of business. RA professionals often use secondary sources of data, and always have. Of course, secondary data may have been manipulated, processed, aggregated, filtered and mediated in all sorts of ways. But then again, the same thing will have happened to so-called ‘primary’ data. Manipulation of data is not intrinsically bad, and usually some degree of manipulation is a necessity for revenue assurance or any other task. The argument goes on that revenue assurance people cannot trust extracts of data if they did not design and control the original extract or the data repository. That is nonsense. Understand the data. If it meets the revenue assurance requirement, then use it. Save the company some money by avoiding the need to create duplicate extracts and duplicate repositories of duplicate data. If you do that, you avoid duplicate costs. There is no science that justifies making an a priori distinction between primary and secondary sources of data. To understand the prejudice, you have to look at the motives of the people who exhibit it.

There are several reasons why most revenue assurance projects avoid using the same data as available elsewhere. The first reason is cultural. It is the “not done here” mentality. With this mentality, if something is not done ‘here’, it cannot be trusted. Excuse me for pointing out something that vendors and RA professionals often do not want to hear, but just because somebody comes from an RA background does not make them better at extracting and maintaining data than somebody who does not specialize in RA. People who work in RA make mistakes too. By the same logic, if somebody is an expert in ETL, but not RA, it does not mean they will make a mess of the ETL for an RA project. Sadly, there are many people in RA who are not experts in ETL, or in other aspects of large-scale data management, and some of the cultural arguments about data integrity seem to play upon the ignorance of RA staff. A second extract of the same data is just as likely to be faulty as the first, if you do not understand the cause of inadequacies with the first extract. If there is a genuine concern that secondary data is unreliable then RA people should help the business understand why its data is unreliable, and, if it is not fit for purpose, help the business to fix it. Taking the attitude of “we don’t do that, we just do this” may help RA to keep a tight focus on priorities, but only at the risk of adding unnecessary additional costs to the business as a whole.

The second reason for duplication of data is control. RA people tend to fear that changes will be made to data, to software, and to hardware, without their knowledge. This will undermine, interrupt or invalidate their work. This is a genuine concern backed by real-life examples, but duplication is only a short-term solution. Duplication of data means duplication of maintenance means duplication of effort. At some point or other, an efficient business will question whether the extra costs are justified. Either those costs will be overtly cut, by removing the duplication at some later stage, or the business will continue to waste money on maintaining the duplication, or, worst of all, all budgets are squeezed but no clear decision is made. These budget constraints may lead to errors and problems with either stream of data. Those errors could have been avoided if cost synergies had been realized and effort was focused in just one place. It is often less risky, in the long-term, for businesses to maintain only have one version of the same data (with backup of course), and for this data to be used by the widest group of users in the business. The business can get better returns and better integrity by focusing its investment on checking and maintaining the integrity of that one enterprise-wide version of data, than on distributing its money and effort across multiple versions, where each different version is used by a different silo in the business. In addition, wider usage means more people, with varying knowledge and perspectives, are scrutinizing the data on a regular basis. This in turn increases the probability that any errors will be identified and remedied.

In the end, most RA people will undermine any pseudo-technical arguments about independence of data through their own actions. They do so by using the same data for two, three, four… any number of different tasks they may have, so long as they are all under the control of the same RA department. This may be comforting if you think RA has a special place in the business, but it only serves to turn RA into a silo. Silos in business often end up looking like dead ends, as various experienced RA practitioners have found. In contrast, using the same data as other business users helps to ensure RA is integrated into the rest of the business. Using the same data for multiple purposes also makes good and basic business sense. Reuse reduces the cost of software, reduces processing overheads, reduces the need for hardware, and reduces maintenance costs.

The truth is, vendors like cVidya will also use the same data feeds, the same data repositories etc, for lots of different purposes, when it suits them. So do their rivals. Doing so is not a weakness, it is an advantage. Smart vendors are open about the advantage of using data for multiple purposes to serve the business. In my recent interview of Benny Yehezkel, EVP of ECtel, he used the analogy of Airbus to explain ECtel’s strategy towards data. As Benny explained it, the ECtel strategy is to carry data across the long haul to major hubs, and then shuttle data onwards to the multiple endpoints. This makes good business sense. If cVidya, or any other vendor, had set up a new data repository to do fraud management, and you needed the very same data to also do revenue assurance, would you really insist on, and then pay for, the creation of separate, duplicate, data extracts and repositories? Of course not. In fact, if cVidya, or any other vendor, were pitching for a second project, they would be offering a cheaper price by proposing that the customer leverages the data obtained from the first project. Like elsewhere in business, a ruthless examination of commercial priorities will quickly brush aside any pseudo-scientific dogma.

Let me tell you a secret. When I saw that Gadi had started his own revenue assurance blog, I asked him to join the team of authors that eventually became talkRA. He refused. What did Gadi gives as his reason for blogging alongside other bloggers? Because he did not want to promote rival vendors. Think about that for a moment. We have a lot of authors here, representing a lot of different commercial interests, and yet Gadi is worried about promoting any rivals to cVidya. Where do you draw a line between promoting revenue assurance and promoting rival revenue assurance companies? You might as well ask where you draw a line between promoting revenue assurance promoting your own revenue assurance company. Time and again, I see Gadi pushing a point of view that obviously benefits his own company, and ignores alternatives proposed elsewhere in the RA community. Perhaps he is very lucky to have found an employer that perfectly represents his unbiased advice. But even so, you cannot be afraid of alternative points of view if you want a profession to be healthy. There is no doubt that cVidya is keen to influence the practice of revenue assurance. My concern with many of their recent activities is that they have started to cross a line between seeking influence and seeking to deny others the opportunity to exercise influence. As an accountant, it is illuminating to have observed the proper, and relatively open, debate between professionals about how accounting standards, ethics and practice should develop over time and be modified to tackle new challenges. The only reason to deny debate is when your goal is to enforce one point of view over all others. This is what I am worried has become the norm with cVidya, and people need to distinguish the advice that suits cVidya from the advice really intended to help the revenue assurance community.

There is a third reason for why RA projects include duplication of data, and hence of costs. It helps vendors to make more money. They get paid for doing things, so generally they will recommend doing more, not less. If that means duplicating data extracts and repositories, then the money they get paid is worth just the same in their bank account. So I am not surprised, but I am disappointed, to see Gadi recommending waste, when he writes on behalf of his employer and not on behalf of his customers. What is worrying is that Gadi has previously argued that his blog is not a promotional tool for cVidya. The implication is that Gadi is promoting the interests of all of RA, and not just those of his company. This would seem to fit with his role as the team leader for revenue assurance in the TM Forum. However, this leads to another worry about Gadi’s lack of impartiality. The TM Forum is dedicated to applying the concept of lean business. The central TM Forum model, the NGOSS, is built around this principle. To quote what the TM Forum says about NGOSS:

NGOSS is a TM Forum initiative to drive efficiency in and cost out of the operation of telecom networks. NGOSS enables service providers to change the way they think about their business and operations…

Through an integrated system of business and technical elements, NGOSS allows OSS/BSS systems to become interoperable like never before.

In other words, the very purpose of the TM Forum is to find ways to cut out inefficiencies like systems that do not operate together, silo processes, duplication of data… and the kind of poorly-integrated systems that Gadi is suggesting should be the basis of single-purpose revenue assurance. If RA is to survive in the long run, long after cVidya’s venture capital funding has run out, it needs to be based on efficiencies, not the wasteful exploitation of telcos to make a quick buck. That is the other side of the story. At least at talkRA, you are guaranteed to hear it.

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.