In the last blog, I discussed how the Global Revenue Assurance Professionals Association (GRAPA) needed to expand its membership if its stated goals are to become credible. Today, I want to analyze the current approach of GRAPA to building its content and its volunteer base.
GRAPA communications place a clear emphasis on unpaid volunteers contributing content to their peers for free. In this regard, GRAPA is more like a bulletin board than a professional association. Professional associations do not educate their members by allowing anybody, free of charge, to tell everybody else what they personally think is right or wrong. Imagine a situation where doctors or lawyers went to an online exchange and asked questions like “my patient needs open-heart surgery, does anyone have any tips?” or “could someone send me through their notes of how they conducted the prosecution of a suspected murderer?”. Asking questions like that would imply the ‘professional’ asking them was not competent to do their job. And imagine if they then followed the advice they received! I sincerely hope my doctors are properly educated, and do not rely upon freebie tips to get them through the working day…
Whilst GRAPA boasts of over 1000 members, the meaning or status of membership is currently very questionable. It is not normal for anybody to be allowed to join a professional association simply because they have an email address at a telco or a company that may sell a relevant product. That is like obtaining a ‘degree’ from one of those institutions where you send them some money and they send back the certificate. So far GRAPA does not even ask for the money. Currently, anybody could join GRAPA for free, no matter how incompetent they are, and then try to use their membership as a badge of quality. The problem with that is that if anybody can join, then there is no discrimination based on merit. If somebody did get a job or a promotion because they fooled someone into thinking GRAPA membership meant something, and they turned out to be incompetent, that would tarnish the reputation of everyone else in the association. That is why professional bodies that work to promote the interests of their members are exclusive. Not everyone can join, and not everyone who joins is allowed to remain a member. People join by passing examinations and getting references that show they have the necessary working experience. People remain by satisfying ongoing commitments to maintain their education. People who fail to meet those expectations, who are shown to be incompetent or who act unethically are ejected from the association according to its disciplinary procedures. GRAPA’s members, however, have been through no qualification process, have shown no references, and are not subject to any discipline. In a case where one of GRAPA’s committee members sought to obtain free air travel and accommodation from vendors in order to attend a GRAPA event, the response was prompt but weak. GRAPA issued a policy statement that clarified GRAPA is a volunteer organization and not responsible for how its members behave. Real professional associations bar individuals who behave unethically. They do not hide behind an excuse that allows any member to behave any way they like and still remain a member. Until GRAPA has a genuine disciplinary function, and the willingness to discipline its members, then any rotten apples can spoil the reputations of all.
One of the goals of GRAPA is to set standards. This brings us to another problem area for GRAPA, as it tries to be all things to all people. In most professions, the setting of standards is performed by a body distinct from the body that represents professionals. The reason for that is simple. Standards are usually set to protect customers, and have to focus on the customer’s interests. A professional body represents suppliers, and will focus on the supplier’s interests. To do both at the same time leads to a conflict of interest. Standards are needed because they define the product that the customer should receive. This is necessary because customers do not have the expertise to understand the subject area themselves, and hence to determine the competence of the professional or the adequacy of their work. You can employ an accountant or a lawyer without needing to understand accounting standards or legal prescriptions because the standards have already been set by other professionals. The professional body then just has to restrict professional status to those people who can be trusted to comply with the standards. If standard-setting and professional representation is combined, as is the case in GRAPA, the temptation will be to set standards too low, so all suppliers can be said to satisfy those standards. But if all suppliers satisfy the standards, then the standards have no value. Similarly, a professional body needs to eject members that fail to meet the standards in their work, in order to safeguard the reputation and income of professionals who do meet the standards. If, however, the standards are set so low that everyone meets them, are not enforced through a disciplinary mechanism, then they have no value. Standards that are not enforced are just optional guidelines. If standards are just guidance, the companies that employ GRAPA members cannot assume that the standards will be followed in practice. In that case, then there is no benefit to the customer in employing GRAPA members over other people who claim professional status but who are not members of GRAPA. That in turns mean that there is no value in paying membership fees or for qualifications from GRAPA, because it will not lead to increased income for the professional.
It is fair to argue that any professional body needs to start somewhere. That somewhere, for GRAPA at least, is to open the doors to volunteers and hope that they work amongst themselves to agree on the basis of a profession. Let me hence finish by discussing the true extent of volunteer activism in GRAPA. Of the 1000 or so members, how many actively participate? In my first criticism of GRAPA, I argued that GRAPA was in danger of splitting the revenue assurance community into two by including telco employees but excluding all other revenue assurance practitioners. This was not a moral argument; the problem with a policy of exclusion is that, if you are looking for lots of enthusiastic volunteers, then imposing an arbitrary rule on who can be included only serves to limit the number of people who can make a positive contribution. I cited the 1% rule where for every 100 interested but passive onlookers, there will be just 1 volunteer willing to actively contribute. You can refine the 1% rule into the 100:10:1 rule by recognizing that for every 100 interested, 10 may make a small contribution, 1 will make a large contribution. If the 1% rule is correct, then GRAPA’s 1000 members will include just 10 people who make an active and significant contribution. GRAPA does a good job of making its active membership appear as large as possible, by appointing people to all sort of executive and committee positions. However, giving someone a title does not mean they actually do anything of value. Because GRAPA is little more than a website owned by a small company in a small village in Illinois, the best source for objective statistics on GRAPA activism would be from GRAPA’s own internet forums. Here is a summary of the activity on GRAPA’s internet forums using data extracted on 21st March 2008.
- There are 1107 registered users for the web forums, and the forums include 493 posts.
- Of the registered users, 339 (30.6%) have so far logged on to the site in 2008, and only 86 (7.8%) have logged on in the first three weeks of March. 375 users (33.9%) last logged on between September and December 2007. There are 393 users (35.5%) who have not logged on for 6 months or longer.
- 808 (73%) of the people who signed on to register with GRAPA have never logged in again.
- 89 users (8%) have made one or more forum posts, 1018 (92%) have never posted to the forums.
- 30 users (2.7%) have made 5 or more posts. 12 users (1.1%) have made 10 or more posts.
- The most posts by a single user is 56, which represents 11.4% of all posts.
- The top 10 users have submitted 244 posts, 49.5% of the total.
- The admin group, which is Rob Mattison, his family and workers, have posted 74 times. President Mattison has made 25 posts to the forum.
- Committee chairs have made 48 posts between them. Of the 13 committee chairs, 9 have not made a single post. The top contributor of the committee chairs has made 31 posts, which is nearly twice the contribution of all other chairs put together. Only 3 of the chairs have logged on to the forums in 2008. 5 chairs have only logged on once, to submit their initial registration. Several members of GRAPA’s executive committee have their names and photos prominently displayed on GRAPA’s website but have failed to visit the forums for a long time, and were only active for very short periods after their appointment.
- There are 6 moderators. 4 moderators have never posted. 1 moderator has posted 5 times and the other moderator is the top contributor overall with 56 posts.
- The 220 commercial members include 44 people who have made a post, and they have submitted a total of 158 posts. 126 commercial members have logged in since the start of 2008.
- Over three quarters of registrations are from regular telco employees who hold no position within GRAPA, and are misleadingly categorized as “new members”, no matter when they joined. Of this group, only 28 have ever posted. They have submitted 86 posts in total. Only 194 of this group have logged on since the start of the year.
What conclusions can we draw? First, somebody better tell President Mattison he is a long way short of 1000 active members. His newsletters may have introduced “GRAPA’s 1000th member” but the only way you get 1000 members is by including people who visited the site, registered, and never came back. If you restrict the membership count to people who came back a second time, GRAPA has less than 300 members. Apathy is no surprise though, given that plenty of the people listed as committee members and forum moderators seem to be completely inactive as well. Second, the most active group overall are the people President Rob tried to exclude at the beginning: employees of vendors and consultancies. They are much more likely to have submitted a post or to have logged on recently. Third, the 1% rule seems to be holding true. Nearly half of all posts come from the top 1% of users. Less than 10% of registered users have made any kind of active contribution; by “contribution” I am still including all those people who have posted questions but not answers. Finally, the registration list is growing, but very few people stay active for any length of time. Of the 86 users who visited the site in the first 3 weeks of March 2008, 49 of them had first registered in March 2008. More than half of the visits were from people registering for the first time. More and more registrations may give the erroneous impression of a growing membership. Many people who register soon lose interest and never return. Like prepaid mobile customer numbers, there needs to be a cut-off rule when registrations are considered inactive and can no longer be counted as members. For example, of the 117 new registrations in January, only 9 have returned to the site since the start of February. If people do not come back, they should not be described as “members”. GRAPA needs to be more honest and transparent about its claims to represent a profession when the number of active participants is so small.
Numbers and data – they are what revenue assurance is all about. Look past the headlines, and take a look at the numbers and data about GRAPA’s membership. The claims made about GRAPA being a growing professional association composed of active volunteers just do not add up.