Staying or Stuck

At a discussion panel at the WeDo user group in 2010, talkRA blogger Eric Priezkalns pointed out the value of imagination in RA. Podcast of the same panel session is here.  He also stated that when he started out in RA, he had hoped that more people would transition out of RA and go on to business leadership but that has not been the case.

Well, I also held this hope at the beginning of my stint in RA. In fact, at the time, I was sure it was a ticket to understanding business, getting a crash course in learning negotiation and persuasion skills and thinking in x dimensions where x is greater than 3. To my mind, the result would be an esteemed brigade of new generation business leaders who are well balanced and adequately exposed, having worked with all functions of the telco. These guys would have gained a level of insight that no MBA can provide and would sniff pitfalls that were miles ahead in the business landscape. They would instinctively know when to take a big risk and when to be conservative because they have been witness to horror stories and success stories.

I must say I have been equally disappointed. I can hardly count peers who have transitioned from RA into taking their “rightful” positions. I cannot help but wonder, what went wrong? Is this as it should be? So I put on my sack cloth and lay among ashes the whole of last weekend, pleading with the gods of RA to show me what went wrong. At the end of my fast, this seer came to me and showed me the error of our ways. Below please find a summary of what ails the RA fraternity.

One Track Mind

Some of the RA practitioners I have worked with were good in one area and very weak in other areas. Nature always self-balances but human beings are very poor in this. The genius kid of data analytics will demonstrate zero skills in process reviews. He may even disdain anything that requires looking at a process. The process review professor does not like getting his hands dirty with really cold and mostly ugly data. Well, I think business leadership requires people who are not afraid to engage all levers to achieve forward motion, including the uncomfortable gears. We have done poorly in this regard and we have only ourselves to blame.

Safe until Senility

When you know one thing, you want to keep doing it and getting better at it. Do we ever think of taking the risk of changing how we do it? This, in my view, is possibly the one major reason a number of people who started out in RA still work in RA. We may all profess the love of RA…oh, how we don’t do it for the money….it’s the adrenalin rush that comes with catching the big one and plugging it…blah blah blah. But perhaps we are just afraid of venturing out into the uncharted waters. Meanwhile, the cowboys from Marketing are beating us to the pie (no offence to all the good folks who work in esteemed Marketing functions).

Bearers of bad news

We seem to have perfected the art of ferreting out where the business is losing. And this is good – somebody needs to speak up when the company is losing. Trouble is, when people only know you as the corporate whiner who walks around with the smell of revenue losses following him, it becomes very difficult to see you in another role except that of a glorified janitor. It becomes laughable to see you as a leader in any form. A chap who is an undertaker by profession will always have few friends however affable he may be – undertakers who read this blog will testify to this. Is it time we packaged ourselves as the evangelists of solutions rather than being harbingers of horror and havoc? Even more than that, proactive prevention of leakages may provide an opportunity for us to show the business the way rather than waiting until the big $ is lost.

The Chase of the CDR and the Relish of Relics

Mike Willet once asked us to spare a thought for the poor CDR. I agree that we should also spare a thought for our fascination with the CDR. This has gone on for too long. Technology has changed (and will change even more), scenarios have changed, margins have become more important, cost management is assuming more importance but we are still in the chase of the CDR.  Not too many years ago, I was in college and we used to impress girls by walking around wearing trousers that were almost falling off our waists, chewing gum 24/7, speaking in the most contorted of slang,  keeping long hair and listening to Walkmans and Discmans. This would prove you are “with it”.  In my father’s day, I suppose they walked around with gramophones. (To be honest the kind of girls impressed by such stuff were often a tad dumb and you would find out after some time. However, the point is: it was working). I cannot hazard a guess as to what tricks today’s youngsters have up their sleeves but I do know they must have changed tack. But in our domain most of us are too stuck tinkering with RA tools, doing UNIX scripts and spotting the odd pattern. We thus never look up. And in the meantime, business swiftly moves on.

Joseph Nderitu
Joseph Nderitu
Joseph Nderitu is a consultant who specializes in revenue assurance. He is currently contracted as Head of Revenue Assurance and Fraud Management at Vodacom's operation in Tanzania, having previously served in the same role at Vodacom Mozambique.   Before his work with Vodacom, Joseph was an internal audit manager for Airtel, with responsibility that covered their 17 countries in Africa. Whilst at Airtel, Joseph led reviews of the Revenue Assurance, Customer Service and Sales & Marketing functions.   Prior to his stint at Airtel, Joseph was an RA manager at Safaricom in Kenya. He holds an MSc Degree in Information Systems.
  • Lionel Griache

    Hi Joseph,

    Uplifting post for a Monday! ;-)

    This is hard to stay on the job in the same environment for long. I’m a fan of temporary mandates for Revenue Assurance. RA Professionals should be like NBA coaches: going to a new team once the winning energy is fading away. The function requires a pair of fresh new eyes every now and then, anyway. This kind of advocates for outsourcing the function. Changing environments regularly addresses a lot of these points. Or even, why not, make it a rotating responsibility in the company, like the lead at the EU!
    In any case, I can totally relate to many of your points!
    Thanks for putting these observations into words so nicely!

    Lionel

  • Dear Lionel,

    I fully agree with you regarding the need for a fresh pair of eyes every now and then. Rejuvenating RA would require that people step out of the comfort zones and also let in other people who can critique, amend and extend the work that has been done so far. However, this does not happen much (at least in my experience) because there is a tendency for people and organizations to settle into comfort zones. Change is rarely comfortable!

    regards,
    Joseph

  • @ Lionel and Joseph,

    Isn’t there an easy answer to ensuring some fresh eyes look at RA every now and then? I like the analogy of the NBA coaches and of rotating the pack so nobody gets too comfortable, but we know there’s lots of obstacles to doing that in practice. But another way to freshen things up is to have somebody outside of RA doing a no-holds-barred, big picture ‘reactive’ review of how the company assures itself that it’s doing what it needs to do. Yup – I used the word ‘reactive’ as something good. The point is not to reperform the task of RA, but to really step back and look for alternative ways of looking at the data and seeing if anything was missed. Take away the pressure to do things in real time, and see if a fresh pair of eyes can spot something that was missed, whether because of a flaw in the way the work was performed, or because RA chooses not to do certain things.

    One problem with RA is that it spends a lot of time measuring the rest of the business, but there’s not a similar commitment for anyone independent of RA to measure how well RA did its job. Auditors usually lack the skills, and audits often degenerate into repeating the findings of RA whilst trying to nitpick on the detail of how RA did the things it does. Auditors rarely step back and think about whether the priorities had been set correctly or if RA is doing the right things or if there are radically different (and more efficient) ways to achieve similar goals. But an outside firm could, in a short space of time, do just that. As outside specialists, they would add more value than in-house auditors (who are generalists, not specialists).

    What would be the business case for bringing in outside guys to do this once a year? Well, if RA underperforms, then the outside guys will deliver value with their ‘reactive’ review, and because it’s based on historic data, there’s no debating the truth of their findings. And if they don’t find anything substantial, then you’ve at least given RA some stimulus to avoid complacency and not feel too comfortable!

  • Eric

    An outside firm (suitably qualified and not the myriad of wannabe consultants who are not backed by domain expertise) is one way to do it and as you say, whether they find something or nothing, the value is still delivered. Another way is to have in-house sub-teams (within RA) rotate through each docket. I have had previous experience where an analyst who had no experience in roaming starts asking questions that then lead to work that unearths losses that the “veteran” roaming analyst who was the unquestioned authority in that area had not thought of. Of course rotation also gives staff some flavor of different areas and hence can be a retention tool in itself.

  • @ Joseph,

    You are right – rotation and other kinds of ‘independent’ reviews within the RA department are another good way of ensuring that fresh eyes review the success and coverage of RA activities. But there is a weakness with this approach – friendship and getting along with colleagues. This inhibits people. Not everybody is tough/insensitive enough to look at the work of a close colleague without any bias. And what happens if there is some animosity or rivalry within the RA team? That can be bad too, if individuals start reviewing each other and try to undermine each other. I am not saying you are wrong, but highlighting the drawbacks in the real world.

    My preference would be to use external people for a few reasons. Firstly, the approach would work whether applied to large RA departments or small RA departments. Hence, it does not encourage the growth of an RA department simply to support this goal of internal independence of sub-teams. Second, the external reviewer may feel more liberty to do their work without any pressure to please anyone. In fact, I would go further and say they should be recruited by Internal Audit, and not by RA, so they do not even need to please the Head of RA. IMO, Internal Audit teams are usually too reluctant to make the case to augment their abilities by bringing in individual experts for specific audit topics. It can be more efficient to contract with specialists for individual audit tasks than to try to recruit and train generalists to cover a wide variety of them.

    What you say about the myriad of wannabe consultants is very true. One reason to prevent IA contracting external experts is that IA may lack the competence to tell the difference between an expert and a charlatan! (I won’t start now, but I can tell you some really shocking stories about lazy auditors and execs, engaging hopelessly incompetent contractors because they saw them on the web or received an email from them). However, blaming IA’s lack of competence gets us nowhere. If IA lacks the competence to engage external specialists, it also lacks the competence to do the work itself, whilst we should accept that there is value in having an independent audit of areas like RA, so long as the audit work is done competently. One way forward is to form a body that can apply a ‘quality mark’ that distinguishes the trusted RA specialist from the wannabes. In other words, this would be like the kind of accreditation handed out by GRAPA, except that not everybody gets their certificate just because they paid their fees! Maybe guys like us should start a ‘quality mark’ scheme, where only the consultants we trust are recommended. However, the problem with any such scheme is: the effort involved; the rules applied to ensure it is fair, objective and transparent; and that the higher the standards applied, the less financial return to offset the cost of running the scheme. Maybe, for now, the best we can do is to build up this informal network and work on the assumption that wiser people will approach members of our informal community and rely upon word of mouth recommendations before engaging an external consultant.

  • I agree on the draw-backs of the internal peer-review although it can be a stop-gap approach in itself. I have been reviewing revenue assurance functions in my current job and to do so, I use auditors who have some RA background e.g. folks who used to work in an operational role within RA and they are backed up by a set of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who review the intricacies of planning, execution and reporting. In that sense, whilst the actual fieldwork is done by moderately experienced auditors, for the quality assurance leg we bring in some folks who have substantial experience in RA. In terms of cost-efficiency, you cannot however have a revenue assurance SME who is just dedicated to RA reviews (unless the person is coming at a very cheap price, which would again point to quality. I mean, solid expertise is rarely cheap.) Therefore these folks also chip in for audit assignments that touch on IT, Networks and the like although in such cases, they provide secondary support and their input has an RA angle to it. IMO, this approach does work well but the whole cherry-picking of auditors and SMEs can be extremely frustrating and that is something that I suspect most management folks are not keen on hence they end up getting into “questionable deals” based on what they have got from cyberspace, flashy brochures and promotional emails. RA has spurned a whole ecosystem that feeds conmen who can talk smart. That said, even in this “SME model”, if the service provider SME is not up to the standard, then your last line of defense should be and has to be internal! As in everything, we cannot outsource what we do not have inkling about.
    The “quality mark” idea is also good. I would just like to add that in addition to word-of-mouth which promotes the good folks in RA community, the same word-of-mouth will also aid in weeding out the bad. Unfortunately, as much as we say bad news travels fast, it does not travel as fast as we would like in this case, hence some fingers will already have been burnt! Come to think of it, cancerous cells grow faster than good cells :(