No Guarantees…

I was struck by the following passage when reading about the new strategic plans that ex-BT CEO Ben Verwaayen had unveiled for Alcatel-Lucent:

Alcatel-Lucent’s plan is to combine the trusted capabilities of the network environment with the creative communications services of the web (Web 2.0, Web 3.0 and beyond). This transformation will allow billions of customers to use millions of websites from any device guaranteeing security, quality, privacy and billing integrity. The overall service experience for end-users – consumers and businesses – will be improved and greater value will be created for every player in the industry.

What struck me about this passage was that it is pure fantasy. Those of you who are as equally pedantic as me (or who just read the title of the post) will have noticed the offending word. A guarantee is not just a promise, as we all know promises get broken (with astonishing regularity when it comes to the big business of electronic communications). A guarantee implies somebody will pay out when the promise is broken. But who is going to pay out on this implied ‘guarantee’ of security, quality, privacy, and billing integrity? I can tell you who it will not be. It will not be Alcatel-Lucent. Buying Alcatel-Lucent’s stuff makes them no more responsible for how it gets used than Boeing would guarantee their planes as crash-proof no matter what the pilot does, no matter how their plane is maintained, and no matter what weather the plane is flown in. So Alcatel-Lucent is not giving any guarantees. Who is then? Is it the operators? Nope. As a customer, I knew Ben Verwaayen’s BT was no more inclined to give guarantees of this type than any of their competitors, and they will not be doing so in future. Operators are right not to make guarantees in such circumstances. First, operators have the mirror problem of suppliers like Alcatel-Lucent: they may be decent pilots, but ultimately cannot be held responsible for every detail in the engineering they rely upon. Second, people are people, and they make mistakes for all sorts of reasons. Until telcos can do away with people completely (the headcount reduction at places like BT still has a long way to go before they achieve that goal) they will make mistakes. The only sure-fire way to reduce error is to make things simpler. The last time I checked, the new services offered through web 2.0, 3.0 and beyond(!) might sometimes make things simpler for the customer, but not for anyone else. Whilst operators will keep on making – and breaking – promises, they will never give a guarantee (unless they just use the word as marketing-speak for promising something but not really expecting anyone to be upset when the promise is broken).

In future, will there be a guarantee that customers will get security, quality, privacy and billing integrity? Of course not. The day that you show me a telco willing to make that guarantee – a genuine guarantee that would be backed with a financial payout every time they failed to keep their promise – is the day I will show you their newest customer. It will also be the day when I can show you a risk manager who is either extremely nervous or extremely well paid. People have been making wild claims that new engineering and technology would solve all problems ever since man invented the wheel. The wilder the claim, the worse the comeuppance. The fate of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic is a good example. If people are part of the process, failures are inevitable. And that is something I can guarantee ;)

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.