The Price Of Professionalism

Along with the Christmas cards I have received a most unwelcome delivery that I always receive at this time of year: the reminder that my annual fees are due from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. UK£272 (US$540) is the price I pay for the privilege of calling myself a chartered accountant for another year. That is not a small amount of money. However, another point is worth making: you get what you pay for. The more value that a profession, membership of an institute, and a qualification generates for its members, the greater the sustainable level of fees. New members will be attracted because they will conclude the cost of entry is worthwhile. People will remain members because they find in actual practice the cost of membership is worthwhile. Membership costs include monetary and non-monetary elements. Fees and the cost of ongoing education are monetary, the time spent in continuous professional education is non-monetary. At the same time, to buy influence, expertise and a top-notch educational and qualification program, that ensures not everybody who wants to pass is allowed to pass, takes money. There is a virtuous circle here: value for members gets recycled into fees for the professional bodies which gets recycled into value for the members. What then is the price people will pay to be a revenue assurance professional? Having established the link between cost and value, we can ask the same question another way: what would be the value of being a recognized professional?

This is a question about economics. It is a matter of supply and demand. There is demand for revenue assurance staff, but how can you alter the supply by creating barriers to entry and increasing the value of those who have achieved a certain level of measurable competence. If everybody who wants a qualification, gets the qualification, then the value of the qualification will tend towards zero. If the qualification is not a reliable indicator that the holder will be better at their job than people without the qualification, the value will tend toward zero. If the qualification is too hard to get, then it will not be recongnized and too little investment will be made in sustaining it, which will undermine its value. Finally, if people do not intend to use the qualification to get value, then it will not have value in practice, for example, if qualified people do not really intend to pursue a career in revenue assurance, but instead expect to get promoted up the ranks of their company by learning and adopting roles where their revenue assurance qualifications are irrelevant.

I have trained a few people in my time, and my honest opinion is that a minority of those people were seriously thinking of long-term careers in revenue assurance. If they were asked to spend thousands of pounds educating themselves in revenue assurance, they would not pay it. In those circumstances, it follows that, even at this time of goodwill, their will be no fairy godmother, Santa Claus, benevolent employer or whomever who would be prepared to pay for it either. Whoever pays for education, they expect to get a real return on it. Short-term thinking precludes significant returns. Only people who think sufficiently long-term could justify a significant investment in education.

Of the people I trained, all of them were pretty much glad to get the training. Training is one of those things people like, especially if they do not pay for it, and better still if their employer pays for their time spent in training. This means the value of training cannot be measured from the feedback of participants. Or rather, the feedback of people who had to pay out of their pocket or give up their own free time would likely be more meaningful than anyone else’s. This means feedback is not a good measure of whether a course meets a particular customer’s needs, especially if the customer is the business, and not the individual trainee. It is also important to question how satisfied people would be if they were forced to take an examination at the end of training, and a significant proportion of those people were to fail the exam. The difference between offering training and offering a qualification is the drawing of a line commensurate to the quality of the qualification. Too lax, and the qualification is worth little. Too strict, and people will not question it or refuse to submit to it.

From my own experience of giving training, the key factors that determine the true value of education (as opposed to the factors that are most likely to lead to positive feedback from training course participants) are:

  • being specific to the customer’s needs;
  • providing education and, in particular, being able to answer spontaneous questions by drawing on the genuine real-world experience of the tutor; and
  • keeping the education cost-effective.

Specificity is vital to effective education. Telling people things they find interesting, stimulating or thought-provoking is not the same as educating people in things they need to know or stretching their abilities. A junior analyst may gladly sit in a training workshop listening to a discussion of how to influence CEO’s or making pricing decisions, but such training is irrelevant to their job. Similarly, technical specifics are vital for some forms of training, but not others. In abstract, the principles used to assure a retail wireless voice usage product are no different to those relevant to a wholesale leased line product. However, the technical details of the products are very different. Managers may need to learn abstract principles, especially if they work for providers that work across many segments. More junior staff need details, not abstraction. Some of the technological detail may be specific to the business, for example if systems were developed in-house, which puts a very real limit to the value that can be gained from external training. There are also different techniques for how to perform assurance, so there is also the need to tailor the skills taught depending on the techniques the staff are expected to utilize. Some RA experts might like to reduce everything to mining data from a warehouse which in turn takes feeds from all the source systems; there is nothing wrong with that approach in itself, but there are other techniques that belong under the banner of revenue assurance and which may work better in certain circumstances. Other techniques that might be covered in education include risk appraisal, statistics, workflow mapping or soft skills like interviewing for knowledge elicitation. It is obvious that not all RA employees need to know every technique. In some businesses the RA department is exclusively engaged in automated data analysis or exclusively in process review, so the skills taught to those departments will not cover many of the techniques that would be relevant to an RA department in another business. There are many suppliers that offer standardised introductory training for revenue assurance. These courses are most generic in nature, apply to the largest cross-section of RA employees, can be repeated over and over and hence generate the best returns for the effort spent in developing the course. There are far fewer suppliers who offer tailored training or more advanced courses. In pre-determined course, the question is how well the standard course will correspond to the customer’s specific needs. It may be better to get tailor-made training, if tailor-made training is available. In any subject, somebody has to go first; just because it would be nice to be trained by someone else does not mean that there is someone else who is competent to give the training and willing to do so for the money on offer.

Genuine real-world experience is a major problem for education. It is hard to learn from a teacher who does not understand the subject they teach. Many people have practical experience of some aspects of revenue assurance. Fewer people have practical experience of most aspects, and nobody has personal hands-on experience of doing them all. Even the most knowledgeable person does not have current hands-on experience of applying all kinds of skills to all kinds of RA product in all kinds of telco. To exacerbate the problem, the issues faced in different parts of the world vary greatly. Traditionally, RA in the US focused on the challenge posed by the extremely complicated area of inter-carrier traffic management and settlement. I recently wrote an article for the TMF which highlighted how Latin American operators tend to give a higher priority to assuring wholesale traffic than European carriers because of the relative perceived risk in each region. At best, the cumulative hands-on experience of the tutor, combined with the tutor’s experience of managing other people’s work, will cover most RA skills and most telco products, though keeping that knowledge up to date with the latest technology will always be a serious challenge. So one question you customer of education needs to ask themselves is how deep and current the knowledge of the tutor needs to be, especially for any specific skills or technologies they need covered. I have worked with consulting businesses that, quite sensibly, have offered several individuals, each with different skillsets, to run distinct modules within a single training course. Training may not be the core skill of the individual experts, but to maintain the quality the training may be overseen, constructed and guided by an expert in training. That way there is always a person on hand who can answer questions based on genuine current experience. The number of people needed to cover the different areas of expertise will depend on how broad and varied the customer requirements are. Of course, the obvious downside is that training from several experts will be more expensive than that from a lone tutor.

In an ideal world, people with extensive hands-on experience in many areas of revenue assurance will deliver inexpensive courses widely. The problem, as you will have appreciated, is cost. Hands-on experience does not come cheap. A tutor should reasonably expect to demand a higher price if their experience is broader or deeper than another tutor’s, so it should follow that the tutor with experience broader and deeper than anyone else’s would be most expensive of all. However, someone with those talents presumably could make more money by doing revenue assurance! The tutor also needs to actually do revenue assurance to keep their skills and knowledge current, as there is no academic infrastructure to percolate the experience of others into education. So I do not believe any individual can claim to be a catch-all expert with genuine deep knowledge and current experience across all aspects of revenue assurance. The field of revenue assurance is not medicine or law or accountancy; just because it is broad and complicated and staff need training does not mean that there is enough money in the discipline to justify a training company making the investment needed to develop materials and staff required to provide a genuinely high-quality training program across the full spread of RA techniques as applicable to all products. However, even if revenue assurance was medicine or law or accountancy, it would still seem strange for a lone individual to claim to be able to give comprehensive training across all aspects. There is a need to balance the extent to which any paid education course is tailored to the customer’s requirements and the extent to which the tutor has both domain knowledge and the skills to provide that course, with the amount of money the customer is willing to pay. There is no perfect answer to that compromise; but there will always be a compromise between specificity, tutor experience and cost.

There is one other observation I would like to make about training, based on my experiences as a manager in several big businesses. People are generally very positive to the idea of receiving training, but they may not be clear as to what they want to gain from training. Some people want to do their job better, some want career advancement within the business, others want career advancement elsewhere. A qualification that is recognized is vital to improving career prospects, but may not be useful in terms of on-the-job performance. In contrast, training that is very useful for improving job performance may be of no aid in advancing the trainee’s career. I doubt many people who currently receive revenue assurance training have a realistic aspiration to get a better revenue assurance job elsewhere. There are not that many telcos, and not that many jobs in revenue assurance. Worse still, there are relatively few places where a large number of telcos are geographically co-located. This means the only way to advance a career in revenue assurance would be to very amenable to moving home and family, often to another country, to take the next good job on offer. In practice, many people take revenue assurance jobs as an entry into a nearby business, not because they are dedicated to revenue assurance as a discipline or have the intention to move home later in life. Career advancement within a business should be based on the employee’s results, and not on the basis of some relatively trivial training course. My training as an accountant was long and intensive. Many failed of my peers failed to complete it. It was not a few days in a classroom after which everybody receives a certificate. Employees need to be clear as to how significantly their skills and abilities really are enhanced, in terms of both perceived and actual value, as a result of any educational activity they engage in. That leaves improving job performance as the final reason for training. How much job performance is improved will be entirely determined by how specific the course is, and how much relevant practical knowledge can be imparted by the tutor. For senior RA staff, the training should not be a substitute for clear communications from executives as to what they expect and want from RA. For junior staff, training should not be a substitute for guidance from their line managers.

As a manager in revenue assurance, I often put more emphasis on informal kinds of learning than classroom-based teaching. By informal learning I mean activities where staff learn from each other and are encouraged to search for and find answers from all sorts of resources, whether labelled “revenue assurance” or not. For example, if somebody needs to learn statistical skills, they can get exposure to materials which will help with statistics, if they want to learn how other people solved a certain kind of revenue assurance problem, they can communicate with colleagues inside and outside the business, if they want to know about a product they get trained by the experts on that product in their own business, and if they want to know what their colleagues in the RA department do, they are encouraged to spend a lunchtime listening to a presentation from a colleague, and to give one in turn, and to share the information via the corporate intranet and similar resources. Often an employee’s peers and informal contacts can deliver better education than external tutors, and do so at little or no cost. In addition, informal education places the emphasis and responsibility for improvement with the recipient, and hence generates the best returns for the people who will value education most.

Here comes the unpleasant bit. I do think that currently the model of copying other professions has much value to revenue assuranct. It will never be a profession like accounting or law, because there is not enough money it and there will never be enough people doing it. Arguably, it requires a hybrid of many skills, so it would be unrealistic for its practitioners to be as highly skilled as individuals working in more focused professions. Informal education and development is the natural stage of evolution for revenue assurance at present, not the codification of a discipline which lacks an academic infrastructure and lacks the economic means to create one. This blog is my own small way of taking an alternative way of promoting the discussion and education of revenue assurance; I try to practice what I preach.

Finally, you probably appreciate that I have provided RA training from time to time. However, in general I do not regularly pursue it as a source of revenue. It is just too hard to provide a high-quality course that really meets the needs of individual customers without putting a lot more time and effort in than can be justified by a competitive fee. If others do, that is up to them. If they can earn even more by selling qualifications, let them do so. The market will decide what the training and the qualification is worth, not me. My only advice is simple: people should try to ensure they get what they pay for, expecting more is unrealistic, and getting less is always a risk.

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.