The Prophet Motive

Thanks to Guera Romo of MTN in South Africa, who wrote the following comment on my post about TMF vs. GRAPA: Which Home for RA Standards?:

“Yes, I know the TMF issued standards and have been using these although they are a bit high level. I guess it is because most of this is driven by vendors who will give enough to make you interested without giving away their IP.

The bit that I have seen on the GRAPA site does not lead me to believe that standard would come from this community although it is refreshing to see operator representation here.

I just believe there is more to RA than TMF and GRAPA. Attending conferences always leaves me a dire need for more “substance”. Where are the real goodies that make the board members sit up and pay attention?”

What a good question. But on the other hand, is anybody surprised if the answer is “nowhere”? Yesterday a conference organizer asked me about associations for revenue assurance. I told her about GRAPA (yes, incredibly I do tell people about GRAPA without prompting, despite my reservations about how they are run and why they exist), the TMF and the friendly social club for operators that calls itself the UK Revenue Assurance Group. But after those three I was unable to cite more examples. Probably there are some other countries where people working in RA get together on a regular basis (although the UK is unusual in having so many national and international telcos headquartered so close to each other). You could also argue that user meetings for suppliers like Subex Azure and specific forums in the Fraud sector make for sizable congregations of people with specific interests within the revenue assurance universe. However, other than conferences it is hard to think of any more examples where revenue assurance people from different businesses interact with each other. And even then, as Guera points out, the interaction leaves many of us wanting more “substance”. So my best guess is that the substance is, frankly, nowhere to be found. Why is that? Maybe we should ask the opposite – is it reasonable to expect any more substance to this topic we call revenue assurance?

The thing about revenue assurance is that the principle motive is profit. It is a business activity. Nobody does it just because they love it (apart from me and a few other freaks, perhaps, and you have to be cynical even about people like me). So to generate content, and then to share content, there has to be a profit motive. There are lots of kinds of profit as well as direct financial rewards, of course. Which is lucky, because nobody is going to get rich writing a book called “How to help big telecoms operators make a bit more money” or “How to help big telecoms operators make a lot more money”. The former book is not sexy enough, and nobody would buy it. The latter book would have to be a lie. You can be sure it would be a lie for the same reasons that you know people who write books entitled “How To Easily Make Millions and Millions of Dollars” make more money from selling the books than they did from following their own terrible advice i.e. they would not waste their time selling books if they knew a better way to make money. As well as making money directly, other forms of profit include the prospect of enhanced future or indirect financial rewards, in other words the benefits that flow from marketing and reputation building. But writing books and selling advice to a tiny audience is probably a terrible way to make money (even Rob Mattison must struggle to find enough gullible people in the world, and once he is finished there will be very few left for the rest of us). Other kinds of profit are less tangible: status, glory, respect and other euphemisms for feeding the ego. But, geez, that hardly is a way to pay the bills, and flying over all the place to share your wisdom takes time and money. Also, the more time you spend flying around the world sharing your wisdom, the less time you spend doing proper work and learning how to do your job so you actually gain some wisdom to share when flying around the world. So be suspicious of any prophets of revenue assurance who have no obvious motive to help your business be more profitable, help you get recognition, help you get a pay rise, help you get a promotion, or help you do anything else which you hope will deliver zillions of dollars to your telco. Because you cannot trust the motives of someone like that.

There is another kind of motive for telling people things, of course. It is the same motive as the one you find in those forums where people share tips on the new kinds of fraud. The important word in that sentence is “share”. To get something of value, give something of value. The problem with some people who “share” knowledge of revenue assurance is that they are just repeating the same old lame nonsense they previously heard someone else say. Regularly when I go to conferences I also find I meet people who say “I know nothing – I just came here to learn.” “Great,” is what I think when I meet them, “they expect me to lavish hours of free advice on them, for absolutely nothing in return.” Because that is exactly what they do think. They maybe spent a thousand dollars of their company’s money to go to a conference, and so they expect me to make it worthwhile even though there is almost no way that I could ever generate a return on giving them free knowledge. Even if they did want to pay me for my time as some form of gratitude or quid pro quo for the advice I gave them for free up-front, chances are I will be busy working somewhere else during the narrow range of dates when they have a budget they can spend in my direction. So sharing only works well between equals, who have useful experience, who trust each other, and who think that they are speaking to someone who is as willing to be open as they are. The thing there is that neither person is a prophet and neither is a follower. They have to be equals to make that work. This is the challenge for revenue assurance if it is to develop that “substance” that Guera was asking for: we need a meaningful number of people, who are approximate equals, and are open, and honest and willing to share, and willing to work together. Playing the numbers game is easy – advertize one prophet willing to stand up before a crowd and soon enough you will collect a crowd of people who came there hoping to get something for nothing. But after a while even that crowd is going to realize that, usually, you get nothing for nothing. Or as the phrase goes in my Yorkshire vernacular: “you don’t get owt for nowt”. The trick is to get numbers of equals who all believe that they will benefit it they all share.

Of course, there is nothing that the lost prophets of revenue assurance hate more than being in a team. Teams are things they want working for them, not with them. Being part of a team means you have to compromise. You also have to share the credit. The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of teamwork is

“work done by several associates with each doing a part but all subordinating personal prominence to the efficiency of the whole”

It is not hard to see why people wanting lots of publicity are not too keen on teamwork. But you need teamwork to respond to the challenges posed by revenue assurance. There is nobody who knows everything about revenue assurance. Revenue assurance is, after all, a multi-disciplinary field. It embraces accounting, auditing, software development, database management, data integrity, process mapping, corporate governance…. the list goes on and on. No single person can claim to be an expert across every element of revenue assurance. Anyone who makes that claim is a liar. The problem with the lone prophets is that they just talk about the things they understand and pretend the rest is irrelevant or try to bluff their way through it by repeating what they heard other people say. There is a phrase that goes like the following: when a man’s only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. So gurus with database skills want to solve every revenue assurance problem with a database, gurus who develop software always want to develop new software to solve each problem, gurus who… you get the idea. A long time ago I wrote some code in C and C++, but I do not pretend to be a skilled software developer. I have written some SQL queries, but I am not expert at that either. I am a qualified accountant, but spending years working in revenue assurance obviously means I am not the best accountant. One thing I do know is that you have to know your own limitations and be willing to allow some problems to be solved by other people using skills you lack. There may be many ways to skin a cat, but only one will be quickest and cheapest. A good revenue assurance professional puts the interests of the telecoms business before his owns – he drives them to do what they most need to do, not what he is best at doing. So teamwork is a problem for revenue assurance, as lots of people are in competition by offering lots of different ways to skin the same cat. Getting one to admit that their way is not always the best way is going to be hard, but is necessary if we are going to get some genuine teamwork.

So if the substance seems lacking, that is my opinion why. And in case you did not notice, I gave my opinion for free. I broke the Yorkshireman’s rule and gave owt for nowt :) Multiply the amount of time I spent writing this by my usual rates and this advice should be worth a good few hundred dollars. But you got it for free. Strangely enough, though, if you do not make people pay for something, then sometimes they do not value it. They just take it for granted and assume it will always be there. So prove me wrong, people. I could put a little button so you can make a donation to this website through PayPal. Then, like Radiohead, I could encourage you to pay whatever you think my material is worth. But, unlike normal people like Rob “Guru” Mattison, money is not what I am asking for here (remember, I admitted I was a freak in the third paragraph). Nope, just give me some info. Tell me something interesting that I might not know. Better still, tell me and everybody else who reads this blog. I dare you. But I will not pay you. Which is why I am not expecting to get much more “substance” from the rest of you than I have previously :( But I would love it if you proved me wrong. If enough people started sharing what they know, perhaps some day we might even find that we work like a team. So be honest: does being part of a team motivate you? If not, expect to wander the revenue assurance wilderness alone, or else decide to follow a prophet – but you can safely assume any prophet you meet is just as lost as everyone else.

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.

6 Comments on "The Prophet Motive"

  1. Something you don’t know…. Hmm. We all know. We just don’t do. So I will share a philosophical decision I took a year ago in establising a RA function which is paying off very well. “ASSURE REVENUE AT SOURCE”. That is our motto and that simply means that operational accountability for a job properly done the first time is the basic expected outcome of a mature revenue management philosophy.

    RA is an attitude. It is not an event. RA is not how we measure what we do but how we do what we do. While the billing operator or the service activation agent do their jobs they may as well do it properly. Reporting in the early days focuses on operational inefficiencies and not dollar amounts. It is amazing how that changes the attitude and the culture. Now that you have their attention you can define the dashboards with bells and whistles!

    If we are serious about taking RA to the next level we need to recognise that RA is not done by the RA department but by the whole organisation. It is a mindset of having the heart and guts to do what needs to be done.


  2. Avatar Matt Clark | 4 Nov 2007 at 12:19 pm |

    “Doing the job right first time” is indeed a fine (and achievable!) philosophy. The trouble is, things change and goalposts always move. Changes could be a new marketing drive, equipment upgrade, process change or even the cleaner unplugging a piece of equipment for 10 minutes a day so the floor can be vacuumed.

    Continual assurance and regular spot checks are useful as well as getting the job done right in the first place.

  3. Apologies for commenting on old posts, but I’ve only found this site now. Relatively new to RA (2,5 years) but getting more and more into it and enjoying it.

    Two things I want to comment on:
    1. The “goodies” to make board members pay attention – that is really the key we are all after isn’t it. How to make the board pay attention, when we are not really “producing” something but auditing/gatekeeping or whatever other simile you want to use. Which brings me to…
    2. Teamwork is all good, but it is imperative to exits within the company first of all. When there are no controls or checks anywhere and nobody cares from top to bottom, then how can one shorthanded department make a difference? RA is an attitude that has to be embedded in all procedures of all departments. As far as the diverse knowledge required and the teamwork – you do need special people to do this I think – yes, freaks… In the end, it is not about the money you help a rich telco save, but about the processes and procedures you help with and make everyone’s work better. At least that is how I try to see it. And I know I have ways to go to make traction in the “field” and in the company.

  4. @ml, don’t be sorry about commenting on old posts – it’s good to know that someone’s reading them! Seriously, there’s a lot of gold in the talkRA archives, if I say so myself…

    It’s funny that you’ve found this old post, as it mentions GRAPA, the TMF and the UK RAG. Recently I’ve been thinking that the UK RAG needs to step up and to break the logjam on crappy RA standards that are pushed by GRAPA and the TMF. 6 years have passed since I wrote this post, and during that time all we’ve seen is that the people behind GRAPA and the TMF RA team have been 100% dedicated to making money for themselves, without any concern for delivering decent RA guidance. And neither provider helpful advice on how to get board attention. On the contrary, if you went to a typical board repeating the typical GRAPA or TMF nonsense, you’d be making a career-limiting mistake. That’s because the snake oil poured by out cheesy salesmen doesn’t usually fool the people at the very top. Mostly the TMF and GRAPA stuff is aimed at junior staff (or ageing middle managers who won’t rise much higher) i.e. at people who never get near the board. The people at the top get regularly assailed with all sorts of bogus nonsense – they got where they are because they’re good at filtering out bulls*it with minimal effort.

    Maybe the UK RAG can step up and start to be more productive. It might be helpful to do some quality work with fewer people in the room. Without wanting to offend anyone outside of the UK, the biggest problem has always been to stop the clowns turning up on day one and then trying to take control from that moment, so some arbitrary barriers to entry might be very useful, at least until an association builds some professional momentum, and can enforce quality control on its members. Also, I hear the UK RAG will soon change their rules, to include participation from outside of the UK. I’m not clear how that will work in practice, but it’s a sign that they want to expand and be more international in outlook.

    The plain truth is, there’s no surefire route to board attention unless you’re doing something that the board is interested in. And even then, you can’t undermine the bosses you report to. Your boss is answerable for everything you do. So maybe he’s the person who will get board attention. But it’s worth pointing out that board members don’t want to get caught with their pants down. So one way to get attention is to ‘gamble’ that things are going wrong in a serious way, but nobody is noticing. Find a big serious issue that nobody else has noticed (and may not be able to explain) and the board may be very very interested and will want to know about it quickly. But that requires a different mentality to work then incrementally rolling out controls to suit a software vendor’s schedule, or the kind of lame timewarped mid-90’s business analysis that Papa Rob recommends.

    I couldn’t agree with you more about making RA an attitude that is embedded everywhere in the business. But since I wrote this, I think this attitude would better complement a broader scope than the traditional RA scope. Looking back at what I wrote in 2007, I think RA is limited by its focus on profit, or similarly measurable and easily quantified improvements to financial measures of performance. When a company adopts a strategy which gives it an advantage in the market, it’s usually making that decision in order to ultimately generate profit, but it’s not quantifying the benefit as it makes the decision. That’s because there are too many imponderables. Even if you’re Steve Jobs, you don’t know how much profit you will generate from iTunes or the iPhone, before you launch it. So I think the focus on the narrowly quantifiable is a key constraint. The implications of this constraint aren’t fully appreciated by many working in the field – it means the work can’t have much impact above a relatively mundane operational level. And that means it’s not the kind of stuff that boards should be wanting to hear about – and will only hear about if things are bad. There’s certainly potential to reapply some techniques used in RA to more speculative and unquantified forms of business improvement. As Guera hinted at with her comment, we don’t know what we don’t know – but better use of the data we have allows us to chip away and reduce our mountain of ignorance. Imaginative use of RA techniques could help to extend the influence, but as Mike suggested in his recent post, by that time we’d probably have to drop the name ‘revenue assurance’ and realize that the knowledge acquisition and interrogation techniques used in RA have a much broader potential scope of application than some of the current practitioners (especially in GRAPA and the TMF) will want to acknowledge.

  5. @Eric, to be honest in my very little experience I have not had any interaction with GRAPA or TMF. We are following the “mother company’s” strategy on RA which does include a contract with a well known auditing firm. Half my experience was trying to make sense of re-rating and other checks using ACL and the other half trying to smoothen out our project with this firm. I can understand what you are talking about though, and have no intention of really associating myself with GRAPA or TMF – the essence is elsewhere.

    All in all, what I believe is key is to be an information provider to management/board, since there is a wealth of it accumulated here. Trying to install open source BI tools in order to provide some of the basics (trending etc). Then we will have to explain the use of trends for RA/fraud to the board is not (only) for viewing the traffic but for catching and chasing outliers. This is a small example of something understandable to board that can make RA more visible to them. Even a simple reconciliation of rating between roaming partners is something rarely checked that can provide value. Focusing on revenue (or loss) is not healthy for RA, as it incorporates much much more. It should identify risks, check for them, report on them, suggest ways to improve on procedures, etc… The scope is vast, and personally I am still looking up at a mountain…

    Given the amount and variety of data we receive we could do something more into statistics say and provide “speculative and unquantified forms of business improvement.” This information is there from other sources as well but who knows whether it is being put into use? The tools and the proper use of these is what can really help the current and further analysis – unfortunately sometimes even getting good/reliable data can prove elusive.

  6. @ml, I fully agree. But don’t think of this as a mountain you have to climb, because even the biggest mountains have a summit, and then you come down again. Think of this as an adventure into the unknown, which goes on for as long as you keep exploring!

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