Would you invest in a business that loses money? Probably not. Or, at least, you are more likely to invest in a business that makes money. That is why investors read the numbers reported in the press, and rely on auditors to check financial statements. What if you already own the business, and were considering investment in some new machinery? Again, you might buy the machinery if you thought it would generate profits, but not if the cost outweighs the returns. That is why accountants go to a lot of trouble to map costs to assets, and hence determine which assets are driving profits, and which are not worth keeping. So would you make a major investment decision, knowing you will be ignorant of the returns generated by the investment? That is exactly how most telcos are run, according to a new report from the TM Forum. Net global capex network investment is estimated to have cost USD354bn in 2014. In response, the TMF’s Network Asset Management team conducted a survey into how telcos track and manage their network assets and the returns they generate. The findings make for grim reading, including the fact that 57% of surveyed telcos had no data on whether existing assets were generating a positive return or not.

I found the survey results to be confusing in some respects. For example, 29% of telcos stated they do not bother to measure any returns generated by assets, after they have been deployed. But what are the other 71% measuring, if more than half of telcos have no data to determine if an asset is underperforming? Perhaps they are measuring returns across a class or category of assets, which may be some help but still fails to provide sufficient detail to improve future investment decisions.

The conclusions about data integrity were equally grim. On average, respondents believed their network inventory records and fixed asset registers were only 74% accurate. Their expectations were also low, believing that accuracy levels below 90% would still be ‘acceptable’.

Reading between the lines, I draw my own conclusions from the messages about poor data quality and scrappy methods for measuring returns. Determining the profitability of a network asset would involve a lot of hard work, so mostly we do not bother. This is understandable from the perspective of the poor schmo who is asked by his unreasonable boss to generate numbers without receiving the data, tools, and thanks that such a task demands. But from a collective, corporate perspective, this blind spot in decision-making is nothing less than insanity. How many of you have worked in a telco where the stationery cupboard was locked to prevent people using too many staples, or where your phone calls were scrutinized to determine they were all made for genuine business reasons? These things are controlled because they are easy to control, but the values involved are trivial. In contrast, the amounts spent on network capex are enormous, but hardly anyone can say where the money was best spent, or where the telco failed to generate the results it hoped for. If we do not gather the knowledge, we cannot learn from the past. In the case of network asset expenditure, that means we are doomed to repeat our most expensive mistakes.

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It is funny how governments get really keen to protect their people, when this coincides with threats to the amount of tax they collect. Ghana’s Communications Minister, Dr. Edward Boamah, has promised a crackdown on simbox fraud; you can read the story at GhanaWeb. Boamah said he was keen to screw more tax money out of people making phone calls… ahem, I mean he promised to keep the cost of international calls artificially high because it is a great way to make money… ahem, I mean he was deeply concerned that…

People are losing businesses because when you receive a call it appears [with a] Ghana number… sometimes you think it is somebody calling you to ask for [a] favour so you don’t even pick, so you miss an important call.

Yeah, right. Who would doubt that missed calls caused by inaccurate CLIs is a top priority for Ghana’s government?

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Some events are so memorable that people will always recall where they were, when they experienced them. I will never forget where I watched Germany’s 7-1 World Cup semi-final victory over Brazil. It was in a seafood restaurant in Portugal, accompanied by Tony Poulos, international telecoms personality extraordinaire, and Sérgio Silvestre, WeDo’s Chief Marketing Officer. We had spent the day at WeDo’s Braga office, discussing their product suite and development plans. At the end of our work, I commented that the semi-final was that night, so it would be good to eat somewhere with a TV. That evening, as the goals flew in, our jaws dropped, and I found myself applauding the Germans along with the other diners. Whilst the screen was filled by the shocked faces of Brazilian fans, my sympathies were mostly with Brazil’s goalkeeper, Júlio César. He had been a hero in earlier games, blocking penalties and keeping his team alive. But he was overwhelmed by the German tide. It was oddly appropriate to watch that game in the company of two of the best advocates for business assurance. That is because business assurance is to telecoms what the goalkeeper is to football.

In football, the goalkeeper is the last line of defence. When everything else has failed, he is tasked to make the save. And when the ball finds the back of the net, it is easy to blame the goalkeeper, saying he has not done his job. But when the ball finds the back of the net seven times, it becomes clear that the goalkeeper is only one player in the team. He can influence the result, but is not responsible for it. The same is true for business assurance, and leads to the greatest mistakes when setting targets for a revenue assurance or fraud management function, and the worst foolishness when measuring their performance. Was Júlio César responsible for Brazil’s defeat? No. A different goalkeeper might have made another one or two saves, but the Germans had so many chances they would still have won. So why measure a business assurance department according to how much the telco leaks, or by how much the department saves? When it comes to leakage, we are measuring the performance of the whole business, not of one section. And the business will most reliably win if it has a strategy to prevent leaks occurring, not by depending on an incredible goalkeeper and expecting him to make a series of miracle saves.

Even the worst goalkeeper will make saves, if his team allows enough shots on goal. At the same time, no goalkeeper is good enough to save every shot. So the best defensive policy is to not allow the opposition any opportunity to shoot. By the same token, the best policy in telecoms is to prevent the mistakes that lead to leakages. However, this requires something more than a goalkeeper. It demands a strategy for how to defend, and for the whole team to play their part in executing that strategy.

A goalkeeper is expected to react to whatever comes his way, whichever direction it comes from. I have often said that assurance is the goalkeeper of telcos, and the metaphor reflects the realities of how most telcos approach assurance. However, the problem with the analogy is that it emphasizes the passive aspects of assurance. It suggests that business assurance is there to make saves at the last moment, by leaping this way and that, without having any plan or design. Goalkeepers respond to events on the field of play. As the Brazilian team showed against Germany, energy and passion are not substitutes for organization. Brazilian players ran around without discipline. They had no sense of what their defensive responsibilities were, or how to work together to impede the Germans and win the ball back. The German team, in contrast, showed how effective a team can be when everybody understands what they are meant to do, and how they will work towards their common goal. Good defence requires more than the individual brilliance of the goalkeeper or the desire of outfield players to make as many tackles as possible. Defence requires leadership. The same is true for business assurance.

Goalkeepers can be leaders on the field of play. A good goalkeeper will talk to his teammates, telling them what they should be doing. If he needs to rapidly bark instructions to a fellow player, it is understandable that he may sometimes be loud and abrasive, and might temporarily upset his colleague. But that is better than having a goalkeeper who is too timid, and who leaves the outfield player unaware of the risks around him, leading to a goal being conceded. Assurance functions need to be respected, when they give directions to others. If nobody else can see the gaps in the defensive line, it is vital that business assurance speaks up, and is heard. Sometimes it needs to shout. Being in a unique position thanks to the data they receive, business assurance must tell others what they see, and how this should be translated into definitive steps that will improve the company’s defences.

Whilst goalkeepers give instruction during a game, even this form of proactive intervention is not enough to organize a reliable defence. Before the game begins, each player needs to know their defensive duties. The coach must have an effective strategy, and he must be able to communicate it to his players using language that they understand. And after the strategy is communicated, it will need to be reinforced through training. It is not enough to speak to people in abstract and theoretical terms. Asking people to be good is pointless, if they do not know how to be good. You have to show people what you want them to do. That involves making them deal with specific scenarios during their training. It also means their real-life performance should be analysed and critiqued. This is also true of telcos, where we understand that the role of the coaching team is fulfilled by the telco’s executives.

Whilst the head coach is responsible for all aspects of attack and defence, there may be other coaches with more specific focus on aspects of defence, and on how the goalkeeper plays. At the same time, the coaches should be harmonious, and work from a common understanding of how the team will play. Neither the attacking nor defending strategies will succeed, if they contradict each other. So if an executive team fails to devise a defensive strategy, or if they make demands which are contradictory, then the goalkeeper cannot be responsible for the losses that will inevitably follow. This is true even though the goalkeeper is the one who recovers the ball from the back of the net, and hence becomes the easiest person to blame.

Continuing our metaphor, business assurance increasingly needs to step up to a coaching role. Diving around and making flashy saves is not a long-term strategy for the success of the individual, or of the team. We also need to advise on the company’s strategy, as well as its tactics and operations. That is the only way to properly identify and address the defensive risks that are the root cause of leakages.

The strategic voice of assurance will never be the loudest one in the corporate team. The head coach – the CEO – needs to listen to many voices, and to determine the balance between attack and defence. The CEO needs to find ways to win games, in addition to avoiding defeat, and that will always mean taking risks in order to win new revenues, as well as taking sensible precautions to secure existing revenues. When listening to many voices, the CEO cannot avoid being influenced by the quality of the advice he receives from different quarters. If an attacking coach gives very good advice, and a defensive coach gives mediocre advice, then it is right that the attacking coach should have more influence over the team’s overall strategy.

Business assurance often has a uniquely advantageous view of how the whole team is performing. The data collected should be turned to strategic advantage, not just used to identify and fix operational faults. Like a goalkeeper, we see things that others might not. But it is not enough to have good information; we must also give good advice. That means synthesizing the information we have into realistic proposals for improving the teams’s defensive strategy, whilst understanding these improvements should not compromise the other objectives of the team. If we do that, we deserve to be coaches, and will need to make fewer saves. Otherwise, we will only influence results whilst standing between the posts, during those moments when we are the last line of defence.

By using the analogy of a football goalkeeper, I hope I have communicated some complicated points using a language that is easy to understand. In that respect, I am also trying to be a coach. Coaches succeed if players intuitively comprehend what they have been asked to do. The coach should choose his words to best suit the language understood by his players; the coach should not expect the players to learn difficult terminology or strange ideas just because that is how the coach likes to talk. The history of business assurance shows we can be very good at coaching. The word ‘leakage’ is a great example of how we have used intuitive language to express complicated ideas, and hence to successfully influence how others think and behave.

Business assurance has grown from nothing to a mainstay in telcos worldwide. The phrase ‘business assurance’ shows we are expanding well beyond the founding scope of revenue assurance and fraud management. At the same time, we can do more. If we do not keep pressing forward, we will become increasingly irrelevant, and deserve to be relegated to obscurity. It is not enough to complain that others do not understand, or that execs spend too much time talking to their marketing people. If we use the information we have, and speak to people in a language they are comfortable with, we will persuade.

We are more than a safe pair of hands, fit only to dive around and catch the ball. We also have brains, and voices, and we can help the business to organize itself and adopt winning strategies. Any CEO can imagine himself the coach of the Brazilian football team, and being in a situation where scoring a goal is meaningless, because his team is already seven goals behind. They understand that attack will not bring victories, if there is inadequate defence. But they may never have received good advice, that quantifies some of the risks faced by the business, and offers pragmatic solutions to its worst defensive frailties. We can help them. If we are good coaches, we not only succeed as goalkeepers. We will succeed as goalkeepers because we will need to make fewer saves, but we will also become more important to the whole team.

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You can split the long list of items that anyone dealing with RA should know into two categories: must-knows and nice-to-knows. It is not always clear which is which. Obviously you need to have a foundation in telecoms; don’t ask which part – all of it! End-to-end assurance of all revenue streams, right? You will learn that while a basic reconciliation is straightforward, obtaining the information you need is not; you might have to dig through documents, sanitize data and spend hours in sessions to get a grasp of an unknown data flow. It would be nice to be able to use something as simple and handy as statistics to get as much out of the data you fool around… er, work with every day. Stats would be an added tool in your skillset; allowing you to look at data in multiple ways and draw conclusions but most probably will only come in use after a given point of putting down the basics. In addition, basic stats and data analysis are key not only in RA but in any data intensive job.

As such I decided that my next course would be “Foundation of Data Analysis” on EdX. So far the course has been great; straightforward material that is easy to absorb and, in addition, I’m learning another tool: R using R-studio. The course consists of readings (in pdf), then lessons (video clips) and finally practical exercises on R. Each week a new topic is introduced or builds on the previous week’s lesson. R is a really powerful tool with intuitive commands and features. It seems like it will be a useful addition to the RA analyst’s toolkit, because it allows you to quickly extract information about a dataset (obviously the size of the data matters – although it appears that it can be used for large sets). The course ends in February and in the meantime I am also re-taking the Intro to Linux course which has been updated. I did not manage to get far with this one the first time around and I will delve into the reasons why below.

You know how you planned to take “lesson 4″ at 5AM next morning or that night session at 9 to 11PM? This sounds good in theory, but there are so many things that will go unexpectedly, or even as expected, to derail your schedule: monthly reporting at work, child with the flu, the need to open a laptop and get something out the way for work instead of taking a lesson. All you need to do is keep at it and add motivators. So what I did for Data Analysis was register for the “verified” version of the course, which is 50 dollars for a verified (i.e. ID verified) certificate. This adds more pressure, makes it more “formal”.

I have to admit that I registered for 4 courses at once when starting out; in addition to the first Linux course I took Cultural Anthropology, English grammar and Science of Happiness. Needless to say, I completed none. It’s better to take a small bite and manage it, than to dive into the deep end when there are daily priorities battling for your attention and energy. Another issue is that each course is different in the way its structured. Some require reading, some only to watch the video lesson, others require practice on a keyboard (you can watch a lesson on a tablet but when you need to sit at a keyboard you do need to set time apart).

So for now I am taking it a step at a time; Data Analysis, then Linux. I am resisting taking some other courses which are “interesting” in favour of those that I could actually add to my resume. The courses that are simply interesting will have to wait.

Note: Udacity has an excellent nanodegree for Data Analysts, but this requires a huge investment in time (and money 200 USD/month). It looks perfect if you want to go down that path in a more serious manner and have the time to do so.

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Welcome to this month’s LTT. You work for Acme-Telecom and it’s your first day in the job. You receive a phone call from the CFO’s secretary requesting you to meet him at 9am in his office. When you enter the room the Wholesale Manager is also sat at the table with a handful of papers and looking a little dismayed. He shows you the interconnect voice traffic stats for the month, which shows an unexpected decline on Monday 24 November.

LTT - 12

Figure 1: Interconnect voice traffic statistics for November.

The Wholesale Manager also shows you a screenshot of the termination rates being offered on the wholesale market in to Acme-Telecom. One particular company, called Dubious Voice Solutions, is offering rates which are lower than your termination rate.

When you entered the building this morning, you can remember seeing all the posters from the latest marketing campaign, offering 1000 on-net minutes for $2 per month. The launch day was Monday 24 November.

This is your chance to impress the CFO on your first day in the office. He asks you to put together an action plan detailing all the controls, reconciliation, and tests that would help to stop this revenue leakage. He wants to meet you for lunch to discuss your proposal.

What is mostly likely to be the problem, and what would your plan of action be?

  • A = Drop in traffic due to half-term school holidays
  • B = Grey routing / Sim boxing
  • C = Trunk route information missing in i/c billing system
  • D = An increase in the termination rate
  • E = None of the above

Please send your answer along with the plan of action to quiz@talkRA.com – the most comprehensive action plan received will be published on Monday 22 December, as a guest blog.

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