Eric

Eric Priezkalns is a founder of talkRA. He is a widely recognized expert on risk management and business assurance for communications providers. After a successful full-time career, Eric now splits his time between occasional consulting projects for trusted customers, and his many other passions. Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and has worked with Cable & Wireless Group, T-Mobile UK, BSkyB, Worldcom UK, and Nawras, as well as advising various software developers and system integrators.

Eric is a qualified chartered accountant; he trained whilst employed by the Enterprise Risk Services division in Deloitte's London office. His Masters in Information Systems was earned with distinction, and he holds a first-class degree in Mathematics and Philosophy.

In 2006, Eric was already a popular speaker at conferences, but he decided to reach out to a broader audience with the first blog dedicated to revenue assurance. Many have since copied him, but none have matched his output.

Eric was the first leader of the the TM Forum's Enterprise Risk Management team, a founding member of the TM Forum’s Revenue Assurance team, and he developed the original Revenue Assurance Maturity Model. In the UK, Eric is known for his critique of billing accuracy regulations. In Qatar, Eric was a founding member of the National Committee for Internet Safety. Eric currently serves on the committee of the Revenue Assurance Group, and he is an editorial advisor to Black Swan.

People keep asking me about Subex, the Indian business assurance vendor, like I should know all about its inner workings. Or rather, they ask like I should know about its inner workings and know if there is any truth to this-or-that rumour which floats around those internet chatrooms for people who talk a lot about share prices. I find this odd. Firstly, I do not work for Subex. Although I try to keep an eye on their business, if they intend to keep a secret hidden in their headquarters in Bangalore, I am unlikely to discover the secret from my vantage point in the UK. Secondly, internet gossip about share prices is about as reliable a source of information as that ubiquitous internet spam which begins by saying: ‘here’s one weird tip to…’ and ends by saying something like ‘…remove all wrinkles from a 90 year old face’ or ‘cut your tax bills in half’ or ‘purchase an iPad for less than $10′. If you take internet chat seriously, then you must be in the wrong line of work. Unless you are following my internet chat, in which case you are a very wise person indeed and you are bound to have a successful career. That is because I only tell you good stuff. And that is because, when I want to find out stuff, I ask people who might know the answers. So I asked Subex CEO Surjeet Singh what he thought about his company’s last set of results, and his objectives for the business over the next few years. Here are some excerpts from our conversation…

Eric: Surjeet, you may remember that I already reviewed Subex’s financial results for last year, so I don’t want to discuss numbers, but I’d really like to know which element of last year’s results pleased you most, and where you feel there is greatest room for improvement.

Surjeet: What made me happy was the 24/25% EBITDA margin we attained. It was vital that we steadied the ship and, as part of the turnaround, rapidly moved to a situation where we demonstrated that Subex is a profitable business. So the EBITDA margin pleased me. Where we need to improve is when we compete for business in Europe. We feel we’re dominant in Asia and the Middle East; during the last 14 months we had seven transactions in that part of the world which were in the three-to-five million dollar range. But in Europe we didn’t win as much as expected.

Eric: what’s holding you back in Europe?

Surjeet: Historically Subex has been weaker in Europe. Subex hadn’t developed the same touchpoints with prospective customers in that region. Also, Subex’s poor results in the past, and rumours about our financial status have had a negative impact in Europe which we haven’t experienced elsewhere. Management has focused on making better in-roads into Europe, and I’ve asked Vinod [Kumar, Subex COO] to be hands-on with this. I think we’ve improved a lot in the interim.

Eric: I get the impression that Subex is feeling more optimistic about growth than it has for a while.

Surjeet: We’re running the business with the future in mind, ensuring we’re financially sound and planning to generate a good return for investors. And we’ve had some good news relating to that: Subex received an investment grade credit rating from Fitch. With the future in mind, we’re putting together an advisory board of industry professionals – including ex-CEOs who know telcos and people like that. They will guide us in terms of development and delivery. And we’re managing money internally like we’re managing an investment portfolio, with three-year targets for each element of the portfolio. That way, we use our money wisely, concentrating on the areas where we pursue growth, and not spreading ourselves too thin, trying to do too many different things.

Eric: Which elements of the portfolio are you investing most heavily in?

Surjeet: We have invested heavily in asset assurance, the management of network capex and opex. You already know how important asset assurance is to us; we’ve invested in making it a success. Analytics is also important to our new portfolio. As for vertical expansion, we’re working on a test bed that will see us develop our products for use in utilities. We preferred to concentrate on utilities rather than financial services companies because we feel it will be easiest to convert our tools for use in utilities.

Eric: The possible downside is that utilities are not known as fast-changing businesses.

Surjeet: No, but they have the cash, and we expect there will be plenty of change in utilities during the coming years. They will want to make use of the data they collect.

Eric: You alluded to targets over a timeframe of the next few years. Can you be more specific?

Surjeet: I want Subex to be earning $100mn revenue annually, with a 25% EBITDA margin, within three years from now.

Eric: Can I quote you on that?

Surjeet: Please do.

Eric: We often talk about managed services as being important to how you’ve changed the revenue profile of your business. Long-term managed service contracts makes your revenues more predictable, and less volatile. Subex has increased the share of revenues from managed services to an extent that rivals have not been able to match. Can you comment on why that is?

Surjeet: Customers want bundling, and they want it to be quick and efficient. Subex reset its own revenue cycle to ensure we can quickly and efficiently bundle products and services, in order to please customers. It’s a very important competitive advantage for us.

Eric: To be clear, I sometimes talk about outsourcing as being one end of the spectrum that is labelled ‘managed services’, but when you talk about Subex supplying managed services, you’re not really talking about outsourcing of revenue assurance and fraud management. However, I admit that I previously predicted there would be more outsourcing by this point in time, and I assumed that Subex would take the lead because it would give your business the deepest ties with your customers, and hence the greatest predictability for your revenues. Am I right in thinking you’re not already an outsourced supplier of revenue assurance and fraud management – in the sense of employing the people who do assurance on behalf of the telco? In other words, you’re bundling hardware with software, but the telco still employs the people who do revenue assurance and fraud management for their business. Is that right? Might that change in future?

Surjeet: You’re right. We don’t currently provide a fully outsourced service for revenue assurance or fraud management. When I talk about bundling, I’m talking about bundling hardware and hosting with the software. However, I think we are on an evolutionary path with our customers. When you’ve provided a bundle of software, hardware and hosting for several years, and you provide that bundle smoothly and efficiently, the customer becomes more open to the option of full outsourcing. Full outsourcing is something I could envisage happening at the level of a telecoms group, and I foresee it will be viable to make such an outsourcing deal in the next year or 18 months. Previously groups have tended to have a variety of fraud management and revenue assurance suppliers across their entities, but we’re reaching a stage where Subex is the supplier to every subsidiary of a group. That makes it far more viable to do outsourcing at group level.

Eric: So you’re suggesting that the trend towards shared service centres in telecoms groups is also a potential enabler for outsourcing? If a group runs a shared service centre for revenue assurance or fraud management, where it’s pooling work done on behalf of all the operating companies, then that lends itself to the possibility of simply outsourcing the work of the shared service centre?

Surjeet: That’s right. We don’t see the trend towards shared service centres as a threat to Subex’s business model, because it also increases the opportunity to outsource. If a group can decide to implement a shared service centre for its revenue assurance and fraud management, it creates a real possibility that they might do a 10-year deal to outsource that function, allowing Subex to take care of every aspect of the function, from the software that is used, to the payroll for the staff who work in that team.

Eric: A 10-year outsourcing deal? So you’re really thinking long-term about Subex’s future revenues.

Surjeet: We’re really thinking that far ahead.

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The relationship between people and machines has been a recurring theme on talkRA. I discuss the tension between people and machines a lot. But I think the tension is not really between people and machines. The tension is between people who treat other people like human beings, and people who treat other people like machines. People are varied, difficult, unpredictable, individual, and demanding. It would be convenient for a business to have 500 employees who all behave the same way, and 5 million customers who all behave the same way. But people are not like that. Whether we talk about software, controls, or processes, there is a danger that somebody with little empathy for real people, and divorced from the consequences of their decisions, will make terrible choices that then become hard coded into the ‘rules’ of the business. These decisions may look good from the cold, abstract perspective of a spreadsheet, but can be terrible for the human beings affected by them. The end result is the kind of customer experience shared below.

American technology journalist Ryan Block called Comcast to cancel his internet service. After ten minutes of arguing with Comcast’s ‘retention specialist’, he decided to record the remainder of the call, capturing the final eight minutes. Afterwards, he shared the recording on SoundCloud, where it took just two days to reach 4 million people. Why did 4 million people take an interest in Block speaking to Comcast about cancelling his service? Because Comcast’s representative repeatedly demanded an explanation for why Block wanted to cancel his service – in the obvious hope that Block would simply give up and remain a customer. Listen for yourself…

I wanted to talk about this incident because these examples must be balanced against any data-centric analysis of how to boost revenues, reduce churn, and so on. This recording is also data. Unfortunately, it is the kind of data that is hard to compress into numbers and spreadsheets. But it is still vitally important data if we want to understand how well the business is performing. And this data says: “avoid Comcast as your service provider, because they treat customers badly.”

The recording also says that Comcast treats its staff like machines. Whilst the customer thinks they are talking to a human being, who has some discretion over how they behave, the customer might as well be speaking to an IVR. Comcast’s representative behaves like a slave to the rigid rules he is expected to follow. That means the employee is required to ‘save’ the customer by any means possible, even if the customer is absolutely determined to leave.

A statement issued by Comcast puts the blame solely on their representative, saying:

The way in which our representative communicated with them is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives.

However, others have questioned Comcast’s corporate attitude. When Comcast tweeted to say they would take ‘quick action’, Block tweeted back:

I hope the quick action you take is a thorough evaluation of your culture and policies, and not the termination of the rep.

And somebody claiming to be a former employee of Comcast used Reddit to share a much more comprehensive analysis of why Comcast’s representatives would behave like this:

If I was reviewing this guys calls I’d agree that this is an example of going a little too hard at it, but here’s the deal (and this is not saying they’re doing the right thing, this is just how it works). First of all these guys have a low hourly rate. In the states I’ve worked in they start at about 10.50-12$/hr. The actual money that they make comes from their metrics for the month which depends on the department they’re in. In sales this is obvious, the more sales you make the better you do.

In retention, the more products you save per customer the better you do, and the more products you disconect the worst you do (if a customer with a triple play disconnects, you get hit as losing every one of those lines of business, not just losing one customer.) These guys fight tooth and nail to keep every customer because if they don’t meet their numbers they don’t get paid.

Comcast uses “gates” for their incentive pays, which means that if you fall below a certain threshold (which tend to be stretch goals in the first place) then instead of getting a reduced amount, you get 0$. Let’s say that if you retain 85% of your customers or more (this means 85% of the lines of businesses that customers have when they talk to you, they still have after they talk to you), you get 100% of your payout – which might be 5-10$ per line of business. At 80% you might only get 75% of your payout, and at 75% you get nothing.

The CAEs (customer service reps) watch these numbers daily, and will fight tooth and nail to stay above the “I get nothing” number. This guy went too far, you’re not supposed to flat out argue with them. But comcast literally provides an incentive for this kind of behavior. It’s the same reason peoples bills are always fucked up, people stuffing them with things they don’t need or in some cases don’t even agree to.

I find this account of Comcast’s rules to be credible. Comcast may have a rule saying their reps should not argue with customers. However, nobody is this overzealous unless they are motivated to be like this. In other words, something in Comcast’s rules, procedures and incentives is motivating this human being to be so dogged at retaining customers. Without a financial incentive, it would be normal for the rep to just do as Block asked, cancelling the service and ending the call as quickly as possible. Arguing for nearly 20 minutes shows that the rep has something personally at stake. In this case, the rep has too much at stake.

Whilst Comcast’s motivational techniques might deliver good results on their spreadsheet – there is no doubt this kind of high-energy ‘retention’ strategy will influence some customers – there are also downside consequences for real people which may not be shown by the data that management looks at. No matter how much data we think we have, when it comes it comes to marketing analysis, customer service, satisfaction and loyalty, we need to remember how difficult it is to reduce people’s attitudes and behaviour to numbers which computers can calculate. Decision-makers who ignore human consequences do not deserve respect, whether they intend to disconnect a batch of old services, and wait to see if any customers complain that they have been affected, or whether they give a salesman a big bonus for results, then plead ignorance of the salesman’s unethical tactics.

Data can be clean and straightforward, making it pleasant to work with. Much of business assurance is rightly oriented around data. Manipulating and managing data contrasts with the messy business of how people think and act, which is difficult to record, measure and describe using rules and formulae. But telcos exist to serve people, and business assurance professionals should always keep that in mind.

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Imagine this advertising campaign…

Good news for all PhoneyTel customers!!!!

Previously your bills were only 70% accurate. We’re very sorry about that. We let ourselves down, and we let you down. Presenting mistakes in 3 bills out of every 10 is simply unacceptable.

We listened when you told us we needed to improve. So that’s what we did. We’ve improved. We took a hard look at ourselves, and we’ve changed the way we work. We’ve invested in our people, in our process, and in our technology. Now we can promise you the standard of performance that you expect from us, day in and day out. With thanks from our technology partners, we’ve just completed a project to resolve our accuracy problems. And that’s why we can proudly boast that PhoneyTel bills are now…

(drum roll)

90% accurate!!!!

That’s right. Your bill is only going to be 10% wrong, when previously it was 30% wrong. That’s the quality of service you deserve, and PhoneyTel is glad to give you what we think you deserve.

That would be a ridiculous campaign! Or maybe not. Consider the following excerpt from the website of a leading global supplier of ICT solutions…

Loss of revenue due to billing & charging complexity, inaccurate data input, invalid correction & discount control, ineffective payment collection, and bad debt management remain a major challenge for operators. The primary causes of revenue leakage include network configuration changes, tariff configurations, and poor system integration during the CDR processing cycle…

…Through [our] understanding of the revenue cycle, [we] can help operators reduce the potential impact and risk of revenue leakage through its revenue assurance processes, tools, and expertise…

…[We were] able to improve the billing accuracy for a certain African operator from approximately 70% to 90%, leading to fewer customer complaints.

I may not be a customer of a certain African operator, but excuse me as I still feel entitled to complain about such extraordinarily low expectations. Who, in all seriousness, thinks 90% accuracy is something praiseworthy, even if it is an improvement on what went before? Customers complain more about overcharges than undercharges, so it is hard to know what “70%” accuracy really means in this context. But whilst 90% accuracy sounds better, it still sounds lousy. Nobody should be seeking credit for delivering such inaccurate bills. That would be like a thief expecting you to thank him, because he took your wallet, instead of stealing your car.

Mistakes will always happen, but accuracy is not so hard to deliver that anyone should think a 10% error rate is tolerable. In a way, I am pleased that this supplier has been so transparent. However, I am more upset that they feel no embarrassment at being associated with such a low level of delivery.

Who is the supplier? (Drum roll…) Huawei. They may be fringe providers of RA services, but sloppiness at the fringe hardly suggests a robust core. Huawei employees, including the people who wrote this promotional spiel, should ask themselves a question. How happy would they be, if they learned that their payroll was 90% accurate?

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***Sigh***

I really have better things to do than to write a blog about everything that is wrong with the TM Forum’s new Revenue Assurance Maturity Model. I really do. Nothing I could write, or do, will influence the ‘best practice guidance’ issued by the TMF. The people running their RA team have a fixed agenda. That agenda is far more transparent than the supposedly collaborative process by which they issue their standards. In case you missed the press release, the agenda is most easily illustrated by the following:

  • Israeli software firm cVidya leads the TMF’s Enterprise Risk Management group;
  • Israeli software firm cVidya co-leads the TMF’s Fraud Management group; and
  • Israeli software firm cVidya leads the TMF’s Revenue Assurance group.

Does this suggest that TMF guidance draws upon a wide-ranging and representative sample of industry opinion about how to manage risk, fraud and assurance? You can decide for yourself. I state facts. It is also a fact that, over the last five years, the TM Forum has repeatedly issued guidelines which understate the importance of the employees of the telco, in order to push sales of technology. When I assert this, I get a lot of criticism. Naturally the criticism comes from people (however impressive machines are, they still cannot advocate for themselves). And so, the theory goes, I must be biased (after all, I have a freebie blog!) whilst the people I argue against must be honest, decent, unbiased folk (who only need to generate millions of dollars of revenue by selling software). So let me make a few, very succinct points about why the new RA Maturity Model proves that the TM Forum evades transparency wherever possible, and always seeks to undermine the value of people in order to promote sales of software.

1. Nobody told you that the new RA Maturity Model was coming out.

If you are employed by a company that is a member of the TM Forum, you have the right to comment on the draft documents they issue, prior to formal ‘approval’. Approval itself is a mystery – it is not clear who actually decides what is approved or how they reached that decision. But at least you can comment, saying if you like or dislike what they produce. Or you could, if you knew that a new document was coming out.

My point here is simple. In a few weeks, expect a press release from cVidya which plainly states that the TMF has approved the new RA Maturity Model, and that cVidya has made it available as a software add-on to their existing product suite. What the press release will definitely not say is that the TMF has approved “GB941 Revenue Assurance Solution Suite 4.5″ and that cVidya have updated their products accordingly. The press release will not use that language because nobody knows that “GB941 Revenue Assurance Solution Suite 4.5″ is code for the new RA Maturity model. And that is why the TM Forum sends out notifications alerting its members to the release of GB941 Revenue Assurance Solution Suite 4.5, without bothering to mention what is in it.

To illustrate my point, last week I contacted one of the four telco employees listed as authors of the new RA Maturity Model, to ask if he knew when the document was being approved. He had no idea that the deadline for comments was only days away. He admitted he had not even read the draft document. If the supposed authors of the document do not read and approve it, then who does?

2. The old model stated that people were an independent and crucial dimension in the determination of maturity. The new model deletes this dimension.

The original TMF RA Maturity Model had 5 dimensions: Organization, People, Influence, Tools and Process. In order to score as a fully mature organization, the organization had to be fully mature in every dimension, without exception. This was a straight copy from the Software Engineering Institute’s original Capability Maturity Model, and drew on their empirical evidence. The new TMF RA Maturity Model has 4 dimensions: Organization, Process, Measurement and Technology. Spot the difference? There are still a few questions about people, now included under the Organization dimension. But no explanation is given to justify this radical change, which demotes the importance of people, whilst putting even more emphasis on technology. In fact, two of the four dimensions are now dominated by technology, because the new ‘measurement’ dimension only makes sense in the context of technology to provide measurement.

But to fully understand the way in which people have been demoted in the new model, you need to appreciate the following…

3. The old model said that the assurance chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The new model just takes an average.

The old model was built on a straightforward but important principle. When many parts have to work together, the weakest performing part sets the limit on the overall performance. Good organization but weak process will deliver weak performance, good tools but weak people will deliver weak performance, and so on. The old RA Maturity Model emphasized the importance of improving maturity across all the dimensions in a coordinated way, because spending a lot of money or effort to improve one dimension would be wasteful and ineffective, if the other dimensions were left far behind. The new model just takes the aggregate score across all the questions, and translates this into the overall level of maturity.

This means that in the new model, even if no effort is put into recruiting and developing staff, a high maturity score is still possible by simply putting more money into technology and the things that senior managers tend to do.

Once again, the new RA Maturity Model deviates from a key principle in the Capability Maturity Model, which was why it was adopted in the original RA Maturity Model. No justification is given for this fundamental change of approach. The document begins by suggesting reasons why a new version of the maturity model was needed, such as the increasing popularity of digital services, and a different ‘ideal’ for revenue assurance (whatever that means). However, these reasons cannot possibly explain the much more fundamental changes that have been made in practice, without showing any reasoning or data to support those changes.

4. The new model makes it too easy to attain the highest level of maturity.

In the old model, to attain the highest level of maturity, the organization had to achieve the highest level within each of the five dimensions. It was a simple idea, which expressed how difficult it should be to achieve the ‘ideal’. In effect, an optimal organization could only exist if an optimal answer was given to every single question. Is this not obvious common sense? How can the whole organization be optimal at anything, if some crucial elements are sub-optimal?

The new model not only brings in averages, but sets low expectations. To be scored amongst the highest level of maturity, the telco needs only to achieve a score which is 80% of the maximum score possible. That means that a telco can completely fail to do some important tasks, like adequately training staff, or reviewing new products, and still be assessed as ‘optimal’ at revenue assurance.

5. There is obvious bias to the individual questions in the new model.

Consider the following questions, all taken from the new RA Maturity Model:

Is appropriate budget made available for the supply of RA technology?

Is appropriate budget made available for the deployment of RA technology?

Is appropriate budget made available for the operation of RA technology?

Is appropriate budget made available for the on-going support and maintenance of RA technology?

In contrast, there is only one question that might be interpreted as relating to another crucial aspect of a revenue assurance budget.

Is the resource profile of the RA team reviewed periodically to ensure it is staffed appropriately?

There are many other examples of how the questionnaire is slanted, but this example neatly illustrates the main problem. It was written by people obsessed by using software, and indifferent to the alternatives.

6. And all the rest…

I could go on for much longer, and in much more detail, but people complain that I rant for too long. So I will not go into a lot more detail. My main point is made: the new RA Maturity Model deliberately places less importance on people in order to focus even more attention on software and the budget to buy it. But there are very many other flaws with this work.

The new model repeatedly confuses the revenue assurance maturity of the whole organization (the very clear purpose of the original maturity model) with the maturity of a nominal RA Department. It even talks about the ‘ideal’ RA function, as if all that matters is the function, and not how the rest of the business behaves. The goal of revenue assurance is holistic, making demands all across the telco, and the original model sought to empower RA managers and staff by making this clear. Also, the business should have the right to split up work between different departments in any way that best suits them. What matters is the overall result to the organization, not the ego of some guy with the job title of ‘Head of RA’.

The new revision was supposedly needed to keep up with technology, but its understanding of technology is backward-looking. Time and again it refers to ‘RA technology’ in ways that indicate this technology must be separate to other technology. RA is a goal, not a technology. There is no reason why the same technology might not satisfy multiple goals, including the goals of RA. As such, the new model takes no account of the impact of Big Data, and other trends towards mass aggregate use of data across the enterprise. In fact, it still has a prejudice against using data from ‘secondary’ sources, even whilst Big Data is making a nonsense of the idea that data can only be trusted if it comes from ‘primary’ sources.

The new model claims to be a simplification of the old model, but it is not. The old model had five answers to every question, a simple way to express how every answer to a question maps to one of five levels of maturity. By destroying this mapping, the new model is opaque, and does not represent maturity as a stepwise improvement that must go across all dimensions.

As sadly typical of the TMF RA team leaders, the new model lacks transparency. This fits with its increasing complication, which is hidden from view and then mis-represented as simplicity. The new equations to calculate maturity are not visible to the user. The old assessment could be performed with pencil and paper, whilst the new one must be done in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, because of the equations hidden within. All the questions and answers in the original model were written out in full, so everybody could see them and implement them as they wished. Because the old model was transparent, telcos were free to tailor the model if they wanted to. There is some irony in this fact, because Gadi Solotorevsky often gave presentations about the ‘TM Forum RA Maturity Model’ in co-operation with Telefonica, even though Telefonica had very clearly changed the model to reflect their point of view. As the new document explicitly states, it would not be possible for a telco to change the new model, even if they wanted to, because of the way the equations have been implemented.

It should be noted that the new document claims to have improved on the old model because it has ditched the weighting scheme which was used in the original model. However, it is important to reflect on why the original model had such an inelegant weighting scheme. The reason was that the weightings were the result of many people’s contribution to the original model. If we surveyed the opinions of ten people about how important question A is, relative to question B, we might expect ten different answers. To get to an answer, the original model just totalled the weightings proposed by all the contributors, and used the average. It was not a perfect system, but it was clear and fair. The new model says it has improved upon this. However, I cannot work out how it would be possible to do this, unless just one or two people decided to impose their will on the work. As such, the new model must be much less of a collaborative team effort than the old model was.

Which leads me to my final point. When I was at WeDo’s user group event, I saw an excellent presentation by Daniele Gulinatti, VP of Fraud Management & Revenue Assurance at Telecom Italia. His presentation struck a chord with me, because it was all about real people, and getting the best from his team. They delivered great results by using imagination and good processes, irrespective of the limits on their technology budget. And some of his team were in the audience, and I can vouch that I could feel their enthusiasm from the other side of the hall. So I find it hard to reconcile Daniele’s effervescent humanity with the fact he is listed as one of the authors of this stilted, cold TMF document. On the one hand I see a manager who clearly understands that superior results can only come from a motivated team. On the other hand, I see a TMF document that treats people as inferior to, and more disposable than machines. What can I do, but shrug my shoulders, and wonder how this is possible?

Perhaps this divergence is natural in human affairs. Many managers want official-sounding documents to show to their bosses, arguing they should have a higher budget. I was always conscious of this potential pitfall with the original RA Maturity Model. Even though it explicitly presented a strategic overview, there was always the prospect that it might be manipulated to give quick budget wins. That is why so many vendors and consultants copied the idea (but not the content) in the hopes of boosting their sales. Their versions of the RA Maturity Model soon disappeared. The original TMF RA Maturity Model has thrived, because it really was long-term, strategic, and built on solid foundations. And that means curbing bias (like the need to maximize this year’s software budget) in order to present a more balanced model that genuinely considers what is needed in the long-run (like a motivated team, which receives proper rewards for its successes).

But like barbarians, the ‘leaders’ of the TMF team are determined to wreck anything that does not immediately gratify them. Maybe I am in the minority. Perhaps the majority agrees with their approach. If so, I would accept the will of the majority. But we will never know, because whilst the original RA Maturity Model was written in 2006 with the involvement of just three telcos, the new RA maturity model has been written in 2014 with the involvement of just three telcos. Getting three telcos to contribute to an RA document in 2006 was a minor miracle. In 2014, it is a sign of apathy, or worse. After all, people have had 8 years to get used to the idea of an RA Maturity Model. Only a few of us understood the idea in the beginning. The TMF claims that half of the respondents to its RA surveys use the model. But despite that, they could only get MTN, Telecom Italia, and Telefonica Chile to contribute their conception of the new ‘ideal’ for revenue assurance. With the greatest respect to the people working in those telcos, why do they know the new ‘ideal’ for revenue assurance, more than all the other people who now work in telco revenue assurance? And based on the person I spoke to, what confidence is there that anybody currently working for a telco has actually read the whole document?

The team who wrote the original RA Maturity Model produced the questionnaire using a voting process. Questions were proposed, answers proposed, people voted on which ones made the cut, and which were rejected. And then, there was a vote on the weighting of the questions. If the TMF really wanted the opinion of telcos, why did it not run a survey on the content of the new RA Maturity Model? Such a thing would have been impossible in 2006. In 2014, the same task is incredibly easy. I believe it is because the whole point of their ‘collaborative’ process is to exclude the involvement of telcos, whilst making it appear that they invite their input. Everything is done to make it hard to participate or respond, from requiring people to fly around the world to attend meetings in person, to hiding equations in spreadsheets, to sending out notifications about “GB941 Revenue Assurance Solution Suite 4.5″. The TMF does lots of surveys about lots of things. Why not decide the new ‘ideal’ for revenue assurance by doing a survey? The only possible reason is that the answers might not support the leaders’ agenda.

The new RA Maturity Model is a broken product. But that is no surprise: it is the output of a broken process. The TMF has no interest in fixing one. It is beyond my abilities to fix the other. The only good thing about the new model is that it will die in a year or two, victim of its own failings. It says too little about people – and people often last longer than technology. It is too easy to reach the top level of maturity, meaning there will soon be calls for an upgrade. It does not promote the kind of balanced approach needed for long-run improvement. The equations are too complicated to understand, and have been hidden from view, meaning they cannot be fixed if they do not work. These fundamental flaws have doomed it to an implausibly short life for a supposedly ‘strategic’ model. But then, we should not be surprised. The real authors of this revised model are worried about this quarter’s sales figures, not about the next evolution of a mature strategy for business improvement.

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I like to think I have learned a thing or two about internet audiences, thanks to running talkRA. But I can always learn more. Unfortunately, one thing I have learned is to never finish a blog with a question for the audience. Nothing discourages comments more than explicitly asking for them. So, to be clear, this post is definitely not asking you what you think about the talkRA podcast, the long-running companion output to the blog. That said, I cannot stop you leaving a comment, if you choose to do so ;)

Some years ago, when iPods seemed new and funky, podcasts also seemed new and funky too. They provided me with an excellent way to make and share content with very little additional effort. I was already in the habit of using the phone to discuss business assurance with all sorts of people around the world. Recording the conversation, and sharing an mp3 file on the web, was both easy and fun. Often the hardest part was to convince my peers that they would speak as much sense if talking to the whole world, as when they talk to me alone. But when they do speak, I find the results to be excellent, and the use of electronic communications is far more convenient than travelling to some overseas conference to hear much the same thing.

When the podcast was first made available, I assumed the listeners would be the same people who read the blog. Subsequent feedback from readers and listeners told me I was wrong. A very wide variety of people read talkRA’s blogs. On the other hand, the podcast has a more loyal but narrower niche following. I receive most offline feedback about the podcast from senior managers in telcos and c-level execs working for suppliers. Why does the podcast appeal to them more than most? One reason is that talkRA is read by people whilst at work, during their lunches and coffee breaks. Ten minutes reading a blog is a shorter interruption, and less disturbance to colleagues, than spending between 30 minutes and an hour listening to a podcast. Not all work computers are set up to play audio, though I believe this is less common than it used to be. Bandwidth used to be an issue for some people, though this should also have become much less of an obstacle than in the past. Podcasts are more likely to be listened to away from the office; some regular listeners tell me that they typically enjoy the podcasts whilst in the car or on some other journey. And maybe the content itself is subtly geared for a different kind of audience. Blogs might be short or humorous, whilst podcasts tend to give a serious ‘deep dive’ into specific topics.

Looking at the all-time stats, the most popular talkRA podcast was an interview with Hanno Allolio of Allolio & Konrad, about improving the exploitation of data. After that comes several podcasts with similar numbers of downloads, though with they have varied topics: revenue assurance in Africa, the growth of managed services, and the history of revenue assurance. But then, all the podcasts have varied topics, from a 2009 panel debate about the impact of data warehouses on revenue assurance, to our most recent podcast about preventing fraud by improving number range management. Unsurprisingly, the least popular talkRA podcast featured me, talking about the concept of podcasting. I was much more surprised, when I saw how many people downloaded the podcast where Mike Willett asked me to talk about me (not counting the repeat downloads by my mother).

To my mind, there should be a strong market for podcasts, as they provide an entertaining and efficient way of hearing quality content from good speakers. But am I missing a trick somewhere? Are there ways to make the podcasts more appealing or accessible, but which I have not thought of? Should I publish podcasts more often, in the knowledge that the more podcasts are offered, the more people will get into the habit of listening to them? Or should I concentrate on increasing the output of the blog instead? I would ask you, dear reader, but you already know why I cannot do that…

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