Archive for February, 2009

I have come across the use of the term forensic in GRAPA literature. I was unsure of its meaning and assumed it made reference to the analysis and resolution of fraudulent activity committed by either the subscriber or telco personnel. A cursory glance at the training material and the certification requirements also suggest a major focus on forensic skills. In course module RM100 for instance forensics appear to mean analysis (…students will learn the detailed steps in the process of Forensics, Controls Management, Corrections and Compliance).

In a recent post on Linked In http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&gid=126200&discussionID=1505637&goback=%2Eanh_126200 the following reference to forensic was made: “skilled technologist who have detailed understanding of the systems and data architectures or are supported by people who have that knowledge and equally important people who understand the business process flows e2e. 

Once you truely understand the nature of the systems and data you have, you will be able to readily identify the types of RA activities that suit or are needed in your environment and will be able to target the toolsets which most closely align with your needs”.

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary the term forensic refers to “the study of physical information connected with crime” or it may also refer to the place where the evidence of the crime is sent for analysis. Wiki defines it as “the application of a broad spectrum of sciences to answer questions of interest to the legal system. This may be in relation to a crime or to a civil action. More generally forensics encompasses the accepted scholarly or scientific methodology and norms under which the facts regarding an event, or an artifact, or some other physical item (such as a corpse, or cadaver, for example) are to the broader notion of authentication whereby an interest outside of a legal form exists in determining whether an object is in fact what it purports to be, or is alleged as being”. Now one can argue here that 2 billion records processed by mediation and forwarded to rating “purports to be, or is alleged as being” 2 billion billable records since a mediation rule is implemented to filter out non-billable events and pass them directly to EDW for reporting purposes.

Gartner, in an article about setting up an RACC, compared the approach of some 8 vendor and consulting firms to implementing an RA project and setting up an RA Competency Centre. In summary all the respondents were aligned with regard the need to understand the system and data architectures as well as having clearly documented business processes end to end. All 8 included in their phase 1 of the project a thorough analysis of the requirements. Some respondents were tool independent. No reference was made to forensics in either the Gartner scope of the project or the responds’ preferred approach and methodology.

My point is this. If the RA community wishes to standardise and unite this profession, we must speak the same language. I have not come across a workplace where this forensic approach to RA is present in the culture or language of the group. Individual enquiries as to its meaning returned either “GRAPA plays in the forensic/fraud field and not pure RA” and “GRAPA means RA as we understand it but it was written/coined by somebody who has a forensic investigation background”.

The beauty of managing a team consisting of RA, Fraud and Law Enforcement personnel is that one gets a glimpse of their cognitive processing and respective approaches to problem solving using a single issue such as the perceived underbilling of wholesale data usage. There is a distinct difference in the mental processes of a forensic investigator and financial analyst. Both these personnel profiles can apply for an RA position. This is the socio-cultural context within which we process our knowledge of RA standards and will necessarily lead to misinterpretation of an otherwise well intended contribution. In change management we are taught to show sensitivity toward diversity. Is this a matter of cultural differences and diversity? If so, what can be done to establish a reliable translator for such term differences? If a job description asks for forensic skills when I really need somebody with an analytical ability, would I be doing a fair evaluation of suitable candidates? 

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Mark Nicholson is Chief Technology Officer of Subex and it was my pleasure to spend some time talking with him for this month’s podcast. In recent years, Subex has grown rapidly from its Indian base to establish itself as a worldwide force. Starting out with a focus on the fraud management niche, Subex has greatly extended its product portfolio. Based in their Canadian office, Mark joined Subex followed its integration of Syndesis, the fulfillment and assurance business. At Subex, Mark is responsible for the company’s long-term technology strategy and for driving the definition, direction and development of the Subex software suite, which covers both revenue maximization and FAS. For talkRA podcast 4, we talked about Subex’s technology strategy, and how that fitted within a wider context of Subex’s market position and industry trends. Look below for a brief summary transcript, but to get the full 45-minute interview, you will need to listen to the podcast!

As well as making them one of the biggest players in revenue assurance, several years of growth and acquisition activity looked set to turn Subex into an irrepressible force in OSS and BSS. After a long and impressive run of good results, Subex took a knock in its last financial year, not just falling short of guidance but also returning a loss. In the Q3 figures recently announced by Subex, there were signs that their business may have turned a corner. In Q3, revenues were up, costs were down, and profits before exceptionals were better. I started by asking Mark how Subex’s management team regarded the Q3 numbers.

Eric: Mark, you’re the Chief Technology Officer for Subex – you’re not the CFO – but the Q3 results came out recently. Do you want to comment on how happy Subex’s management team is with the results?

Mark: We are happy. We’re going in the right direction. We took action early and that action is paying off. We’re executing, we’re a global company, we’re diverse, in summary, we’re happy.

Eric: Subex is a big business, that goes beyond revenue maximization and includes fulfillment and assurance. Can you summarize, from a technological perspective, the synergies between revenue maximization software, and your fulfillment and assurance products?

Mark: There’s marketing and the value proposition as well, but from a technology perspective, there’s a lot of synergies in the approach we take to developing the software – middleware, workflow, focus on the user (rather than the technology), data warehousing, collection of data, interfacing to the network – there’s a lot of synergies between the two portfolios.

Eric: You touched upon the wider business synergies.

Mark: Yeah, that’s more significant. Coming from a technology background – I have been in BSS but for the last ten years I’ve been very close to the network – if you look at a lot of the OSS products and how they are positioned, a lot of the OSS vendors (including the former Syndesis) had a technology-focused approach to product build, what’s the value proposition etc. What I’m finding is that, in terms of the product lifecycle management, I’m finding OSS can learn a lot from BSS, especially from revenue maximization [which is] very productized. I’m finding that, on the OSS side, we can borrow a lot of the focused intimacy with the end user, the intimacy with the financial buyer, the way it is presented. That’s what we’ve been doing, bringing that into the OSS side.

Eric: You could argue that if services are fulfilled quickly, without any errors, that reduces your potential for revenue leaks, or for money to be wasted on inventory that is not used. Does that mean your two product sets are slightly conflicting? As you sell the original Syndesis line, you limit the business case for revenue maximization products?

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While working with a Commercial bank in South Africa and Namibia I tried to draw a comparison between revenue assurance in a telco environment and how I imagine it could be done in a banking environment.  Take note of the reference to “tried” here. I have to warn the readers that engaging with a commercial bank to roll out new banking infrastructure in Africa during these financial times takes some doing. There was very little energy left to day dream about revenue assurance.

Limiting this observation to the process of product and system implementation, what is the difference between implementing Amdocs, Singl.eView and Flexcube? Not much except that Flexcube is implemented in the banking industry and not in a telco.  

System stability

A headache for any RA team is tracking usage through unstable systems. Inevitably the finger pointing ensues between 2 departments without either taking accountability for system integrity. When the platform integrity was not assured during the implementation of the system, it is almost impossible to rectify this during production without at least several scars.  The bank’s implementation of the core banking system was no different.  It did however make me realise how often the Revenue Assurance Department picks up the accountability to ensure that system development staff is following Project management 101 principles.

System architecture

I have yet to work for a telco that has the entire system architecture documented in enough detail to follow the basic flow of data. The bank experience again was no different. I did OD work for banks before but this was the first time I was involved in banking operations. As a novice it would have been nice to work through the operating model down to a functional architecture and then consider how the system architecture would support or enable the business objectives. Only a small number of people understood what I was trying to do and I was left again realising the huge gap between technology and human capability. The gap just widens.

Solution design

Many organisations regardless of the industry are forced to do solution design in parallel. This is achieved by continuing work in isolation with the intention of integrating later. The designs are based on assumptions and generally high-level directives usually in the form of an MS Powerpoint slide presented to Exco.  We build the solution from multiple points working in multiple directions and become confused when they don’t tie up.  This again is not telco specific. Banks do it too.

Developing specialised functionality in-house

We are familiar with a few telcos which are forced to (or elect to) design and build their own telco systems, be they an RA automation / verification tool or strangely, a rating and billing engine. I am not a fundi of banking payment systems, but I felt the business architect’s pain when he wrestled with the concern of underlying functionality. Although he did not specifically mention complete and accurate billing, this is what he meant. I guess the term “complete and accurate” is telco specific lingo but the concern is industry independent.  The sheer size and complexity of inter bank, inter country payment settlement would make me think twice before embarking on the in-house development of a payment settlement solution.  The closest I could come to offer help was to suggest we get a system auditor in and that took some explaining.

Project management and communication

Coming back to project management, it is alarming to follow the demise of large programmes (and those chunky budgets gone) due to ineffective project and programme management. The Governance and Internal Audit guys make plentiful visits to check up on the health of the programme but somehow the message misses its audience or perhaps the audience has other realities simply not understood by reality-protected desk job executives…..executives meaning glorified middle management without subordinates.

Product development

Understanding your market and their appetite for certain products is vital to the costing and offering model. Similar to what we know as margin analysis, we would also look at the profitability of certain segments or go further to inform subscribers of more suitable packages to optimise their “bang for the buck”. Products working for one country may not necessarily work in another country and this is not a function of GDP or disposable income. There are nuances to what you sell, which can make or break the bottom line.

On the upside

The volume of customers and complexity of parameters per product do not come close to a telco I worked with so far. Yes, we do have the difference in the size of countries I am referring to here but still, once operational the speed and size of change do not require fulltime revenue assurance people onboard. The company involved has an awesome Fraud department with near real time monitoring of transactions. This knowledge and infrastructure can be replicated into Africa. You can also train a businessperson in the basics of banking without having to turn them into technical superbeings. It is one of the few companies where procedure manuals actual mean something.

As to how they ensure that service charges and interest are calculated correctly, the answer was “I am not sure”. It appears that the customer relationship management is adequate to know your assigned client accounts well enough to know if there is a problem on the account or not.

Personal reflection

A famous quote in impoverished African countries is “Complaining with a white bread under the arm”. This refers to valuing or appreciating what you have. Here is an observation from the revenue assurance starved (moi). We often complain about working with telco execs that battle to grasp the basics of revenue assurance. We spend days dissecting their uninformed decisions and their inability to zoom in and out. When you are unfortunate in the nature of assignment the gods designed for you and you exchange the RA world for something else, you come to miss those dumb executive decisions. You try for a while to marvel in other’s experiences but somehow this is like trying to share a romantic meal for two with your parents.  Value the opportunities you have and help to build this profession into something that other industries will want to copy.

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I must admit that I am a big fan of David Leshem’s blogs, and not just because he writes here on talkRA. David is one of those few people who not only has the vision to see the world as it is, as opposed to how it might be, but also has the courage to say how he sees things. His last post, entitled ‘Revenue Assurance Doublespeak‘, got me thinking. I was thinking about why I agree with David’s insistence that telcos should absorb revenue assurance into their metaphorical DNA, and why I doubt it will happen any time soon (if ever).

Knowing what should happen, and being able to make it happen, are two different things. We would all like to live in a world without crime, or one where nobody goes without food or shelter. However, that does not mean we can find or agree upon solutions to these problems. As an Israeli citizen, David will be very aware of how intractable some problems and conflicts can be, and how hard it is to get agreement about how to deal with them. On a more modest level, we would all agree that telcos would be better if they did not make mistakes. The problem is with agreeing how to deliver on that goal, and its importance relative to other priorities for the business. I believe David, and others, draw a picture of how telcos would work in an ideal world. Today, I want to discuss the problems in plotting a course that takes us from this world to that utopia.

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I would like to share with you an article I stumbled upon that made me smile. Its title is “Life under the Chief Doublespeak Officer” and it was written in 1989 by William Lutz. In my view, it is as relevant as ever.

In this blog, I would like to challenge the definition of RA, following similar lines to the article above. I offer an idea why this function attracts only modest interest within a common telco.

No one would argue that the fundamental definition of Revenue Assurance is about assuring the telco makes money, this month. This necessitates that Marketing, Sales, and Operations have a joint and collective role in managing a customer experience that delivers the brand promise.

Yet, in how many telcos do RA managers have the freedom to evaluate the above functions, without first going through a career change opportunity?

Let’s see.

Marketing defines the brand promise

Marketing identifies the most profitable customers and what they value. Marketing documents and understands all aspects of the purchasing decision. It defines the attributes of product performance. It determines the brand promise and communicates it to the marketplace. In an ideal telco, Marketing and Operations work together to translate the customer experience into specific processes and actions through which the organization can deliver on the promise. If the brand cannot deliver on this promise, it is destined for failure.

  • In how many telcos is RA an active contributor in these processes?
  • In how many telcos does RA have any say in these topics?
  • Would someone allow RA to review market research findings about brand strength?

Sales effectiveness

Without a skilled and productive sales organization, few firms can survive, especially these days. The sales function takes place in a constantly evolving environment. Sales organizations must adapt to continuous changes in their products, customers, competitors, and markets. Intense competition places great value on understanding and responding to current trends within and across industries.

  • What RA department would call up residential customers and ask their view on the telco business?
  • What RA department would pay a visit to a large corporate customer to learn about the issues that prompt them to take their business elsewhere?

Operations creates the right infrastructure and processes to deliver the brand promise

The brand promise is only as good as the internal processes that deliver it. Every process should be designed, monitored, and evaluated on its ability to deliver against brand promise. This includes defining and removing internal obstacles and then strengthening the organizational ‘enhancers’ (like communication systems and technology).

Successful organizational alignment means that Marketing and Operations have a joint and collective role in designing and managing a customer experience that delivers the brand promise.

  • What RA department would call the call centre to experience the promises that Marketing states in its ads… without risking being right-sized by the COO immediately afterwards?
  • What RA manager would propose metrics to evaluate operational effectiveness?

Conclusion

I guess I made my point. I would be intrigued to hear your comments.

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