Archive for October, 2011

Five years ago, I wrote a blog post about revenue assurance. It was called ‘The RA Truck Stop’ and I asked if people wanted to engage in some (virtual) conversation about revenue assurance. The idea was to help ourselves by helping each other. This is the 500th post I have written. A lot has changed in the meantime. Other things have not changed. Now seems like a good time to reflect on those last five years, and on what might lie ahead.

Reconciliation, Reconciliation, Reconciliation

In five years, I have never known a year where somebody was not hailing something new and exciting in the world of revenue assurance. But forget that nonsense. Most RA practitioners rely on a diet of the same bread and butter as they did five years ago. The meals come in slightly different flavours, like ‘switch to bill’ and ‘order to cash’, but each is essentially the same. Think of them like sandwiches. You start with bread, and you finish with bread. Take some data from here, take some data from there. The only question is what comes between. Reconciliations are the standard fare for most people who work in revenue assurance, and the reason why we have RA software is because reconciliation can be automated. Genius, inspiration, insight, imagination… these things can not be automated. But they cannot be standardized, either. Reconciliation is not sexy work, and need not be hyped. It is what it is: a powerful control if deployed correctly, and one that generates returns if there are sizable discrepancies to be found. Nobody would repeat this obvious truth every day – I would not write 500 posts on how to do reconciliations – but it deserves a mention every now and then, to remind us to stay true to ourselves.

Man and Machine

I keep my old conference handouts – great big fat folders of paper that were later replaced by CDs and websites. Scanning through them, the business names are revealing. I spied the following participants at one event: Cartesian, Azure, cVidya, ECtel, WeDo Soft, Visual Wireless, Cape and Connectiva. Some of those names remain, others disappeared as firms merged or were taken over. Revenue assurance converged in the sense of every supplier evolving towards a well-defined suite of competing offerings. It also converged with fewer firms managing their cost base and chasing larger global market share in pursuit of superior profits. In the last few years, the direction of development has re-diversified, although still mostly based on the kernel of a reconciliation engine. Whether called ‘business assurance’ or ‘business optimization’, vendors are groping for the next big thing to add to their portfolio, without undermining their core. Subex’s venture into service activation went badly. WeDo has done well at increasing revenues from outside telecoms. These vendor engines could continue to drive us forward, and point to possible futures; but not everybody can go with them. The common core of automating control and data analysis need not lead to a common job specification for the people using their tools. Perhaps this explains why ‘revenue assurance’ is a phrase that increasingly crops up in other industries, but your traditional telecoms practitioner may not find it so easy to transfer their skills and find employment outside of telecoms. Similarly, it is not easy, or inevitable, that they will make headway with gaining additional responsibilities within their own company. The job of a train driver is defined by the engine he drives. He is not a taxi driver, nor a pilot. Those working in marketing, HR or accounting may find themselves moving from industry to industry. The RA practitioner is at a junction. He can define himself like a train driver, and rely on the vendors to lay tracks that he can follow. Or he could become like the professionals in marketing, HR and accounting – people whose skills transcend the particulars of a specific business, and whose primary tool is their know-how.

Despite the hype, RA is not yet a profession, and it is not inevitable it will become one. It does not employ the kinds of numbers, and has not attained the breadth of scope, to sustain a profession. The question is whether, as people move away from the common core of RA activities, they will remain connected to the rest of the group, and hence broaden its range. They may instead splinter off, leave their past behind, and define themselves differently. I face that choice myself. RA practitioners may fancy themselves to be risk managers, but I find little affinity between the sloppy assertions of risk management that come from usual suspects (*cough* cVidya *cough*), and the comprehensive and established forms of risk management found in the energy and financial sectors. And those sectors still suffer oil rig explosions and banking meltdowns, so let us not kid ourselves that risk management is something we can perfect over the course of a single afternoon. It would be delusional to believe that telecoms RA has a destiny to conquer other fields; it will expand if its intellectual assets are superior to alternatives, and not otherwise. But the automation of data analytics and data-based controls does seem inevitable across all businesses worldwide. Perhaps some of the lessons learned in the past five years have scope to be taught more widely, and the vendors will be hoping to capitalize on that. Even so, there will be more changes of name in future.

Common Cause

Nobody writes 500 blogs, unless somebody out there is reading them. Thank you. What do we have in common? Perhaps it is a shared passion for revenue assurance, or an interest in similar news items. Or maybe we share common antipathies ;) When writing ‘The RA Truck Stop’, I was looking for something I lacked: a sense of a community with those in a similar line of work, that crossed business and geographic boundaries. A lot of you read this, so I was not entirely alone. Thanks to blogging, I have met many wonderful people, sometimes in person, sometimes over the internet. Their enthusiasm and high principles give me confidence. If they are representative, and I believe they are, there will always be a die-hard core who will insist that we keep getting better at what we do.

Then again, I wonder if we are further from achieving a genuine RA community than we ever have been. Papa Rob’s narrow and self-serving agenda makes him the ultimate troll. Pay the toll to GRAPA’s troll, and you can hang a piece of paper on your wall. But as the Grand Poobah of RA has no interest in permitting the science of RA to reach beyond his limited abilities, and is antagonistic to the interests of vendors (unless they also pay his toll), he can only inhibit the potential of RA, even though he trades on sunny promises about its prospects. Meanwhile, the TM Forum’s RA team has been a great disappointment to me. It needs new leadership – one man should not occupy a role for seven years, just because he turned up to the first meeting and nobody else asked for the job. The TMF team has become a contorted mirror that reflects GRAPA’s primary failing; there is no incentive for genuine teamwork, because all credit flows in one direction only. GRAPA draws strength by accusing the TMF of being too exclusive and of slavishly serving the interests of vendors. The criticism is grossly exaggerated, but Papa Rob is cunning enough to maximize the weight of a single grain of truth.

But, as you know, I am a contrarian. I find fault where others find favour. In the words of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards: I can’t get no satisfaction. And that, perhaps, is the greatest thing we have in common, and why I keep writing, and you keep reading. If we were the type to be easily satisfied, we would not, or should not, be doing what we do. We like to see holes where others see the fabric of life, and to translate the discovery of failure into the opportunity for improvement. That, paradoxically, is the wellspring of our community spirit.

501, and on

On June 6th, 1994, the great West Indian batsman, Brian Lara, dispatched an off-drive to the boundary of Edgbaston Cricket Ground. (If you think revenue assurance is full of jargon and data, then try cricket.) Those four runs took his total to 501 not out, the highest score in first class cricket. And then he went back to the pavilion, his job well done, with the game ending in a draw. But the ball before, he was cracked on the helmet by a bouncer. Nobody made it easy for Lara to amass his record total, and though he eventually retired undefeated, his rivals were always trying to catch him out. Nothing of value is achieved without adversity, and the best defences are only proven when tested. These could be mottoes for what we do. I will take them as reasons to keep batting for my cause; I hope you want me to play on.

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It is official – scientists have found an explanation for why most people are over-optimistic. In a previous blog, I talked about the need to allow for optimism bias when conducting risk assessments. One quite natural response was to question if I was being fair, and to challenge whether people really are over-optimistic. However, a recent study published in Nature Neuroscience has located what happens in the brain when people are over-optimistic. As the scientists put it:

…highly optimistic individuals exhibited reduced tracking of estimation errors that called for negative update in right inferior prefrontal gyrus.

Put simply, optimists process good news about the future, and ignore bad news. Whilst optimism is good for a person’s health, Dr. Tali Sharot also pointed out the downside:

The negative aspect is that we underestimate risks.

You can read the BBC version of the story here, and the scientific paper here. However, I must admit I have not actually read the full paper. It costs money to buy, and being a pessimist, I assume it is not worth it ;)

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In a previous post I highlighted the plans of Malawi’s regulator to implement a controversial new ‘spy’ system for the purpose of revenue assurance, amongst other reasons. Last week Malawi’s operators announced that the system, called the Consolidated ICT Regulatory Management System (CIRMS), had received the official go-ahead. They also gave a dire warning to their customers:

“Once the system has been implemented, the operators will no longer be in a position to safeguard the privacy and confidentiality of customers’ communication activities, as we understand it to be our obligation under our respective operating licences, subscriber contracts, the communications Act (1998) and the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi…”

In turn, the operators’ announcement prompted journalists to join the chorus of complaints; see here and here.

But that is not where the story ends. In a dramatic twist, a High Court injunction issued on Friday 14th October has prohibited the use of the system for gathering CDR data; see here. Malawi’s government is reportedly backing the implementation of the system, but its difficulties intensified when Malawi’s Vice President, Joyce Banda, publicly criticized the system as ‘unconstitutional’; see here.

Reading over the story, it feels like some concerns are exaggerated (I doubt the system will allow government to literally listen to voice calls) whilst others are genuine (the government probably will be able to read SMS messages, which is way beyond what is necessary to satisfy their stated objectives). Either way, Malawi is heading towards becoming a vital test case for telecoms worldwide. Can governments act in a way that apparently compromises customer privacy in order to better monitor telcos? Or will customers be prompted to such an extreme reaction that the government has to back down?

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We all know what revenue assurance is like. People ask about how to pick the correct KPI mediation threshold when reconciling your roaming ADSL IPDR spoofers to your erlang-DSOs. But nobody really wants to know that. That is just nonsense you talk about to fool the auditors. Or maybe you heard the auditors say it, and have been pretending you know what they mean. What people really want to know is how to keep their idiot boss happy. This can be hard when the boss expects you to generate several hundred million dollars a year, using only a combination of Excel, Powerpoint, a highlighter pen, some sticky tape and a disaffected school leaver. The answer is simple: get the school leaver to do some Powerpoint slides that say you generate several hundred million dollars a year, and assume the boss is too ignorant to ask intelligent questions about where the number comes from. If he does ask, quickly print off twenty pages of Excel spreadsheets full of random numbers, tape the printouts together into one long roll, and pick a big number to highlight on every third page. Show this to the boss and explain “with all this data to crunch, the only way to properly answer your questions is if we had a new RA system.”

Here are five other questions you have asked yourself, but you are too embarrassed to admit it. Feel free to share your answers, if you dare!

You buy an expensive new Fraud Management System, but the one employee that got trained to use it leaves within three weeks of plugging it in. There is a headcount freeze. Do you:

  1. Wait a year, then tell your boss that the last FMS needs an upgrade, and try to hide the additional cost of training yourself within that budget?
  2. Replicate the format of the FMS report in Excel, changing the date at the top each month, and show this to your boss. Explain that the FMS is paying off because you have found no frauds since it was implemented, a 100% reduction on the number of frauds you used to suffer?
  3. Join GRAPA and ask them how your FMS works?
  4. Make threatening phone calls to your former employee, insisting they keep working for free during their evenings, or else you will make it look like they left because they were a fraudster too?

You are 10 months into the financial year, and have just beaten your annual targets for financial recovery. Do you:

  1. Work super-hard for the last 2 months of the year, in the hope of getting a bigger bonus from the boss?
  2. Hide any remaining revenue leaks between now and the end of the year, so you can get off to a flying start at reaching next year’s impossible targets?
  3. Finally get around to checking some of those overbilling problems customers keep complaining about?

You and the CFO are discussing next year’s performance targets, including the target for leakage. Do you ask for a leakage target this is:

  1. Lower than last year, because you are driving down leakage and it would be unreasonable to expect you to find as much again?
  2. Higher than last year, because high leakage means job security whilst low leakage means you cost more than you make?
  3. The same as last year, because nothing got fixed properly and you will spend all of next year doing exactly the same things as you did last year?

One of your rating accuracy tests finds a big systematic overcharge. Luckily, the tariff plans are so complicated that no customers have noticed. Do you:

  1. Report it immediately and include the value of the overcharge in the calculation of the benefits you added, even though it means less money will be made?
  2. Report it immediately and conclude you have stopped a big scandal and stopped lots of customers churning, and hence calculate an even bigger benefit that you delivered?
  3. Keep quiet because if the auditors did not spot it, why should you?
  4. Keep quiet because your boss will subtract the value from the benefits you earned, making it even harder to meet your target?

Some consultant succeeds in arranging a meeting with the CFO, and tries to convince him that he can boost the returns from revenue assurance. The CFO calls you into the meeting to get your opinion. Do you:

  1. Agree with whatever nonsense the consultant says, because maybe he will persuade the CFO to spend more money on revenue assurance, and every little helps?
  2. Disagree with everything the consultant has to say, because you do not want him nosing around everything you have done so far?
  3. Agree with everything that will lead you to get more money and disagree with everything that will lead the consultant to nose around with what you do?
  4. Keep quiet, knowing that the consultant will just talk nonsense that the CFO will not understand?
  5. Keep quiet, because the CFO never pays for consulting and if you talk you will just make the meeting last longer?
  6. Try to impress the consultant because you are looking for a new job?

How do I know that, at some point in your career, you have wanted to ask these questions? Best not ask.

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In a recent opinion piece, veteran journalist Mary Jander lambasted the boards of technology firms for not overseeing the risks taken by their companies. Jander is currently the Managing Editor of Internet Evolution, having previously worked for Byte and Switch, Light Reading and Data Communications magazine, so she has followed the industry long enough to distinguish fundamental issues from passing fads. As she puts it:

The recent CEO firings at Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard have turned the spotlight on the highest level of decision-making at public companies — the board of directors. Sadly, in these and too many other cases, the harsh glare is revealing that the board appears to be failing in its mission of leadership and risk management.

Jander makes a no-nonsense argument that board directors are paid well, that risk is undeniably their responsibility, that the tools and techniques of risk management already exist, but that Board members are not equipping themselves to do their job properly. You can read her hard-hitting article here.

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