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February 2011

Can Revenue Assurance Pioneers Survive the Age of Analytics?

Can Revenue Assurance Pioneers Survive the Age of Analytics?

"The hero is not fed on sweets,
Daily his own heart he eats;
Chambers of the great are jails,
And head-winds right for royal sails."

—Ralph Waldo Emerson (1841)

No industry association, profession, or software market can survive without fresh thinking and tireless challenging of the status quo.  Yet every year we tolerate conference sessions that put us to sleep, bureaucratic tyrants who suppress debate, and vendor websites that gush sugar-coated nonsense.

So we need more pundits like Eric Priezkalns, experts in their fields who are willing to share their honest — and often contrarian — views in this politically correct age of ours.  Eric is not only a co-founder and prolific contributor to the talkRA portal of revenue assurance commentators, he’s also the unofficial leader in this gang of RA..bble rousers.

From 9 to 5, Eric is an assistant director at Qtel International.  A specialist in both risk management and RA, he’s held key jobs at several firms such as head of controls for Cable & Wireless Group, best practice manager for Revenue Assurance, Billing and Carrier Services for T-Mobile UK and billing integrity manager for Worldcom UK.  Eric first worked as a consultant in the Enterprise Risk Services division of Deloittes, where he also qualified as a chartered accountant.

This month, in fact, Eric and his colleagues have authored a new CRC Press-published book entitled, “Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers.“ In my interview with him, Eric previews the book as he muses on the history of RA, points to a dangerous divide in the RA profession, and offers hope for a more exciting and expansive role for RA practitioners who play their cards right.

Dan Baker: First of all, Eric, I’m sure a lot of people are curious how you came to work for Qtel in the Middle East?

Eric Priezkalns: Dan, Qatar is a fascinating place to be.  There are only 1.7 million people in the country, but it has the fifth-largest per capita GNP in the world.  And a full 80 percent of the population are expatriate workers like me.

What the country is trying to do — quite sensibly — is to quickly build up its local industries in finance, technology, and education so they become less reliant on fossil fuels.

Now Qatar Telecom is not just investing in telecoms for the local market, but also buying up telecoms operators in the Middle East and Africa.  So my job is to help them spend their money wisely.  I oversee much of work in the larger telecom group around risk management.  And the job suits me very well because it allows me to look at the bigger picture and gets me into interesting things like analyzing the risks of operating in various countries of the world.

Eric, you’ve been in the RA industry since its birth, so I’m curious: What do you consider to be the biggest changes that have occurred in the RA practice since the early days?  And are we headed on the right track?

Well, the biggest trend is clearly the greater RA automation being driven by technology.

What the vendors did well, almost unconsciously, was to cooperate to create a market and common identity for RA.  Back in 2000, there were 10 companies out there selling revenue assurance solutions that more or less did the same thing.  And that did wonders for defining and building the credibility of the RA profession.

So now it becomes more realistic to propose, as Subex has, that you can have a Revenue Operations Center analogous to the NOC that monitors RA alarms.  In the old days, nobody conceived of that because the technology wasn’t there.  Now it’s precisely the power of this new analytics technology that has kind of split the RA profession into two types of people.

On the one hand you’ve got folks who — like the witches in Macbeth — toss all sorts of data into a big database pot, take a giant wooden spoon, stir it around and round, and see what sort of anomalies bubble to the surface.  At the opposite pole are the Hamlets, the guys who ask a lot of questions about who did what and who killed who.  And these are the process experts who don’t find very much use for data.  They just talk to people.  They talk to people about processes, map those processes, and often don’t care whether a reconciliation is run or not.

Now I don’t think it’s wrong to pick one or the other — or even both of these approaches.  But what I fear is that some of the higher demanded skills, where people need to analyze systems or processes, are suffering because the mantra of the day is to stuff data in the database and just analyze, analyze, analyze.

I would agree.  With every march of “progress“ something is lost.  In fact, software is forcing dozens of telecom back office jobs to be redefined.  And how this will all end up remains a mystery.

If you look at the early days of revenue assurance, the personalities drawn to this job were like the pioneers who settled the American West.  They left civilization to go homestead in the wilderness, and there was no one there to tell you what to do.  Now the only people who could survive a place like that were the creative, imaginative — even quirky people.  But you almost had to have personalities like that because who else was going to go out there?

So that’s what revenue assurance was like in the early days — an open space where people from lots of different backgrounds came together and applied themselves.  It was a wonderful time.  Of course, you can’t stay in pioneering mode forever.  At some point you need to bed down, build a town, and hire school teachers.  So RA is going through that phase right now: building out RA as an ongoing institution.  Now as a result, some of the pioneers have left already because it got too boring.  When there’s nothing new to do, creative people get frustrated.

So unfortunately, I think we’ve lost too much of that pioneering spirit.  People have been too quick to set the rules and say “this is how we do things around here“ and close their minds to notions about how things could be done differently.  Frankly that’s what we’re trying to accomplish with our new book: not dictate answers, but get people to think more broadly about the problems.

Tell us about this book.  What’s in it and how is the material organized?

First of all, I’m one of several authors of it.  And these are RA experts from many different backgrounds, working in several countries — and the experts come from carriers, software vendors, engineers, and universities.  Some chapters get into details, like explaining how you create a control framework.  But there’s another chapter that’s only a two-page snippet of somebody musing on a topic.  In a few cases, we’ve got a mini-debate going on where one expert challenges what another said.

So that’s what we wanted — multiple perspectives.  It’s designed as a book to enjoy reading as opposed to a reference guide where you go to page 245 to an answer for a specific question.  It’s not a manual; it’s a thought provoker to help you look at your current operation.

What can RA departments do to bring back some of that old pioneering mojo you talked about?

Well, the safe course for RA would be to hunker down and say, “This is a very specific kind of department with a one critical mission.“ And to be honest, that approach has been very successful because RA has grown from nothing 10 years ago to being a fixture at most telcos today.  So following a consistent model or template has been a very good thing for RA.  The challenge is to keep that consistency from becoming a straitjacket that discourages the pioneers and imaginative people.

Interestingly enough, I feel that technology may actually be the savior once again.

Up to now, the RA software market has been all about dedicated, specialized software.  However, the RA software vendors are threatened by new players coming in and lumping RA with more generalized business intelligence.  Likewise, the current RA vendors see the market getting saturated, so they also seek to expand into new analytics areas.  In other words, the consensus that drove the industry is falling apart.

Now if you say that RA should do the same thing, year in and year out, it’s not the most exciting job in the world.  And it’s difficult to see how you move your career forward in that sort of job.  So maybe that means we should go back to where we were in the beginning: go back the time when RA was a place where people were comfortable mixing up people skills, process skills, and analytic skills — and now we can throw more technology into the mix too.

Today you can crunch out a big analysis with lots of data in a very short time, so instead of turning RA into a place of boring, intensive audits, we can apply analytics to look at various areas and the frequency depends on how much risk we feel there is — how much is at stake.  If there’s something that’s seriously wrong in any area, I’m going to put my highest-skilled person on that or get somebody else in the business to take responsibility for it.  So I think it’s wise to put some of the lower level RA activities back in the operational areas of the business.

And when you do that, you relieve the RA department of the everyday task of monitoring.  We can take on a more strategic role.  And we can start asking important questions like: How did things go wrong in our business?  And where should we be putting our emphasis to improve?

So it’s shifting emphasis away from looking at data sets to improving the business.  That’s the exciting potential.  And in that world, the analytics is used selectively to look at problem areas without being prisoners of looking at data the same way every day.

The notion of giving some of the RA monitoring back to operations reminds me of the wireline business of NTT in Japan.  They are one of the biggest telcos in the world, yet they never saw a need to build out a separate RA organization because quality control remains an operations responsibility.

Actually there’s a chapter in the book where we ask: “How big should your RA department be?“ Is it one person, 30 or 300?  What’s the measure?

Well, that’s a very hard question to answer because it depends on the style of your organization.  Some places will prefer a centralized function and others are happy to spread the work around to people in other departments.

If you widely distribute the burden and responsibility of RA, a small group of people may suffice.  But if you can’t trust people to do what needs to be done, then you’ll favor a centralized function that works as a task force to solve problems and put controls back in the business.

Eric, it’s been great to rap about RA with you.  Any final thoughts?

Dan, in many ways we’re entering a very exciting period in RA.  And it can become bigger.  It looks at revenues, costs, margins, and how well you utilize your assets and how well your business is executing against its strategic goals.  It’s also doing that with the intelligence that comes from real data.

And though we appreciate the power of analytics and information, we are not a slave to it.  Above all, we retain that flexibility of mind that’s key to supporting the objectives of the business.

This article first appeared in Billing and OSS World.

Copyright 2011 Black Swan Telecom Journal

 
Eric Priezkalns

Eric Priezkalns

Eric Priezkalns is one of the editors and founders of talkRA, the revenue assurance blogging site.  He is the lead author of ‘Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers’.

Eric splits his time between freelance consulting and his various passions, which include creative writing.  Eric has specialized in the field of risk and assurance for communications firms since he qualified as a chartered accountant in 1999.

During that time, he has served as Director of Risk Management at Qatar Telecom, Head of Controls for Cable & Wireless Group, Best Practice Manager for Revenue Assurance, Billing and Carrier Services for T-Mobile UK and Billing Integrity Manager for Worldcom UK.   Contact Eric via

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