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The Cloudification of the Contact Center — The Smart Path Forward – Futurum Tech Webcast Interview Series

I think we’ll all agree that a global pandemic has permanently changed many aspects of how businesses work, and perhaps none more than the operation of contact centers. The reality is, today more than ever, that contact centers play an outsized role in business operations. That’s true whether you’re a consumer or a manager charged with leading contact center operations — contact centers are the lifeblood of a business. Contact centers are are how customers get taken care of and how business gets done. And with work from home looking as though that’s going to stay around for a while, taking a look at contact center operations and figuring out how to maximize efficiencies for both employees and consumers is, well, important.

There’s a challenge though, and businesses the world over are feeling this. You might say that’s exactly why I decided to bring this group of smart people together and tackle this topic as part of our Futurum Tech Webcast Interview Series shows.

The Cloudification of the Contact Center — The Smart Path Forward

While contact centers are without question important to business operations, in many instances, they are problematic. How so? With roughly 90 percent of call centers still using on-premise technologies, organizations have been forced to rethink how they continue to provide high levels of customer service, while still allowing their employees to safely work from home. And this topic, the difference between cloud-based contact centers and on-prem ones, exploring cloud migration, and how to do that successfully (and quickly) is exactly what we’re focused on in this conversation today.

I’m joined today by Jeff Nicholson, Vice President of CRM at Pegasystems, Jon Gilman, CEO of Clear Software, and Brandon Knight, Vice President of Contact Center Practice at Telarus to discuss why it is critical that organizations migrate contact center functions to the cloud, how to migrate, and some of the obstacles these organizations may face along the way — and how to get through those. Our conversation included:

  • An exploration of the differences between cloud-based contact centers and on-premise ones
  • The challenges customers are facing during their migrations and some of the unexpected successes they’ve encountered along the way
  • How moving on-premise ERP systems to the cloud fits into the context of cloud-enabling the contact center
  • A realistic look at the time it will likely take for full cloud migration
  • The ‘secret sauce’ to success of cloud migration
  • Real-world case studies from clients of Pega, Clear Software, and Telarus

If you’re involved in migrating on-premise systems to the cloud in your organization, this is one webcast you don’t want to miss. Watch the video here:

or grab the audio of our conversation on our podcast:

Disclaimer: The Futurum Tech Podcast is for information and entertainment purposes only. Over the course of this podcast, we may talk about companies that are publicly traded and we may even reference that fact and their equity share price, but please do not take anything that we say as a recommendation about what you should do with your investment dollars. We are not investment advisors and we do not ask that you treat us as such.

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Shelly Kramer: Hello, I’m Shelly Kramer, one of the founding partners of Futurum Research. And I am excited today to be hosting a webinar on the cloudification of the contact center. And I am joined by three brilliant minds in this space, Jeff Nicholson, the Global Head of CRM at Pegasystems, Jon Gilman, the CEO of Clear Software, and Brandon Knight, the VP of Business Development for Contact Center Telarus.

So, what we’re going to talk about today is the fact that COVID-19 has permanently changed many aspects of the business world. Of course, we know that. We’re living that, and perhaps none more than the operation of contact centers. With roughly 90% of context centers currently using on-prem technologies, that’s required organizations to kind of rethink how they’re continuing to provide high levels of service, while allowing their employees to safely work from home. And from a consumer standpoint, if you’re out there and over the course of the last six or seven months have needed customer service in some way, I’m sure you’ve kind of navigated this as well.

So in this webcast, we’re going to discuss why it’s critical that organizations migrate these functions to the cloud, how to do that, and then we’re going to talk about some of the obstacles they may face along the way. But before we get started, I’d like my guests to introduce themselves. Jon, take it away.

Jon Gilman: Sure. I’m Jon Gilman, CEO and Founder of Clear Software.

Shelly Kramer: Brandon.

Brandon Knight: Brandon Knight, I run the contact center practice at Telarus, and prior to that, spent almost the last 30 years running enterprise level contact centers globally, so really from the operational side.

Shelly Kramer: Awesome. And Jeff, last but not least, never least.

Jeff Nicholson: You bet. It’s great to be with everyone here. And so, I’m the global head of CRM at Pegasystems about a decade and a half in the CRM space and working closely with our great clients and partners and industry analysts like Gartner and Forrester and great folks like yourself. Looking forward to today’s conversation.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah, but I think this is going to be really interesting. So Brandon, we’re going to start off with you. Tell us a little bit, I know that Telarus has a unique perspective in that you work with all different kinds of contact center providers. So, in what ways are cloud based contact centers different than what we see on-prem?

Brandon Knight: That’s a very good question. And you’re right. We work with all the major suppliers out there. I think when you’re looking at the differences between cloud and premises based, there’s three major differences. The first is in the cost. Premises based equipment is a CapEx expense. You buy all the boxes up front. Versus cloud, which is an OPEX expense, little to no upfront cost and you’re paying a subscription over time.

The second one is really in how you access the features and functionality, the call routing. In the premises space, everything is modular. Everything’s in a box. You buy additional service for what you want. Versus cloud, everything’s all inclusive and it’s hosted by the provider.
And I think the third biggest difference is in access. With the box, you have to be an admin. And if I get to route calls and I also get to do everything in the system. Versus what the cloud system, you can do, role based access and log on based access and limit what a person who uses the system can actually do. I think those are the three primary differences between them.

Shelly Kramer: So, the cloud offerings have some functionality you don’t necessarily get on-prem, which is kind of one of the key value propositions. That makes perfect sense. So, Jeff… Oh, I’m sorry. Go ahead.

Brandon Knight: No, I apologize. I was saying to your point it has some features and benefits that you don’t get on-premises based, but also with the cloud, you only pay for what you use, which is a huge benefit as well.

Shelly Kramer: Well, and I think that’s a huge benefit and a benefit that businesses are really looking for right now, the ability to scale up or scale down as you need it, as your business needs changed, as opposed to being kind of hamstrung by what you happen to have on-prem. So I think to me, that’s a huge value proposition as well and one that really should be part of the conversation when you’re looking at it at cloudifying these contact center operations.

So Jeff, Pega, Pega has a big focus on the customer relationship. We’ve worked with you guys a lot. I know that. And you’ve recently began pushing your CRM to the cloud. So, what are some of the successes? Tells a little bit about some of the successes that you’ve seen, and then I’ll come back and ask you a little bit about some of the challenges that your customers have seen. So, tell us a little bit about successes.

Jeff Nicholson: Absolutely. And we’ve been focusing on over a number of years in making sure that we have really cloud native architecture to allow our clients to be able to do the types of things that thankfully many, if not most, had in place when the COVID hit. And one of the advantages that that allows them to do is to take advantage of that cloud native architecture and apply things like containerization and to your great comment recently, Shelly, that you just mentioned, helping them scale with demand.

So, what we saw is our clients’ demand went through the roof. We’ve all needed customer service, no doubt. And we’re seeing really a great need for these engagements. But unfortunately, while you can’t scale humans, right, you can at least make sure that they have access to their environments, that they’re able to field those inquiries, and move with the demand that comes. And the cloud native architectures allow you to scale up, scale down. And I think Brandon made a great point in that you’re not having storage just not being used and you’re able to quickly move up and quickly down.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah. And I think a quick example of that is when we’re talking about COVID times, in the early days of the pandemic and Jeff, you and I’ve talked about this in prior interviews I know, but in the early days of the pandemic, we saw banks and financial institutions just get hit with this onslaught of traffic to contact centers. And it was a challenge to be able to take care of all that traffic, to be able to take care of customers who were obviously stressed and trying to get information, everything else. So, I know that some of the success stories that Pega has had has specifically been in this space with banking, financial services, and healthcare insurance, and things like that. When you’re listening to this webcast and you’re thinking about use cases, that’s kind of the thing, scale up, scale down. It’s like something catastrophic happens. Another example would be severe weather. If you have a business that serves customers at a time you’re going through severe weather, things like that. So, there are all different kinds of use cases I think for that, the cloud solution that really can deliver in big ways.

So, Jon, Clear has been focused on cloud enabling on-prem ERP systems like SAP and Oracle E-Business Suite. Talk to us a little bit about how that fits into the context of cloud enabling the contact center.

Jon Gilman: Absolutely. And I think for those who don’t know what we do, because we’re not nearly as big as Telarus or Pega, but we’re an automation platform that makes people faster at what they do. And we do that through two primary products. We have ClearWork, which is our business process management suite that really allows you to take your daily workflows and streamline them into one web browser so that if I have to go to five different systems and 25 screens to handle a customer call or type in a customer order, we streamline that all into one single pane of glass. And then behind the scenes, we have ClearProcess, which is our enterprise integration hub. And that connects all the systems like the SAPs and the Salesforces and the Oracle E-Businesses of the world.

So within the call center, as Brandon and Jeff can attest, there’s this mythical concept of a customer 360, where you have all of the data and all of the functionality you would ever need to handle inbound customer inquiries. But the problem is very few contact centers ever get that single pane of glass. They typically have processes where they say, “If this happens, go to these three screens in SAP. If this happens, go to these four screens in Salesforce.” And instead, we truly give them one place to come do their jobs.

And when it’s within the contact center, that’s really important because you’re talking about call handling time, and how can we get the customer’s questions answered quickly so that that resolution time can go for maybe 10 minutes per call down to two minutes per call? So, that’s typically what we go after within the contact center space. And just happens to be one of the big areas that we specialize in is, how do we accelerate agents so that they can get the customers happy and get them off the phone quickly? Because ultimately, that’s what we want to do. We want to get off the phone. We don’t want to be talking to American Airlines for 35 minutes.

Shelly Kramer: And one of the things I’ll note here, Jon is apparently a pretty modest guy because what he did not talk about when we introduced one another in the entry part of this webinar is that he’s a process guy. And he spent years elbows deep in the trenches in the process space, and that really was the inspiration for founding Clear Software. And so, he is always, at least in my experience in working with Jon, he’s always 10 steps ahead of wherever I happen to be when I’m thinking about processes. But that’s really I think the beauty and the magic of what he’s done with Clear Software is really, really taken a deep dive into processes based on his years of experience, especially in with working with SAP and that sort of thing and really worked hard to make this one pane of glass and to understand the challenges I think that people are working on in call centers. So, there’s my unsolicited testimonial for Jon Gilman at Clear Software.

Jon Gilman: I’m definitely a process guy. There’s always ways to make things better, especially clunky business processes that involve swapping screens and doing crazy work-arounds.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah, no, and I think that one of the things I tell my team all the time is that I’m not a process person. I’m the person that relies on smart people to go in and think every step of the way and put all these processes together. And then I come in and walk through it and poke holes every step of the way. But my brain isn’t wired in the way that yours is in terms of actually developing the process. So, I have so much appreciation for that and for all of you because I know that you all are process people and that’s what you’re passionate about. And those are the problems for customers that you’re passionate about solving. And I think that’s incredibly important.

So, Brandon, over 90% of contact centers are still primarily on-prem. What’s it going to take? How long is it going to take to migrate all of them? And what is your company? How does your company help in that regard?

Brandon Knight: Yeah. It’s interesting. And for obvious reasons with COVID, this was a very different answer just five or six months ago, right? I mean, we look at, the contact center space has been for years, for decades, it’s been predominantly premises based. And it was starting to move in the last three to five years. Some of the biggest push, even pre-COVID, ironically came from the biggest premises based players. When you’re talking prem equipment, you’re talking Avaya, Cisco, and Genesys, right? And they were the biggest opponents to cloud. And in all fairness, they did some not so friendly media and marketing talking about the negativity of the cloud and all these things. What’s interesting about that is in the last three to five years, all of them have come out with a cloud product. So now, it’s okay. So, it’s a little interesting approach.

I think you add to that what’s happening with COVID, we’ve gone from traditional industries like finance and healthcare and banking, industries that we thought would take a much longer time to move to the cloud, and then COVID hits, everyone has to go to the cloud if they’re going to stay in business, right? So, the irony of all that is right now, according to the last report which was in June, so it may be a little bit more, a little bit less right now, but as of June, 92% of companies in the U.S. that were in business were using remote employees and were using a cloud contact center product. Now of course, some of them had a temporary setup so we don’t really know what’s going to happen.

But no matter who you look at, Gartner and Forrester or whatever, if you put all that together, everyone’s estimation is that that 13% that was cloud before March, even when the dust settles, will be something like between 35 to 45% depending on who you believe. And the craziness of that is that it’s been… It took 20 years to go from 10 to 13. And it looks like in about 10 months, we’re going to go from 13 to the mid 30s.

So, it’s incredible the growth right now.

Shelly Kramer: The cloudification of everything, it’s inevitable. It only makes sense, right? It only makes sense. Jeff, Pega has introduced some products and features recently. Talk with us a little bit about how these products have been designed specifically to help contact centers, particularly now with the challenges that they’re facing.

Jeff Nicholson: Absolutely. Well, we’ve talked really about how the volumes that we’ve seen just kind of went through the roof. And organizations much like you were saying were forced to race to the starting line when it came to their entire digital transformation of customer service, let alone the contact center. And what we saw is they started to look to other ways that they can serve the needs of those customers. And one of those ways was in applying intelligent virtual assistance and with the goal of solving those inquiries before they even have to reach an agent. And is it the cloudification or is it the COVIDification, right, of that contact center strategy?

And the ones that did this well were able to take advantage of cloud because now, your intelligent virtual assistants, if done properly, can tap into the same type of case management technology that your agents would use anyway, understanding where that individual is in their journey, and can scale up and down much better than, for example, your fixed head count of agents could with demand. And the ones that were successful or ones that didn’t apply, I’ll call them dumb bots, right? We’ve all dealt with these useless chat bots that many companies will have on their website that really don’t help resolve anything. Perhaps waste your time.

The intelligent virtual assistants that can understand your journey, so for example, if you opened a claim recently and maybe that’s why you’re here to follow up on it understood that because you’re authenticated on that website. And it can actually help answer your questions, not just, what are your store hours? And so, they went to strategies like that, and those that did it have been incredibly successful. We’re seeing 70%, 80% of inquiries in many cases were able to be resolved right there in the intelligent virtual assistant without even needing to reach that agent. Which for those agents, what that does is it frees them up to actually have the empathy with their client, to actually spend the time to really understand and care for those things that really did require that intimacy. And so, that’s one of the great things that we’re seeing right now, and we don’t see that stopping.

Shelly Kramer: Well. And I think that’s tremendously exciting. That’s exciting as both an analyst working in this space. It’s probably even more exciting as a consumer because we haven’t talked a lot about adding the intelligence factor in. But there’s absolutely nothing better when you’re a consumer and having a problem, going to a website, having it quickly and easily recognize you, understand what it is you need, close the dots. And you walk away from those transactions going, “Oh, my gosh, I wish every interaction was like that.” And the reality of it is, the reason I can remember this so vividly is because it happens so infrequently, right? And so, that’s what’s really cool.

And again, it’s not just, cloudifying things. It’s adding intelligence into the process, which I knew you all are also experts at, but that really is the game changer there. And that not only leads to quickly being able to have customers resolve their own problems, but as you said, freeing up your service agents so that they can do other things or help customers who have more complex problems. But gosh, when you can check off some of those boxes to begin with or you can make it super easy for customers to take care of themselves, I mean, it’s such a win for everybody. And my life goal is that this becomes less infrequent and just standard operating procedure. Won’t that be awesome? And it’s possible. I mean, it really is possible.

So, Jon, talk with me a little bit about within the ERP and the CRM world. What do you see ahead? Will enterprises be migrating to a single solution, or will they be using multiple solutions?

Jon Gilman: It’s a little bit of both because you can spend 10 or 20 years trying to consolidate your entire enterprise onto one platform. And then lo and behold, you go and acquire three or four companies, and guess what, they’re running some other CRM and some other ERP systems. So, what technologies really need to be able to do if they’re going to cloud enabled business processes is be able to connect to multiple disparate ERP systems and CRM systems to give your enterprise a single source of truth, regardless of what you’re running. So, if you happen to be running nine instances of SAP and two instances of Oracle, it shouldn’t matter to the actual business users who are carrying out different business processes, even within the contact center.

So, it’s definitely going to be disparate. I don’t really see any single technology provider taking over and dominating all of the ERP or all of CRM. If anything, we’re seeing them get more specific. There are new solutions popping up all the time. So, Workday is great at HCM, but they’re not necessarily ever going to touch ERP. Salesforce has said they’re never even going to think about touching ERP. So, you’re going to have a lot of solutions out there, and they need to be brought together.

Shelly Kramer: Well. And that also is the challenge. And I think that that’s the beauty of vendor partnerships. We’ll touch on that here a little bit in a minute. One of the things I love to throw out there, I’m most interested in use case stories. Brandon, do you have a customer use case story that you can share with us? It can be an anonymous one. You don’t have to name the customer, but I’m just always interested in how people are using the technology that we provide, the solutions that we provide in ways that deliver results. So, lay it on us.

Brandon Knight: Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of them, right? But I think to probably the one that’s more pertinent right now, and I hate to keep going back to COVID, but it is the prevalent thing of what we’re dealing with right now, I have a very large customer that I was consulting for who, prior to March, did not have work at home for their contact center, did not have work at home for their normal operational agents. They had something in place where their executives could spend a day at home a week, whatever, but nothing major.

The pandemic hit. Everyone thought it was going to be short-term. So, they still did nothing. They had essential employees in the office, not essential employees at home. Well, by April and May, we’re figuring out, okay, now this is not going to be a quick fix. We need to do this. So, they just rushed all this equipment home. They drop shipped everything. They have close to 3,000 agents, and they had all of them within two months all set up to take calls at home and all this equipment in place.

And then an interesting thing happened when I met with them in late July, their conversation now is around the surprises. They had a slight dip in customer experience in the beginning, but now, it’s back up to normal and it’s increasing. Their morale has gone through the roof because all the employees are at home. All the normal things of adherence and scheduling are out the window because their employees are… All they do is literally wake up. It’s not that difficult, right?

So that, and in that instance, there are companies that didn’t have work at home, never would have considered it had there not been an impacting incidence like this. And I think they’re reaping the benefits of it. That same company announced to me in mid August that even when the dust settles and it’s time to go back fully, 40% of their existing staff is going to stay at home. And for them, that means actually the liquidation of about nine buildings worldwide, nine brick and mortars that they’re no longer going to use. So, the impact is… And there’s a lot of case studies like that out there. There’s a lot of companies with similar experiences right now.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah. We’re seeing a lot of that. It’s really interesting. One of the companies that I paid attention to early on was Nationwide Insurance. And one of the things that they came out and said is that we are fully on work from home. We may have a very small sort of skeleton staff in some of our corporate offices, but we know that this works.

And part of the reason, this is the most interesting thing about the Nationwide story, what they said is that we’ve been planning for this for a long time. We’ve been working on digital transformation for a long time. We didn’t just start doing this because of a pandemic. And that allows us to say at this particular point in time, and this was like in April when everybody else was still shell shocked, but saying, “Yeah, we’ve shifted. We’re good. We’re not going back. It’s great. And look at the savings,” but really, part of that message was just really embracing digital transformation. And that’s what we’re talking about. That’s what this use case story is talking about, digital transformation that coincidentally allows your company to survive, right? So, Jeff, what about you?

Jeff Nicholson: So, I’m also thinking of an insurance company. And funny how we were talking about insurers, they should understand risk, right?

Shelly Kramer: Right.

Jeff Nicholson: And we’re seeing the same thing. So in this case, I’m thinking of Aflac. And one of the things that they were able to do, that they plan to have, they put in place, we’ll call it, the bedrock of case management technology there to orchestrate end to end processes toward outcomes, whether it’s understanding where their claim status is or otherwise. And that was they’re supporting their agents of course.

One of the things that certain architectures allow is to use that exact same case technology and activate it on other channels. So, you’re not duplicating logic in other channels. And in this case, they were able to take that, we think of it as taking it from the center out rather than channels in, take that case technology and activated right up to their website. And they were able to make that transition pretty much on a dime.

And they were able to, in their case, they activated both live chat and a intelligent virtual assistant through that chat. And they activated 15 different types of interactions to be possible through cases in that intelligent virtual assistant, incredible results. They’re actually the one I was thinking of that’s seeing that 70 and sometimes 80% success in actually resolving the inquiry right there.

And if you think about what’s going on, it’s not just better for the business, right? You’re obviously saving cost there and being able to scale with the demand using the advantages of cloud. But you’re resolving the issue. The customer’s there on your website because that’s where they want to get the resolution. They’re not actually, like we talked about, looking to strike up a conversation and meet their new BFF. They just want to get their issues done and get on with their day. And in a particular case, when it comes to insurance, if you have filed a claim, you’re probably not in the best of spirits many times. So, you just want to get on with your day. And to have a solution that’s being able to pivot and help you move very quickly with those changes and directions of close obviously is paying a lot of dividends right now.

Shelly Kramer: Customer loyalty and customer trust are very elusive things. And it’s those little things, just what I talked about, that joy that you have as a consumer when things work in a way that… You expect, oh, I’ve got to call, or I’ve got to reach out, or whatever, and you just dread it. And then when that experience is good, you walk away. You tell other people about it because you’re so surprised because it’s so rare, all of those things. But brand loyalty and trust are important things. And these are steps that help sort of create that. And that’s, I think, that’s a big deal. Jon, you have a use case story to wow us with?

Jon Gilman: Yeah. I guess not to break up the insurance party here, we’ll just stick with the insurance industry, but it’s actually a customer that both Pega and Clear share together, which is Blue Cross in Minnesota. And strangely enough, I’m talking to them right after this. So initially, we were brought into streamline contact center activities across SAP and their AS/400 systems. So, a lot of the claims adjudication and policy administration still happens within AS/400, but all of their financial activity, billing, invoicing, payments, all of that happens within SAPs. So, they definitely had users toggling between 15 and 25 screens depending upon the customer issue. And we were, again, able to streamline that into a single webpage that integrated multiple modules of SAP and multiple AS/400 systems so that they could quickly resolve customer inquiries.

So, I think before Clear came into the picture, they were probably around 12 minutes per call, and they got it down to two to three minutes per call, regardless of the complexity. So, pretty huge for them from a call handling time perspective. But also the OPEX, I mean, the amount of annual savings they were able to recognize because a streamlined, simple experience just made their customer service reps just faster was just incredible.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah. That’s 12 minutes to two minutes. That’s a big deal. We like that. So, I think that if you’ve been hanging out with us, and we thank you for doing that, you can see that the cloudification of the call center is kind of a no brainer. And I think that the use cases and the benefits to your company, the benefits to your customers, I think that those are pretty much a given as well.

And I hope that what you’ve seen as a result of our conversation here is that migration doesn’t have to be the challenge that you think it might be and that I think, we talk about this a lot here at Futurum, but I think that the secret sauce of success today, I don’t care what it is you’re doing, but especially in this space in cloudifying anything, it’s really what that magic mix of vendor partners that you’re going to work with. And all three of you, you’re here today because you work together across customers, across solutions. And I think that the days of any one vendor being all things to all people is really kind of a short-sighted thing. And I’m always suspicious when somebody, when a vendor tries to position themselves as being the all things to all people solution. And so, I think that smart partnerships and understanding the nuances of those partnerships is really the path to success when it comes to cloudifying anything that you’re doing. And I know that you guys are all nodding so I know that we’re on the same page here. And again, you all have partnered together, not on every single piece of business, but I know you guys partner together a lot.

So with that, I am going to thank you, Jeff Nicholson, and you, Brandon Knight, and you, Jon Gilman, for hanging out here today. And I hope that you all have enjoyed this conversation. We’ll provide you with some show notes that link to each one of these gentleman’s companies and give you a little bit more information about that. But I think with that, we’re going to wrap up and say thanks for attending, and we’ll see you another time.

Jon Gilman: Awesome.

Jeff Nicholson: Thank you.

Brandon Knight: Thank you.

Author Information

Shelly Kramer is a Principal Analyst and Founding Partner at Futurum Research. A serial entrepreneur with a technology centric focus, she has worked alongside some of the world’s largest brands to embrace disruption and spur innovation, understand and address the realities of the connected customer, and help navigate the process of digital transformation. She brings 20 years' experience as a brand strategist to her work at Futurum, and has deep experience helping global companies with marketing challenges, GTM strategies, messaging development, and driving strategy and digital transformation for B2B brands across multiple verticals. Shelly's coverage areas include Collaboration/CX/SaaS, platforms, ESG, and Cybersecurity, as well as topics and trends related to the Future of Work, the transformation of the workplace and how people and technology are driving that transformation. A transplanted New Yorker, she has learned to love life in the Midwest, and has firsthand experience that some of the most innovative minds and most successful companies in the world also happen to live in “flyover country.”


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