Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Pega Does Vegas

I spent the first part of this week at Pegasystems’ PegaWorld conference in Las Vegas, a place which totally creeps me out.* Ironically or appropriately, Las Vegas’ skill at profit-optimized people-herding is exactly what Pega offers its own clients, if in a more genteel fashion.

Pega sells software that improves the efficiency of company operations such as claims processing and customer service. It places a strong emphasis on meeting customer needs, both through predictive analytics to anticipate what each person wants and through interfaces that make service agents’ jobs easier. The conference highlighted Pega and Pega clients’ achievements in both areas. Although Pega also offers some conventional marketing systems, they were not a major focus. In fact, while conference materials included a press release announcing a new Paid Media solution, I don’t recall it being mentioned on the main stage.**

What we did hear about was artificial intelligence. Pega founder and CEO Alan Trefler opened with a blast of criticism of other companies’ over-hyping of AI but wasn’t shy about promoting his own company’s “real” AI achievements. These include varying types of machine learning, recommendations, natural language processing, and, of course, chatbots. The key point was that Pega integrates its bots with all of a company’s systems, hiding much of the complexity in assembling and using information from both customers and workers. In Pega’s view, this distinguishes their approach from firms that deploy scores of disconnected bots to do individual tasks.

Pega Vice President for Decision Management and Analytics Rob Walker gave a separate keynote that addressed fears of AI hurting humans. He didn’t fully reject the possibility, but made clear that Pega’s official position is it’s adequate to let users understand what an AI is doing and then choose whether to accept its recommendations. Trefler reinforced the point in a subsequent press briefing, arguing that Pega has no reason to limit how clients can use AI or to warn them when something could be illegal, unethical, dangerous, or just plain stupid.

Apart from AI, there was an interesting stream of discussion at the conference about “robotic process automation”. This doesn’t come up much in the world of marketing technology, which is where I mostly live outside of Vegas. But apparently it’s a huge thing in customer service, where agents often have to toggle among many systems to get tasks done. RPA, as its known to its friends, is basically a stored series of keystrokes, which in simpler times was called a macro. But it’s managed centrally and runs across systems. We heard amazing tales of the effort saved by RPA, which doesn’t require changes to existing systems and is therefore very easy to deploy. But, as one roundtable participant pointed out, companies still need change management to ensure workers take advantage of it.

Beyond the keynotes, the conference featured several customer stories. Coca Cola and General Motors both presented visions of a connected future where soda machines and automobiles try to sell you things. Interesting but we’ve heard those stories before, if not necessarily from those firms. But Scotiabank gave an unusually detailed look at its in-process digital transformation project and Transavia airlines showed how it has connected customer, flight, and employee information to give everyone in the company a complete view of pretty much everything. This allows Transavia to be genuinely helpful to customers, for example by letting cabin crews see passenger information and resolve service issues inflight. Given the customer-hostile approach of most airlines, it was nice to glimpse an alternate reality.

The common thread of all the client stories (beyond using Pega) was a top-down, culture-deep commitment to customer-centricity. Of course, every company says it’s customer centric but most stop there.  The speakers’ organizations had really built or rebuilt themselves around it.  Come to think of it, Las Vegas has that same customer focus at its core. As in Las Vegas, the result can be a bit creepy but gives a lot people what they want.  Maybe that's a good trade-off after all.

* On the other hand, I had never seen the corrugated hot cup they had in the hotel food court. So maybe Vegas is really Wonderland after all.

** The solution calculates the value a company should bid to reach individual customers on Facebook, Google, or other ad networks.  Although the press release talks extensively about real time, Pega staff told me it's basically pushing lists of customers and bid values out to the networks.  It's real time in the sense that bid values can be recalculated within Pega as new information is received, and revised bids could be pushed to the networks. 

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