Artificial intelligence in Microsoft's October update.

Artificial Intelligence in Microsoft's October Update

Microsoft has, for a while now, provided AI services (under the Cognitive Services name) that you can take and apply to a text, images, sound and other datasets. E.g. transcribe audio to text (or vice versa), auto-translate it, find the intent and sentiment within the text.

These are great, and not difficult to use (for developers), but what's cooler is the way Microsoft is increasingly imbuing these services into their core business and productivity tools, Office 365 and Dynamics 365. The October Update (one of Microsoft's large biannual platform updates) contains some interesting new applications of AI to how businesses carry out their work using Dynamics 365 and Office 365.


Loosely categorised, here we go:

Microsoft Productivity 

Microsoft Teams
(team collaboration tool):

Transcription: the Teams platform for chat, online audio and videoconferencing, and collaboration will now provide an AI-driven transcription of meeting audio.

Real-time bokeh: videoconference participants can use real-time bokeh to blur the video background, insuring their face is the main point of focus for other participants. Just the thing for correspondents with young family members barging in to the background. With Microsoft bringing a little of the Instagram experience to team meetings, what are the chances they'll give us Snapchat rabbit ears as a future option? One can only hope.

Microsoft Excel

Optical Character recognition: Previously the domain of costly document solutions, Microsoft's bringing the ability to read a table of data from a picture, into Excel. Microsoft's continuing to democratise AI, including for secret agents snapping pics of secret documents.   

Microsoft Search

This looks powerful. Microsoft Search will provide a uniform search experience that demonstrates the power of having our conversations, customer and business transactional records, and documents all within the same ecosystem.

The concept makes sense: why should you have to search in multiple different systems for the same customer or document, when all the underlying data is connected and the systems talk to each other. Isn’t much easier access wherever we’re working what technology seemed to promise us in the first place? Having to search multiple different systems and not knowing in which the data lies can be the bane of our work days.

It looks like Microsoft Search may bring the sort of connected data and accessibility we’re accustomed to in our personal devices, into our work productivity experience.


Managing Relationships

Relationship Analytics

On the relationships side, the Relationship Analytics tool that's part of Dynamics 365 and Office 365 is now being extended to include LinkedIn data. This uses data from Dynamics and Office to help users know what tasks and customers need their attention, and how time is being spent. LinkedIn interactions informing this picture will be a boon for B2B salespeople.

Talking Points

New Talking Points functionality looks set to simplify the task of maintaining the appearance of a genuine, caring relationship with your customer or supplier. Talking Points will look across your communication history and highlight potential talking points such as sports, family, health or entertainment matters you've discussed in the past.

Who Knows Whom

A relationship mapping tool based on interactions between people, Who Knows Whom will enable you to see who else in your organisation may know or have interacted with a person you're needing to deal with, so they might provide you a warm introduction.


AI-driven insights in Sales, Service and Marketing

Microsoft is releasing prepackaged AI offerings for these three Dynamics 365 areas.

The AI for Sales and AI for Customer service tool looks similar to Microsoft’s earlier Dynamics 365 for Customer Insights public preview, where Microsoft began to package together AI algorithms and pre-baked measures as a platform into which customers could import data from both Dynamics 365 instances and various other sources. After a very promising public preview period, Customer Insights was seen no more…until now?

There's not yet a lot of information on Dynamics 365 AI for Service or Dynamics 365 for Sales, but from the looks of the recent demonstrations at Microsoft Ignite, it’s quite possible these are more targeted and honed versions of concepts shown in Customer Insights. The same dough, but more pre-sliced loaves. Rather than being tools more at home in a company’s BI team, these are operations management tools, designed to directly drive improvements sales and service.

Dynamics 365 AI for Sales

This new Dynamics 365 offering will provide insight on:

  • Predictive lead scoring (which leads are most likely to convert to revenue, so you know where to focus your effort). What will be interesting to know here is whether this insight is driven by globally-aggregated data (e.g. anonymised leads from all Dynamics instances around the world, or in an instance) or whether it'll be specific to only your own instance …in which case this will be of most value to organisations dealing with large numbers of leads. 
  • Opportunity pipeline analysis including relationship health, powered by data from Exchange (e.g. frequency, recency and quality of interactions, as well as the application of sentiment and intent analysis to text within interactions). 
  • Sales team performance analysis and activity reporting 
  • Natural language Q&A data interrogation…Suggesting to me that this AI package will be primarily accessed through an analytics interface (i.e. Power BI or Power BI surfaced within Dynamics 365).

Dynamics 365 AI for Customer Service

Microsoft previewed this tool at their recent Ignite conference in Orlando (where it was labeled Customer Service Insights). AI purports to automatically analyse case text for intent, sentiment and thematic indicators, then use these to dashboard trending causes of service issues, increases in resolution time, and other KPIs.

What’s not 100% clear is how relates to elements of the AI in the Call Centre and Omichannel Engagement Hub functionality described in the earlier October 2018 Release Notes. AI in the Call Centre, it is suggested, will integrate with an organisation's telephony solution, then use textual AI service to generate insights from the conversations, including:   

  • Sentiment and intent
  • Keyword mentions
  • KPIs / benchmarks such as:
    • Talk-to-listen ratio
    • Longest customer monologue
    • Participant switch ratio

This could be a great solution for contact centres. Automating keyword analysis could bring rapid results for medical or social service contact centres. E.g. earlier work in this area by the likes of the Crisis Text Line threw up a surprising result around what word was most likely to precede attempts at self-harm

Meanwhile, the Omnichannel Engagement Hub described in the release notes may relate to Microsoft’s references to integration with a Virtual Agent (bot building) engine, in their preview video linked to above.

Dynamics 365 for Market Insights

There hasn’t been a lot of information about on this, beyond its recent announcement. The writing on the tin says: "Helps empower your marketing, social media and market research teams to make better decisions with market insights. Marketers can improve customer relationships with actionable web and social insights to engage in relevant conversations and respond faster to trends."

What we do know is that Microsoft website links to the Microsoft Social Engagement tool (for monitoring and engaging with social media sites) is now directed to the Dynamics 365 for Market Insights page, and some pictures on the page are clearly of the artist formerly known as Microsoft Social Engagement. Microsoft’s video posted four days ago also suggests Market Insights will encompass results from Bing Search (news and blog results, perhaps), and - significantly - use of Machine Learning algorithms to infer demographic characteristics of the participants, such as age and gender.

It will be interesting to see whether Microsoft also starts to introduce more LinkedIn data into this picture, as B2B marketing and engagement starts to become more of the Dynamics 365 marketing picture. Or, given the existence of a quite separate Dynamics 365 for Marketing tool, whether Market Insights has a roadmap to connect these pieces of the puzzle… 


Every six months, like clockwork…

The one thing that's clear is Microsoft's drive to continue its democratisation of AI. Rather than relying on companies developing their own solutions using AI services - which they still can do - we're seeing more and more AI available on a prepackaged or baked-in basis, enabling organisations to apply these technologies to business problems far more quickly.

What's the aim or benefit here? Ultimately, a couple of key ones:

  • Increase productive time through reducing administrative overhead
  • Target time more effectively through improved identification of important or useful work.

With these coming out of the October Update, the biannual cadence of such updates is an exciting prospect. We stand to see more and more embedding of AI capabilities in our everyday tools with each such update.

it's only up to us - and you - to take advantage of them :-)

 By Jonathan Rickard




Great outcomes start with great conversations