A year ago at Microsoft Build 2016, Satya Nadella outlined Microsoft’s vision for Conversation as a Platform (CaaP). A vision of a world where language would become the new user interface, bots and digital assistants would replace applications and browsers, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) would be infused throughout all interactions between humans and machines.

Satya explained that pairing “the power of natural human language with advanced machine intelligence” will enable organisations and consumers to get more done with the help of intelligent bots and digital personal assistants.

Fast forward a year, and that vision is already turning into reality with Conversational AI featuring as one of the most important paradigm shifts at Microsoft Build 2017. Bots and smart agents are becoming the next conversational interface for business applications of all kinds, and this presents an incredible opportunity for revolutionising every aspect of the modern world.

With so much potential waiting to be tapped, I’m sharing my thoughts on why this is so relevant now, why Microsoft customers and partners should care, what are the key aspects of the technology, and how organisations can go about leveraging this technology to transform business operations, customer service and employee productivity.

Bots and smart Agents are becoming the new apps (Microsoft Build 2016)

Why is this so relevant now?

The conversation about AI disrupting the business world has been going on for several years but it is now, more than ever, the right time for businesses to seriously consider developing conversational platform solutions for their employee and customer base. I believe this is for two main reasons.

Firstly, the proliferation and ubiquity of messaging platforms. Popular messaging applications have been consistently topping app usage statistics over the past few years, but we’ve now reached a stage where they’ve undoubtedly become the most widely used type of application at a global scale. With more than 4 Billion people using messaging apps on a regular basis, messaging platforms are a well-established means for communicating both in a business and consumer context.

Over 4 billion people are using messaging apps on a regular basis (Statista 2017)

Secondly, the shift from explicitly programmed machines to machines that learn. Thanks to the latest advancements in democratising machine learning and AI, organisations of all industry types and sizes have now, more than ever before, got easy access to cloud-based, cost-efficient, scalable services and tools they can use to enhance their messaging platforms with intelligence features that mimic human abilities.

When infused with intelligence, conversational platforms have the potential to reinvent productivity and business processes for employees, and create more personalised experiences for customers without the need for human intervention. Conversation as a platform for tracking, executing and collaborating on tasks can therefore become a viable alternative to disjointed web and mobile applications that are more complex to use and increase the app overload headache for consumers, employees and IT pros.

Why should Microsoft customers and partners care? 

As you’d imagine, the race to provide developers and IT users around the world with tools they can leverage to create powerful AI solutions involves all the big players, but Microsoft has the edge over Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook when it comes to providing a complete ecosystem of ready-to-use products and services essential for building an enterprise solution.

Specifically, Microsoft is in a unique position to offer customers the three building blocks required for the implementation of an intelligent conversational platform:

  • Messaging Platform: The Office 365 productivity suite and its Connectors feature serves as the foundational platform for hosting conversations for the enterprise and connecting these to popular apps and services
  • Bots: The Microsoft Bot Framework built on Azure enables developers and IT users to create their own bots to converse with their employees, partners and customers wherever they are
  • AI: Microsoft Cognitive Services set of extensive APIs enables developers to enhance their bot services with intelligence features that mimic human abilities

In the following sections, I’ll talk about these product features and services in more detail, focusing on the value that Office 365 customers can get from embracing and adopting these concepts to tackle real business problems.

Connectors bring your favourite apps and services into Office 365 conversations

The first element I’d like to highlight is Connectors for Office 365, a powerful feature that extends the already comprehensive communication and collaboration features in Office 365 by linking together people and places with content.

Office 365 Connectors are a great way to get useful information and content from your favourite apps and services into Office 365 Groups and Microsoft Teams, as well as into Yammer groups connected to the Office 365 Groups service as per the latest announcements in MS Build 2017. Any user can connect their collaboration group or team to services like Trello (e.g. to manage a project), GitHub (e.g. to collaborate on a code project), Twitter (e.g. to track a Twitter feed), MailChimp (e.g. to track a marketing campaign) etc. and get activity notifications for that service.

Office 365 Connectors for Microsoft Teams and Groups

Getting service activity notifications via connectors reduces the need to track these services separately in their dedicated applications, and makes it easier to interact with updates and discuss them with others as they happen. The automation of the sharing process combined with the transparency of a selected, preconfigured space (group or team) populated with specific members, saves time and improves collaboration – when compared to the more cumbersome alternative process of logging in an app and then manually sharing and discussing items via separate posts or emails.

There are currently over 80 Connectors available across multiple environments (web, desktop, mobile) for Microsoft Teams, Office 365 Groups and Yammer groups, and organisations interested in developing their own solutions can build connectors through incoming webhooks which also enable generation of rich connector cards.

Connectors enhance and augment user experience in key conversational applications

These connected app experiences are about to become even better in Office 365, with Microsoft’s newly announced Compose Extensions – a feature that will allow users to issue commands to bring information from an app or service directly into their team chat and avoid distracting context switches – and third-party notifications in the activity feed that will allow developers to alert users of key information and updates from their preferred service.

Microsoft’s Bot Framework helps you build connected bots 

The second element I’d like to highlight is the Microsoft Bot Framework.

Connectors are great for linking existing applications with popular messaging platforms in Office 365, but do not provide organisations with a means to converse with employees and customers in the places where they spend most of the time – and that’s where bots come into play.

Their ability to connect with ubiquitous chat platforms (12 channels supported, including Skype for Business as per the latest announcements in MS Build 2017) combined with their quick and easy deployment versus standard web and mobile applications, make bots an effective solution for creating custom, personalised services that improve employee productivity and customer experience, whilst massively enhancing existing applications and services.

Depending on their built-in logic and inherent features, bots can offer a quick way for both handling simple tasks and helping manage complex tasks, with some examples of popular bots including the following:

  • Skyscanner Bot that lets individuals or groups search for flights, get live prices and route options (compatible with Skype)
  • Azure Bot that helps admins and developers use natural language to start, stop and list Azure VMs and start Azure Automation runbooks (compatible with Skype, Microsoft Teams, GroupMe and Slack)
  • Foursquare Bot that helps individuals find places to eat, drink, shop, or visit (compatible with Skype)
  • Hipmunk Bot that helps individuals and groups collaborate on planning their trips (compatible with Skype and Microsoft Teams)

The Microsoft Bot Framework

To assist individuals and organisations looking to build their own bots and smart agents, Microsoft has released the Bot Framework which provides developers and admins with the following features and benefits:

  • Build with the Bot Builder SDK and test with the Bot Emulator
  • Access open-source code, samples and bot templates to accelerate build process
  • Connect to existing APIs, databases and services to get valuable information
  • Deploy bots via a server-less architecture by hosting them in Azure or other cloud services
  • Reach multiple devices and operating systems including Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Windows Phone
  • Publish across multiple communication channels including Web chat, messaging apps, Email, SMS
  • Register bots in the Bot market and use 3rd party bots published by other developers and organisations

Equipped with the Microsoft Bot framework, Microsoft customers can skip most of the hassle and technical complexity involved in developing, deploying and maintaining a bot service, and focus on the value delivered to the business by deploying a bot solution to address real business opportunities or problems.

Microsoft Cognitive Services enhance your bot services with intelligent functions

The final element I’d like to highlight is Microsoft Cognitive Services.

Leveraging bots to converse with employees and customers is a great way to interact with these target groups wherever they are and in the places they love to spend most of their time, but this interaction can be improved even further with the addition of intelligent functions that mimic human abilities – this is where Cognitive Services come into play.

On top of using the Microsoft Bot framework, organisations looking to build intelligent bots and smart agents can leverage Microsoft Cognitive Services to enhance their solutions with intelligent functions such as image and speech recognition, natural language understanding, real time translation, and smart recommendations. Microsoft Cognitive Services enable developers to build apps or bots with powerful machine learning algorithms via a comprehensive set of REST APIs that are easy to set up, reduce code volume and work across multiple platforms.

Microsoft Cognitive Services

Organisations specifically interested in developing intelligent bots and smart agents can combine the flexibility of Microsoft’s Bot Framework with the power of Cognitive Services such as Language Understanding APIs (to enable understanding of human intent hidden in natural language format), Speech Recognition APIs (to enable voice inputs on top of text dialogue), Translation APIs (to automatically detect language and translate text in real time) and Knowledge APIs (to provide answers to FAQs and recommend content to users) to enhance the overall capabilities an user experience of their solutions.

When designed with a specific business problem or requirement in mind, intelligent bots and smart agents powered by Cognitive Service algorithms can help organisations effectively address a variety of internal and external facing scenarios:

  • Productivity and collaboration: Meeting bookings and reminders, System notifications and alerts, Task automation e.g. Report generation, Data extraction and analysis, monitoring and tracking of long tasks
  • Internal Communication and employee support: Polls, User feedback capturing, Help desk support, Internal FAQs, HR Policy support, Leave bookings, New-user onboarding
  • Customer Service and support: Call centre, Account queries, External FAQs, Order tracking, Customer feedback capture, Proactive notifications, Product or service cross-selling and up-selling

By deploying intelligent bots businesses can reach employees and customers anywhere, on any platform or device, and engage with them in a natural way. If implemented successfully this type of communication can improve employee and customer experience in a resource efficient way that reduces the need for human assistance.

Build an intelligent conversational platform with Office 365 in two simple steps

So we’ve looked into each of the different technologies available in the Microsoft Cloud, but how do these relate to Office 365 customers in particular?

For Microsoft customers already using Office 365 there’s great potential to extend the platform’s core communication and collaboration features with Connectors and Bots to create an intelligent conversational platform.

By adding connectors and bots into key Office 365 workloads such as Teams, Groups and Skype for Business, organisations can boost productivity and enhance user experience in these application environments, which in turn helps increase adoption of and leads to better ROI from Office 365. This can be achieved in two simple steps, described below.

An intelligent conversational platform with Office 365 at its core

Step 1: Connect Microsoft Teams or Groups to your favourite services

Organisations looking to explore the potential of building an intelligent conversational platform for their employees, customers, or partners can begin by deploying Office 365 connectors for their favourite services. Connectors are a simple and efficient way to improve access to different applications by reducing the need to launch and log into these applications to either check for notifications or even execute simple tasks. Employees are instead getting notifications or executing these tasks from within a messaging environment which they already use for collaborating with others inside and outside of the organisation.

Step 2: Create your own conversational experiences with intelligent bots

Moving onto the next step, organisations can leverage the Microsoft Bot Framework to develop and deploy conversational bots and smart agents that address specific internal or external use cases. Connecting to existing data and information to solve a real business problem is a good way to start, and can be further expanded with tapping into the Microsoft Graph and 3rd party APIs to create meaningful interactions based on information that includes people, activities, documents and device data. In addition, organisations can further enhance bot services with voice recognition and language understanding features powered by Microsoft Cognitive Cervices to create a more human friendly experience that supports flexible modes of interaction for employees and customers.

Regardless of the technologies in play, having a clear purpose and focusing on addressing one problem or opportunity at a time – such as making a business process better, quicker or more efficient – is important for those looking to succeed in getting real value from developing their own custom bot solution.

At Betterworking we help our customers get the most out of their Office 365 investment. Talk to us if you need help with increasing the value you’re gaining from your Office 365 core capabilities, or if you’d like to extend these further with additional products and features such as the ones mentioned in this post.

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