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Microsoft brings an AI-powered Copilot to its business app suite

Microsoft today introduced what it's calling the "next generation" of AI product updates across its business apps portfolio. They touch on both Power Platform, Microsoft's set of low-code tools for building apps and workflows, and Dynamics 365, the company's suite of enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) tools.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Charles Lamanna, CVP of business apps and platform at Microsoft, described the updates as the logical next step on Microsoft's automation journey. Powered by tech from AI startup OpenAI and built using the Azure OpenAI Service, Microsoft's service that provides enterprise-tailored access to OpenAI’s API, the new capabilities follow the rollout of OpenAI text-generating AI models in Power Platform four years ago and the more recent debut of generative AI capabilities in Viva Sales, Microsoft's seller experience app.

"Over the last four years, we've been on a journey to bring generative AI and foundation models to the workplace," Lamanna said via email, noting that Microsoft has a longstanding partnership with OpenAI to commercialize the vendor's tech in Microsoft's own products and through the Azure OpenAI Service. "And we've now reached the point where the tech and product can enable transformative outcomes for customers."

In Dynamics 365, Microsoft's launching what it calls Copilot (borrowing branding from GitHub's Copilot service), which -- broadly speaking -- aims to automate some of the more repetitive sales and customer service tasks.

Image Credits: Microsoft

For example, in Dynamics 365 Sales and Viva Sales, Copilot can help write email responses to customers and create an email summary of a Teams meeting in Outlook. The meeting summary pulls in details from the seller’s CRM, such as product and pricing information, Lamanna says, and combines them with insights from the recorded Teams call.

"We securely and intelligently access information from customers’ CRM, ERP and other enterprise data sources at runtime," Lamanna added. "We use large language models to combine the enterprise data with underlying knowledge to produce responses tuned for each customer. Importantly, we don't use customers’ data to train the models."

Over in Dynamics 365 Customer Service, Copilot can draft "contextual answers" to customer queries via chat or email and provide an "interactive chat experience" for customer service agents that draws from knowledge bases as well as case history. These complement the new "conversation boosters" feature in Power Virtual Agents, Microsoft's chatbot builder, which lets companies connect a bot to resources like a website or knowledge base to use that data to respond to questions that the bot hasn't been trained on.

In turn, conversation boosters complements a new "GPT" model in Microsoft's AI Builder tool that lets organizations embed text-generation features into their Power Automate and Power Apps solutions. Lamanna says that, for example, a researcher could use it to summarize text from weekly released reports and have it sent to their email, while a marketing manager could tap the GPT model to create targeted, generated content ideas by entering specific keywords or topics.

Given Microsoft's recent foray into generative text -- i.e. Bing Chat -- one might be reluctant to build an app using the company's tech lest it go off the rails. But Lamanna asserts that conversation boosters and the GPT model -- plus Copilot, for that matter -- are "grounded in reality" by each customer's CRM, ERP and other data sources.

"AI-generated content is always clearly labeled, and users are encouraged to verify the accuracy before using it. When relevant, we also cite the sources from which the answer was retrieved to better enable the user to verify the accuracy of the response," Lamanna said. "We have monitoring and controls in place to allow us to quickly respond with manual intervention in case any issues slip through the above lines of defense."

Image Credits: Microsoft

There's nothing to prevent users from not taking the time to verify the content's accuracy, of course. Time will tell whether that becomes an issue; studies on automation bias, or people's tendency to place too much trust in AI, suggest that it might.

Fortunately, the rest of Copilot's capabilities are less potentially problematic.

With Copilot in Dynamics 365 Customer Insights and Dynamics 365 Marketing, marketers can receive suggestions about customer segments that they might not have previously considered and create target segments by describing the segment in their own words. They can also get ideas for email campaigns, typing in requests to see topics from Copilot, which generates them by pulling from an organization's existing marketing emails as well as "a range" of internet sources, Lamanna says.

Microsoft's playing catch-up in some respects. The CRM elephant in the room, Salesforce, has for years been injecting (or at least attempting to inject) its CRM family of products with AI-powered capabilities. Startups like Glint have embraced AI, too, mostly to automate customer service workflows. But as an increasing number of marketers say they plan to sprinkle AI throughout their content strategies, it might not matter who's first to the punch, necessarily, but who deploys it first at scale.

"CRM and ERP have long been mission-critical customer and business data sources; however, they frequently require burdensome tasks like manual data entry, content generation and notetaking," Lamanna said. "Dynamics 365 Copilot automates these tedious tasks and unlocks the full creativity of the workforce."

Beyond the sales realm, Copilot in Dynamics 365 Business Central, Microsoft's business management system, tries to streamline creating e-commerce product listings. Lamanna says that Copilot can generate product attributes like color, material and size with descriptions that can be tailored by adjusting things such as the tone of voice, format and length.

It's a bit like Shopify's recently introduced AI-generated product descriptions tool, a fact that Lamanna indirectly acknowledged. He pointed out that Business Central customers using Shopify can publish products with AI-generated descriptions to their Shopify store in "just a few clicks" (after they've reviewed them for accuracy, hopefully).

Elsewhere, riding the wave of automation in the supply chain industry, Copilot in Microsoft Supply Chain Center can proactively flag issues like weather, financials and geography that might impact supply chain processes. Supply chain planners can then choose to have Copilot automatically draft an email to alert any impacted partners.

Lamanna argues that even simple AI-imbued processes such as these -- automating emails -- can lead to a measurable boost in productivity.

"According to our recent survey on business trends, 9 out of 10 workers hope to use AI to reduce repetitive tasks in their jobs. AI-powered assistants are now table stakes for business apps," Lamanna said. "We believe Dynamics 365 Copilot will help employees get work done faster so organizations can spend more time on the creative, innovative aspects of their jobs -- like building long-term customer relationships."

As always, the truth lies clouded in some marketing fluff. But what's clear is that Microsoft isn't slowing its investments in AI and automation. It was just in January that Microsoft invested billions more in OpenAI, and the company's eager to see a return on investment.

Copilot will be included in existing Dynamics 365 licenses like Dynamics 365 Sales Enterprise and Dynamics 365 Customer Service Enterprise at no additional cost, Microsoft says. It'll launch in preview beginning March 6, with general availability to follow sometime down the line.