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Microsoft artificial intelligence moves beyond Office 365

Artificial intelligence is poised to pervade every area of business to boost revenue and improve operations.

ATLANTA -- With artificial intelligence built into virtually every portion of its software stack, Microsoft's grand...

vision is to make workers far more productive. But many workers are still warming to the company's cloud productivity suite, which requires new ways of collaborating and working.

Over the past three years, Microsoft has touted Office 365 services as part of its cloud-first, mobile-first vision, enabling companies to work from anywhere easily and securely. It envisions customers using services like SharePoint Online, the cloud-based collaboration tool, to exchange documents without email attachments; OneDrive to centralize file storage; and Skype for Business to enable teleconferencing and video chat.

Office 365 helped Dusseldorf, Germany-based Henkel Corp., a 140-year-old manufacturer of products that include Dial soap and adhesives, step into the future.

"The demand was so strong among business users for more collaboration," said Markus Petrak, Henkel's corporate director of IT digital workplace. "We had such an outdated workplace."

Rather than upgrade its Office 2003 applications, the company migrated to Office 365.

"It was rocket science two years ago, and, now, the business is adapting," he said.

At the Microsoft Ignite conference here this week, the vendor fleshed out its strategy for companies like Henkel to use the entire stack of services -- from the Azure cloud to Office 365 integrated with Dynamics CRM to the Cortana natural language digital assistant and new Microsoft artificial intelligence (AI) technologies -- to become modern, agile and customer-focused.

Henkel gains productivity, but faces learning curve

At Henkel, SharePoint and OneDrive for Business have improved worker collaboration and productivity, enabling easier document backup, less emailing of files, centralization of all critical files and version control of documents. In turn, its 50,000 employees are better able to collaborate without getting stuck in some of the traditional hurdles of document sharing.

With applications like SharePoint Online, workers no longer have to wonder which version of a document can be edited, nor do they need to email it around, creating storage strains and rework when the wrong file version is adapted.

"When I had to do a presentation, we called it version 23, then 24, then final, then final v2, then v3, then final, final, final," Petrak said. "Now, we have one version on SharePoint. Everyone is working on one version." OneDrive has also enabled automated backup without putting workers through their paces.

Skype for Business has also changed operations at this global company, as well as replaced desk phones and made phone call meetings far more interactive.

"Henkel is a traditional company, with a lot of on-premises meetings," Petrak said. "Whenever we had a meeting, we went to the U.S. Now, we use Skype."

But, like other Office 365 users, Henkel is just testing newer services that are part of the Microsoft artificial intelligence portfolio, such as Delve and MyAnalytics -- formerly Delve Analytics. Delve is a search tool designed to serve up relevant content to users based on their tasks, such as meetings and email groups. The tool needs to be managed carefully, so users don't feel like the eye of Big Brother is watching their every email or meeting request to gauge their productivity -- and penalize those who aren't efficient.

But Petrak said Henkel uses Delve as a way to educate users about the potential of intelligent systems to make workers more productive, rather than some intrusive tool that oversees their tasks to slap them on the wrist when they aren't productive. MyAnalytics helps workers track their tasks and learn how they spend their time, replete with dashboards and charts. Petrak said he sees Delve and MyAnalytics as opportunities for workers to learn more about their own habits to become even more productive.

Our workplace strategy through 2020 is, 'In the future, information will find you.'
Markus Petrakcorporate director of IT digital workplace, Henkel Corp.

"Our workplace strategy through 2020 is, 'In the future, information will find you,'" Petrak said. "When I get to work, I want to have a reminder about my meeting at 9 o'clock; and here's the email about it, and here's the last presentation related [to it], and, by the way, you should walk out now, because it's a five-minute walk."

Microsoft is also internally beta-testing a new service, called Workplace Analytics, that would aggregate and anonymize data on worker tasks and activities, according to Jeffrey Shih, a senior program manager at Microsoft.

Petrak acknowledged that Office 365 requires some worker education and hand-holding -- a longstanding drawback of Microsoft's document management platform.

"We are doing a lot of change management and education. We invested a lot of money to get people aware of the possibilities, and the [default] is that it's off," Markus said. More than 25,000 Henkel workers also use Yammer to educate users and help guide them on testing features.

Microsoft's big plans for AI

At Ignite, the vision for artificial intelligence systems -- to guide, shape and hone business productivity -- was further sharpened. The goal, said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, is not to create just personal computing and entertainment from AI, but rather to inform a new way of doing business that provides results, where intelligent systems learn from human behavior.

"We set ourselves a goal of democratizing AI," Nadella said during his afternoon keynote Monday. "We want to empower every person, every organization on the planet to achieve. We are not pursuing AI to ... make games. We're pursuing it so that every person and institution ... can go on to solve the most pressing problems."

For more, check out all our Microsoft Ignite coverage here.

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