I lost count of the many announcements that came through during Satya Nadella’s keynote at Microsoft Ignite this week. To some extent, it doesn’t even matter how many new features and services were announced because it was the sum of them all that really matters. The value of these solutions and features across products such as Azure, Office, Business Apps becomes obvious as they come together to empower businesses to do more and do differently, but also envision what is possible thanks to the power of AI, cloud, edge and quantum computing. Maybe for the first time, I understood what Microsoft 365 really delivers. For the first time, Microsoft 365 did not feel like an umbrella brand of separate services and applications brought together by a name, but rather a solution that touches every aspect of a business. Ironically this was also the time when Microsoft 365 was the least mentioned product on stage.
Under the theme of “Tech Intensity,” Satya Nadella pulled together what I see as the core investment areas on which Microsoft’s value proposition and differentiation is built. There were a few, but I want to focus on those I believe will have the most significant impact on Microsoft’s business: Trust, Knowledge, Empowerment.
This is probably the most obvious area to spot throughout the keynote and the event, just because of the number of times it was mention. Jared Spataro, VP of Microsoft 365, went as far as calling it “the most valuable asset” Microsoft has. Trust, for Microsoft, is built on three components: Privacy, Security, and Responsible AI.
I wrote in the past about privacy and how specific business models help brands take a privacy-first approach. But privacy is not the only way to build trust, so I was delighted to see Microsoft talk about security as well. Keeping data secure is as important as keeping it private both at a consumer and enterprise level.
Responsible AI is even broader than ethical AI, because it encompasses both the principles you are considering while building your algorithms as well as the understanding of the possible harmful ramifications of how an algorithm could be used.
These three ingredients of trust also come together when you think about the data that is used in machine teaching and how Microsoft has always very openly talked about the data not belonging to them and the steps that need to be taken when creating AI models without looking at the data that goes in nor the data that comes out.
Trust should be a priority for any brand, and while some might think the drivers I just highlighted are readily available, there are plenty of examples in the market today pointing at leadership who believes to be immune from judgment or just clueless as to the role trust will play in growing or retaining business.
Knowledge is the second area of investment, where I feel Microsoft is pushing ahead very fast and with determination. Project Cortex is probably the best example of how Microsoft wants to generate knowledge, not just data. The idea is to have AI do the heavy lifting so that people do not spend time going through the data or figuring out what data they have, but rather focus on creating, making decisions, being productive, by using a set of information that has already been pre-curated for them.
Project Cortex is a knowledge network, not a knowledge management solution. You might be forgiven to think they are the same. The good old knowledge management has been around since the 1990s and was built on a quite structured approach, and while it helped with gaining an understanding of what data was available it did not necessarily connect that data for you.
With Project Cortex, Microsoft is looking at assisting organizations in cutting down on duplicate work by letting you know if the work has already been done or if parts of what has been done can be leveraged for something you are working on. Project Cortex connects projects, products, customers and processes together. It also aims at helping with mining skills by identifying people who might be working on similar projects, all, of course, respecting the permission your company has applied to see and access the data.
A premium feature of Microsoft 365, Project Cortex will launch in the first half of 2020. While some might be quick in fearing for their jobs, as it is often the case, it will be more an opportunity for humans to focus on what they do best, which is bringing context and business expertise into the equation, the most valuable aspect of their contribution. In this context, Project Cortex is an empowerment tool.
Empowerment is the last area of investment I saw clearly rising from several of the products offered within Microsoft 365. Nadella’s mantra has been on empowering every business and every human to do more thanks to technology. In this “tech intensity” moment, we must pay more attention to us humans as we might just be the biggest hurdle not just in adopting technology but also, and maybe more importantly, in seeing the value it brings.
The empowerment of employees and businesses does not stop with Project Cortex. Microsoft is also focused on helping those organizations to empower people who have the business knowledge to drive some of the work on AI and apps but lack the digital skills to do so. PowerApps, Power BI, Power Platform, and AI Builder and the new Power Virtual Agent all speak to empowering organizations to bring employees’ skills to the digital world. Such an investment might help lower the need to fully retraining staff to code or learn new coding tools. This is not just a significant step to highlight the value these solutions bring by potentially providing cost savings on hiring new people or retraining existing staff, but it addresses what is a clear shortage in business apps developers and data scientists not just in the US but worldwide.
It is when I think about the network of services that Microsoft is building on the Microsoft Graph that I see how the value of Microsoft 365 will deepen the relationship enterprises have with Microsoft in a much more meaningful way than the sum of each individual product like it was in the past. In such a relationship to pinpoint which single product or feature is critical to a business will be much harder, leaving less opportunity for competitors with a more narrow or single purpose-built solution.