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Adding artificial intelligence bots to Cortana for Office 365

AI bots aren't just for requesting songs and definitions anymore. As enterprises look for ways to bring virtual assistants into the workspace, Microsoft's Cortana stands ready.

In the consumer world, asking Siri or Alexa how to make pancakes is part of a standard Sunday morning. Artificial intelligence bots are beginning to catch on in the enterprise, too, and they are poised to free up a lot of time for employees.

There are ample opportunities to use bots, virtual assistants or both, and to integrate them into Microsoft applications. Microsoft's own virtual assistant is Cortana -- a speech-enabled AI platform that can send and receive voice messages in a conversational manner. Bots that are connected to Cortana then gain Cortana's skills.

In the corporate world, 62% of organizations expect to use virtual assistants within the next two years, according to a report from the IT services company Dimension Data. The AI technologies behind virtual assistants will be the No. 1 trend in the enterprise that will affect digital business in 2018, said Joe Manuele, group executive of customer experience and workplace productivity at Dimension Data.

Some of that potential springs from the ability to complete routine tasks without having to log in to a computer, according to Manuele. For example, a manager could approve an employee's expense reimbursement claim by saying, "Cortana, please approve Mike's expenses," and he can then move on to the next task on the list.

Bot framework supports ready-to-integrate virtual assistants

One of the key ways to build a Cortana bot is using the Microsoft bot framework, which has been around for two years and recently became available to the general public, said Gary Pretty, technical strategist at Mando and Microsoft AI MVP. This framework enables developers to build an artificial intelligence bot that can be used across channels -- including Facebook, Skype for Business and Slack -- and enabled on Cortana.

"The fact that you could build a single bot and make Cortana one of the channels available for use is a big win," he said.

The Microsoft bot framework enables developers to build some very complex bots fairly easily, and those can be integrated using the .NET Framework, Pretty said.

"In minutes, you can spin up a bot on Azure and enable it in Cortana," he said, citing the quick start guide provided by Microsoft that helps developers build Q&A bots and language understanding so the bots can use machine learning to better recognize requests.

Essentially, Microsoft has eliminated the need to dive deep into the coding weeds by providing the foundational source code, he added.

The .NET framework, meanwhile, enables developers to integrate the bots they build into SharePoint, Office 365, Microsoft Teams and other Microsoft applications -- though Cortana isn't being integrated with Dynamics 365.

Opportunities for companies to use a Cortana bot for HR requests, for example, are endless, according to Pretty. In addition to asking for forms, users can request vacation time. Also, because the bot can access the context of previous conversations, Cortana will remember that a user was asking about availability and proactively suggest booking time, he noted.

"It's much more of an ongoing conversation."

Always consider the user experience

However, using a virtual assistant, whether it's Cortana or another option, needs to be more about offering alternatives to solve problems than replacing existing software, according to Pretty. For example, forms on the intranet can be left in place for users who are more comfortable with that option.

Using a virtual assistant, whether it's Cortana or another option, needs to be more about offering alternatives to solve problems than replacing existing software.

"The nice thing is, we can share a lot of code between those things," Pretty said. "If I have a .NET application with an HR form, I can reuse the code and build a bot."

Additionally, users should consider the content being returned by the artificial intelligence bot, said Rob Harles, managing director and global lead for social media and emerging channels at Accenture Interactive. Many organizations haven't standardized or updated their content, and once the employee receives it, it may raise more questions than answers, he said.

The last thing is to understand the limits within your organization, Harles noted.

"I have no doubt that these technologies are going to take off," he said.

But companies need to be careful not to overpromise and under-deliver, and they should work with the AI technology behind the scenes to improve functionality, he added.

While a virtual assistant won't replace team members, experts seem to agree that it will speed some processes and eliminate some routine tasks. For it to work, however, companies must design the virtual assistants with the user experience in mind, and they should ensure the content returned is self-explanatory to avoid negating the purpose of the artificial intelligence bots.

Next Steps

Microsoft will pull iOS, Android Cortana apps on March 31

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