How Microsoft Is Automating Business Chores

March 31, 2016, 5:30 PM UTC
Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott talks artificial intelligence and mixed reality.
Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott talks artificial intelligence and mixed reality.
Photograph by Bloomberg via Getty Images

Most businesses still think of Microsoft Office as a collection of software for creating documents, crunching numbers, or managing meetings. Slowly but surely, however, the software giant is transforming it into a hub for managing all kinds of business chores—from scheduling group meetings to electronic signatures more efficiently.

Want to arrange for an Uber car to pick you up after your last meeting of the day? There’s an Outlook calendar app that allows you to do just that. Need some insight into which corporate marketing materials are worth updating? You can figure out what your co-workers are actually reading by using Microsoft’s (MSFT) smart analytics and search technology, called Office Graph.

So far, scenarios such as these have mostly been imaginary but more illustrations of Microsoft’s master plan for business process automation and collaboration emerged Thursday during its annual developer conference in San Francisco.

“We’re still exploring what this means,” said Julie Larson-Green, chief experience officer for Microsoft’s Office team. “But the idea is to change your point of view just from being an individual working on an individual thing.”

She added: “It’s the idea of an ongoing conversation. Communication is the primary way that people get work done today.”

One example involves an application being developed by Starbucks. The coffee chain is writing software that gathers data from Microsoft’s Outlook calendar system and uses that knowledge to arrange for food to be delivered to your meeting—it figures out when and where. Alternatively, the Outlook add-in could be used to coordinate a gathering at a local Starbucks location.

Electronic signature pioneer DocuSign is also embracing Microsoft’s approach. It’s working on new software that allows organizations to select files that require signature—such as a business contract or an expense report that requires approval—from the Microsoft OneDrive cloud data storage service and route them to contacts in an Outlook contact database. The app sends alerts along with way, so that teams can track progress. You’ll even be able to tell when someone’s out of the office, so that approvals aren’t held up, DocuSign chief marketing officer Brad Brooks told Fortune.

“You’ll be able to create workflows that update dynamically,” Brooks said. “Everyone wants to digital processes, but the magic is the fact that you can now route these approvals automatically.”

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There are literally dozens of services in the works from declared Microsoft partners. Cloud customer service company Zendesk, for example, has written software that connects its system to the Outlook message inbox so urgent support issues can be escalated more quickly.

The technological glue that makes this possible is Microsoft Graph, a collection of services that let applications created by outsiders to communicate with Microsoft’s Office 365 cloud products—from OneDrive to Outlook to Excel to SharePoint. Businesses will be able to control access to these applications, turning them off or on as warranted, Larson-Green said.

Microsoft’s experiment with an “artificially intelligent” chat bot turns disastrous.

At least 60 million people use the commercial edition of Office 365 on a monthly basis, according to Microsoft data. Research from Okta, which sells “single sign-on” services that help businesses control access to cloud software applications, suggests that many businesses that have moved to the cloud use Office 365 in collaboration with a wide array of other cloud applications—including Google Apps. So the case for making connections is strong.

This story was updated March 31 to clarify the Microsoft partner number.