By Neil du Plessis | Cloud Security Architect, BUI

The announcement of Microsoft 365 Copilot was a milestone moment for Microsoft and quite possibly one of the most significant events in the technology industry in recent decades.

Looking back, Tim Berners-Lee’s HTTP and URL system in 1990 paved the way for the World Wide Web. In 2007, Apple’s first iPhone transformed the mobile computing landscape. In 2013, Office 365 helped kick off the modern workplace era. And now, Microsoft is poised to revolutionise the way we work – with a bold new vision for intuitive human/computer interaction in 2023 and beyond.

Microsoft 365 Copilot is embedded in the Microsoft 365 applications that enable our communication, collaboration and creativity every day. Image credit: Microsoft

Unveiled during the company’s The Future of Work With AI live stream, Microsoft 365 Copilot is an advanced AI assistant embedded in the Microsoft 365 programs we’re already so familiar with, including Word, Excel, and Outlook.

And just like with its recent improvements to the Bing search engine and Edge browser, Microsoft’s approach with AI integration into the Microsoft 365 portfolio is to bring AI into the user experience as seamlessly as possible. In essence, to create a co-pilot or digital aide that is always available and ready to help us do more with the business technologies at our fingertips.

We all have that one colleague who knows Excel inside out, right? Or perhaps a teammate with a lot of experience in PowerPoint? Someone who can create stunning presentation decks by combining information from emails, brainstorming sessions, and existing documents. And we rely on them for guidance, don’t we? I know I do. But imagine how much simpler it would be if we were able to “talk” to Excel or PowerPoint, and get actual results from those interactions. With Microsoft 365 Copilot, Microsoft is moving to provide such functionality through AI.

How does Microsoft 365 Copilot work?

Microsoft 365 Copilot is powered by an advanced processing and orchestration engine that leverages the Microsoft 365 suite of applications, the Microsoft Graph, and a Large Language Model (or LLM) capable of interpreting and generating natural language. In practice, it means that users like you and me can instruct Copilot to perform specific tasks, in specific Microsoft 365 programs, with typed commands in natural language. In PowerPoint, for example, I could input “automate this slide” and Copilot would carry out the task accordingly.

That’s the user experience on the front end – and it’s remarkable. But the mechanics on the back end are even more impressive.

Copilot can analyse the user’s Microsoft 365 apps (like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and Teams) and the user’s Microsoft Graph data (like emails, files, meetings, chats, and calendar info) to gather context and content for each user prompt or query, and then deliver a result (i.e., the user’s requested action) or a response (i.e., readable text).

Going back to my PowerPoint scenario… I could change the layout of my newly automated slide by asking Copilot to add in data (from my Excel spreadsheet) and photos (from my OneDrive). I’d do this by entering natural language commands and using @-mentions to tag the relevant files or resources to draw upon. Copilot would then interpret my prompt, perform the necessary steps, and return a result for me to review – in this instance, a PowerPoint slide filled with the data and pictures I’d asked for.

So, what does Copilot actually mean for Microsoft 365 users? A few extra features on our favourite applications? Or something more? I’d say a lot more. In fact, I’d say that Copilot is a game-changing addition to Microsoft’s productivity platform – because it opens the door for us to explore a whole new way to work… A way that’s faster, smarter, and future-focused.

A faster way to get things done

According to research, developers who use GitHub’s AI-powered assistant (also called Copilot) are capable of completing tasks up to 55% quicker than those who don’t. GitHub Copilot also empowers developers to be more productive overall: 77% say they spend less time searching for data, and 74% say they’re able to focus on deeper work. It seems greater efficiency and greater mental energy are the key benefits for GitHub users who leverage Copilot – and Microsoft 365 users could see similar results by harnessing the power of Copilot in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and Teams.

Take my friend, for example. She runs a legal consulting firm. One of her employees is a top performer who is brilliant at what he does, but English is not his first language and he struggles to communicate with clients in written form. In this line of work, the tonality of letters and documents is critical, and so my friend acts as his editor. It’s a solution of sorts, but it’s not ideal or sustainable, and she’s been on the lookout for a better way of doing things. When I told her about Microsoft 365 Copilot, she was intrigued.

In my friend’s case, Copilot in Word could play the role of editor for her. Or, it could serve as a writing assistant for her employee whenever he starts a new brief, proposal, or memo. With a few simple commands, Copilot could review the overall composition of a Word document and suggest edits to correct the tone, refine the style, and improve the writing. Or, it could produce a first draft from scratch, based on prompts from the person at the keyboard. In short, Copilot could help my friend (and her team) to create polished documentation swiftly and easily, again and again.

Microsoft 365 Copilot in Word can be used to write, edit, summarise and create content in real time. In this screenshot, Copilot is instructed to draft a proposal based on meeting notes previously captured in OneNote. Image credit: Microsoft

A smarter way to use our tools

Colette Stallbaumer (Microsoft’s general manager for Microsoft 365) believes “we spend too much time on the drudgery of work”. And she’s right. How much of your day is devoted to generating raw content in Word? Or looking for patterns in Excel data sets? Or navigating email threads in Outlook? Sometimes, the monotonous tasks that keep us busy also keep us from being constructive – and that’s when our personal productivity suffers.

Copilot is designed to help – by putting the full capabilities of the Microsoft 365 apps within reach. Whether we’re beginners with little knowledge or skilled users with years of experience, Copilot enables us to capitalise on the tools at our disposal. “The average person uses only a handful of commands from the thousands available across Microsoft 365,” says Jared Spataro, the corporate vice president for Modern Work & Business Applications at Microsoft. “Now, all that rich functionality is unlocked using just natural language.”

Unlocked. I think that’s the key takeaway for all Microsoft 365 users… Copilot unlocks Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and Teams. Copilot makes it possible for us to do anything (and everything) in these programs, no matter our level of expertise. Indeed, Copilot makes it possible for us to work smarter – and those who learn how to use it effectively will undoubtedly achieve more.

A future-focused way to work

Embracing Copilot is only the beginning, though. As the workplace AI revolution continues, two skills are critical for our future productivity: prompt engineering and critical thinking.

Prompt engineering is the process of composing effective text prompts for AI tools like Copilot. It requires some understanding of LLMs and the patience to refine and optimise your input to ensure the best and most accurate output from AI-powered tools. Critical thinking – already a valuable soft skill – is now imperative. We, as humans, have to be able to evaluate and even interrogate AI output for ourselves, so that we can decide whether to accept or reject the responses provided.

Microsoft is transparent about Copilot’s evolving capabilities. “Sometimes Copilot will be right, other times usefully wrong – but it will always put you further ahead,” explains Spataro, noting that the Copilot user is always in control of the iterative conversation, which involves five steps.

  1. Prompt: The user starts a conversation with Copilot, via natural language, in a Microsoft 365 application.
  2. Grounding (first round): Copilot processes the user’s prompt and retrieves the user’s business content and context from the Microsoft Graph. Then, Copilot improves the user’s prompt and sends the modified version to the LLM.
  3. LLM processing: The modified prompt is processed by the Large Language Model.
  4. Grounding (second round): Copilot takes the response from the LLM and post-processes it. This step includes responsible AI checks; security, compliance, and privacy reviews; and command generation.
  5. Response: Copilot then sends a response to the user, and any necessary commands to the Microsoft 365 applications. The user can choose to accept or reject the response outright, or give Copilot additional prompts or feedback to produce a different outcome.

In addition to Microsoft’s current commitments to data security and privacy in enterprise environments, Microsoft 365 Copilot is guided by the company’s AI principles and Responsible AI Standard, and builds on decades of research on privacy-preserving machine learning. Simply put, your data remains your data, and the two stages of grounding described above are where Microsoft’s safety measures are put into practice… Copilot’s LLMs are not trained on your data; your data is never used or shared outside of the context of your organisation; and Copilot itself inherits the security, compliance and privacy policies that your enterprise has specified for Microsoft 365.

“The traditional notion of productivity, where humans do the bulk of the work and rely on computers for the final step, has been flipped,” says Sumit Chauhan, the corporate vice president of the Office Product Group at Microsoft. Soon, we’ll be able to experience this reversal for ourselves. With Copilot alongside us at work, we’ll have more time to create, innovate, and improve.

With Microsoft 365 Copilot, Microsoft aims to make technology more accessible through the most universal interface – natural language. Image credit: Microsoft

When will Microsoft 365 Copilot become available to the public?

Microsoft 365 Copilot is in a limited private preview and is not currently available for public use. However, it is expected to be offered to a wider audience in the coming months. There’s been no indication of the pricing for Copilot, but Microsoft says it is a “premium capability” within the Microsoft 365 suite and, as such, will not be free to use.

GitHub Copilot for Individuals costs $10 per month and GitHub Copilot for Business costs $19 per user per month, so it’s fair to assume that Microsoft 365 Copilot will have similar price plans when it’s released. We’ve already seen Microsoft offer advanced features and enhancements as add-ons and premium versions of existing products… Intune Suite and Teams Premium come to mind, but we’ll have to wait to find out how Microsoft 365 Copilot is positioned in the market.

In the meanwhile, we can prepare ourselves and our organisations for AI-enhanced productivity.

As individuals, we can start by embracing modern work. We can practise prompt engineering with the new Bing in Microsoft Edge; we can fine-tune our critical thinking by appraising Bing’s responses; and we can use our Microsoft 365 apps more often so that when Copilot becomes a part of our working lives, it can get down to business – with the context and content it needs for optimum functionality.

For enterprises, the same strategy applies. Team leaders can implement an adoption and change management programme to accelerate workplace transformation and ensure that Microsoft 365 users have the skills to leverage Copilot fully. They can also arrange for any unstructured data to be moved into the Microsoft Cloud and put the necessary data governance and data security measures in place. And finally, they can orchestrate any talks around budgeting and additional licensing.

When Microsoft Chairman and CEO Satya Nadella unveiled Microsoft 365 Copilot to the world, he said it would radically transform how computers help us think, plan, and act. “Just as we can’t imagine computing today without a keyboard, mouse or multi-touch, going forward we won’t be able to imagine computing without copilots and natural language prompts that intuitively help us with continuation, summarisation, chain-of-thought reasoning, reviewing, modifying, and acting.”

Microsoft 365 Copilot is a powerful piece of technology designed to augment human ingenuity. Early adopters will become more creative, more collaborative, and more efficient in their roles. And those of us who truly embrace Copilot will discover not only a new way to work, but also a new way to turn our words into actions – with tangible results.

BUI Cloud Security Architect Neil du Plessis is a certified CISSP and Microsoft Cybersecurity Expert specialising in holistic, cloud-powered defences for modern workplaces.

BUI is a Microsoft Azure Expert MSP and Microsoft Solutions Partner for Business Applications, Data & AI, Digital & App Innovation, Infrastructure, Modern Work, and Security.

With 10 Microsoft Advanced Specializations in solution areas including Adoption and Change Management, Information Protection and Governance, and Teamwork Deployment, BUI is a trusted technology partner to mid-market and enterprise-level organisations across the world.

Let’s talk about the Microsoft 365 productivity suite, and Microsoft 365 Copilot, to empower your staff and enable your business success.