Since Satya Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft four years ago, the focus of the company has broadened considerably. The dominance of the Windows operating system and single Office suite of products for businesses has shifted to a focus on the digital workplace, digital transformation and enabling all workers to be not only more productive, but also better enabled to do their work.

"Microsoft's core purpose is to unlock a new culture of work ... [and] support you as you endeavor to unlock that creativity in every person inside the organization," Nadella told the audience during his keynote at the vendor's annual Ignite conference, which closes tomorrow. The vision is consistent with one Nadella has spoken about and acted on in the past few years. He envisages a digital workplace where people have everything at their fingertips and where all workplace technologies are interconnected. 

Take for example, the case of Dynamics 365, the successor to both Dynamics CRM and Microsoft’s enterprise resource planning application. In her Ignite session, Alysa Taylor, corporate vice president of business applications and industry at Microsoft said the introduction of Dynamics 365 was the beginning of a journey to tear down the traditional silos of customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP). It was driven by a vision of business applications that would be modern, unified, intelligent and adaptable and, most importantly, integrated. In the case of Microsoft, this meant integration with Office 365 and natively built on Microsoft Azure.

Dynamics 365 was just one of the applications that got some added artificial intelligence (AI) muscle at Ignite. Here are four other announcements that stand out for delivering on Nadella's vision.

The Open Data Initiative: Microsoft, Adobe, SAP Partner

On Monday, Nadella was joined on stage by Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen and SAP CEO Bill McDermott to introduce the Open Data Initiative. Given the combined weight that Microsoft, Adobe and SAP have in the tech industry, to see them at the same tech conference is no big surprise. However, to see all three CEOs on stage at the same time to jointly announce a new data initiative is exceptional. This will probably be considered as one of the highlights, if not the highlight, of the conference.
The Initiative's objective is to enable enterprises to derive more value from their data and create improved experiences for both workers and customers.

"This will provide organizations everywhere a massive opportunity to build AI-powered digital feedback loops for predictive power, automated workflows and, ultimately, improved business outcomes," Nadella said.

The Initiative was created in response to the struggle workers face daily of creating a complete view of digital interactions and operations with information trapped in internal silos. The core focus of the Open Data Initiative is to eliminate those data silos and enable companies to better govern their data while also supporting privacy and security initiatives. The ability to better connect data across an organization paves the way for companies to use AI and advanced analytics to create real-time insights into just about every aspect of the business.

Related Article: 4 Things to Watch for at Microsoft Ignite

The Teams Challenge

The sparring between Microsoft and other enterprise collaboration companies such as Slack and Google G Suite has been one of the big talking points of this year. While Slack was, for a long time, considered the upstart in what is one of the most competitive areas of business tech, its recent moves including its acquisition of Atlassian's HipChat and Stride and its $437 million fundraising round has heated up the competition. 

Microsoft has responded in kind with continued upgrades and the release of its freemium version of Teams earlier this year. It was widely expected that Microsoft would use Ignite to announce a number of upgrades and in that respect, no one was disappointed. Over the past four days, it unveiled a broad set of new capabilities designed to improve its position in the digital workplace as a single place to get things done. Teams, the company said, is on a roll.

Much of what was announced focused on making video interactions a lot easier with the introduction of meeting recording with keyword search, cloud video interoperability that bring existing room technology investments into Teams and the blurring of backgrounds in video calls. If the last of these three appears minor the other two make up for that by making the interaction between teams a lot easier. Also announced were Teams capabilities directed at the frontline worker which include a new scheduling feature and access to files and third-party applications in Microsoft Teams.   

How Slack or Google responds to the ongoing development of Teams and these new features in particular remains to be seen, but it is certain that between now and the end of the year there will be a lot more play in this space.

Related Article: Will Microsoft Teams Hammer Yammer?

Cortana Blurs the Line Between Digital Workplace and Home

The reinvention of Microsoft under Nadella has brought about a number of changes in the way Microsoft approaches enterprise computing. One of the ideas he has been pushing for the last two years is the idea of the citizen developer, enabling workers to be their own app designers and developers. This week, Microsoft unveiled a new step in that journey with the release of a platform for enterprises to enable the personal intelligent assistant Cortana to complete company-specific tasks.

The Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprise development platform is powered by the Azure Bot Service and uses language understanding from Azure Cognitive Services to provide developers with the tools to create company-specific skills for Cortana. Javier Soltero, corporate vice president of Cortana, described the extension of Cortana skills development as the start of a journey into a realm where voice and natural language are the primary means of interacting with technology.

“In the same way you don’t have to go around teaching people how to use a smartphone because they know how to touch and swipe, we have arrived there with voice. We are finally able to say, ‘Okay, now what can you do?’” he said.

Learning Opportunities

The specific skills that enterprises will create for Cortana remain to be seen, but one of the examples offered was a skill that allows employees to ask the personal intelligent assistant to schedule an office cleaning, saving 20 to 30 minutes of intranet surfing to arrange themselves.

There is some smart thinking here. If such experiences prove successful in the workplace, modern workforce employees will be more likely to access Cortana outside of work, too, which will effectively blur the lines between work and home.

One of the management maxims of innovative enterprises has been to provide workers with the same tools in the digital workplace that they use at home. However, what if that process is reversed? What if enterprises provide the tools that workers use at home for their personal use? This effectively brings the digital workplace into the home if this is something that users want. “We can enable the blurring of those lines without compromising privacy or enterprise utility and, at the same time, delight the user,” explained Soltero, who led the successful development of the Outlook app for iOS and Android prior to working on Cortana.

Related Article: Microsoft Execs Talk Cortana, Bots and Windows

Microsoft Finds What You Are Looking For

Before Ignite started, we predicted that search would get some serious love during the conference. Again, we weren't disappointed, but in a digital workplace that is driven by data this was an easy prediction to make. Let’s go back a year to put the new announcement in perspective.

At Ignite 2017, Microsoft introduced personalized search across Office 365 as a way of bringing intelligent search and discovery experiences directly to the workplace. This week, the company announced that it is now expanding that vision to encompass search both inside and outside of Microsoft 365. Microsoft 365 is the integrated bundle of Windows 10, Office 365 and Enterprise Mobility + Security (aka EMS, which includes Intune device management, analytics and some Azure Active Directory capabilities), sold on a subscription basis.

By applying artificial intelligence (AI) technology from Bing to the deep personalized insights surfaced by the Microsoft Graph, Microsoft aims to make search in the organization even more effective.

With Microsoft Search, the company is introducing new organizational search experiences into the digital workplace apps, including and Windows, helping workers connect across all enterprise silos.

The release is more than just a technology upgrade. It is also reinventing what the company believes search to be. In this case search evolves from the pages of results with hyperlinks to other information, into a way that delivers answers to questions, suggests insights, and enables you to take action on your tasks. The changes in search will happen over a number of months but will result is an entirely new search experience in whatever app people are working in.

These are the only a few of the obvious digital workplace additions unveiled at the conference. Over the coming weeks a lot more of what happened at Ignite will become clearer.