Thursday, 25 March 2021

Ignite 2021 announcements summary - Teams, Power Platform, Azure, Security and Compliance

Microsoft announced a lot of changes and enhancements to their cloud products this month at Ignite, their major conference. Keeping up with the firehose of constant change is difficult at the best of times, but the flurry of announcements at these events - not to mention minor updates masquerading as major announcements - only makes it more difficult. You'd be forgiven for missing some key developments frankly. Whilst the "Ignite Book of News" that Microsoft create is useful (link at the end), I find myself needing a more concise summary - something I can reference when talking to my team or with clients. All of which leads me to my "Ignite on a slide" summaries that I'm sharing here.

In this post you'll find slides as images, and a downloadable deck which combines all of them - I cover the following technologies:

  • Teams
  • Power Platform
  • Azure
  • Microsoft Security & Compliance

Feel free to re-use or share.

Microsoft Teams

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Microsoft Power Platform

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Security & Compliance

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Of course, my summaries are somewhat subjective and you might feel there's something I've missed - but hopefully they're useful somehow.

Download the combined deck


Hopefully these summaries are useful in some form and you're free to use them as you like. When you need more detail on any of these announcements (and you will), I highly recommend using Microsoft's published "Book of News":

Link:  Ignite Book of News

Sunday, 28 February 2021

SharePoint Syntex AI - tips for choosing between document understanding and form processing models

SharePoint Syntex, the AI-powered document understanding capability of Office 365 which was previously part of Project Cortex (we'll come to that in a second), provides two approaches to understanding your content in document understanding and form processing. I talked about document understanding in two previous articles:

However, document understanding is only 50% of the Syntex capability. Form processing is more suited to very structured documents such as invoices, receipts and order forms - but there's a lot more to the decision than that. On the surface, many of the document AI processing scenarios you might consider could use either approach - but whilst there's huge overlap, the two models have some significant differences in capability, licensing and how they are applied.

Choosing the right approach can be confusing at first, so that's the focus of this article. But first, did you know that the "Project Cortex" label is disappearing?

Microsoft's Viva - branding and naming changes

With the advent of Microsoft Viva, the "topics" part of Project Cortex has become "Viva Topics" and is part of the that product set. The retirement of the Cortex brand label also means that Syntex becomes it's own thing. Indeed the Syntex add-on for Office 365 didn't use the Cortex label once launched - so in the Microsoft 365 admin center you'll see:

So a quick summary of the original naming compared to the current naming is:

With that out of the way, let's get back to form processing. 

Form processing vs. document understanding - what to use when?

So how does form processing differ from document understanding? When would you use each one? Microsoft have a fairly useful article at Difference between document understanding and form processing models, however some of the biggest differences lie in how the AI models are trained and what they're capable of, something the article doesn't really cover. I think things can be clearer still - here are the major differences as I see them:

Aspect Document understanding Form processing
Best suited for Unstructured or less structured content - documents can be written in different ways Highly structured content - based on a specific format with high consistency
Capabilities Classify your documents/identify content types (e.g. to drive compliance policies)

Extract content
Extract content

Extract table content
Summary of AI model training Machine teaching based on flexible rules for classification and extraction (e.g. proximity rules such as "X should be within 50 characters of Y")  Machine teaching based on well-defined locations with the document
Underlying technology Native to SharePoint Syntex Power Apps AI Builder - form processing
Technical implementation Model is applied to the SharePoint library through model settings A Power Automate Flow is created and associated with the originating library - but currently cannot be applied to different libraries
How applied across your tenant Create model once, apply to multiple SharePoint libraries (one by one) Created model is tied to originating document library (today)
Licensing Syntex license only:

£3.40 or $5 per user per month

(see "Who needs a Syntex license" later)
Syntex license + AI Builder credits:

Each user needs a Syntex license, and in terms of AI Builder credits, orgs with 300+ Syntex licenses receive a bundled allowance of 1m credits (one off). 

See AI Builder calculator for examples of how many credits are consumed by different operations - but in short, 1m in credits is extremely generous even for large organizations. As a guideline, if you process 5000 documents per month that would be just 4 credits per month.

To purchase, 1 unit of AI Builder credit costs £377 or $500
Supported file types All Office file types, .eml, JPG, PNG, PDF, RTF, TIFF, txt JPG, PNG or PDF
Key limitations Office files are truncated at 64k characters

OCR-scanned files (PDF, image or TIFF) are limited to 20 pages
Tables must be simple - no nested tables or merged cells
Signatures, checkboxes and radio buttons cannot be extracted

Max 500 pages

Let's dig into more detail on a couple of these points.

Differing approaches to machine teaching 

I mention in the table above the differences in how the AI models are trained. Perhaps the images below explain it best.

In form processing, I'm very precisely teaching Syntex where to find a previously-specified element of the document I want to extract - in this case the invoice reference:

In document understanding, I can do the same thing - however, I can also add some flexibility by defining "explanations" (essentially rules) which provide some extra context about variations in the document format that the AI might need to deal with:

I can also teach the machine how specific parts of the document relate to each other with a proximity rule. In the explanation below, I'm saying "first find the 'Fees and Payment' phrase, then find 'Total' which is more than 20 tokens away but less than 100. Once there, find the thing that looks like a GBP currency value which is VERY close, in fact less than 10 tokens away:

So, these differences can rule in or out one model depending on what your documents look like.

Considerations when applying across your tenant

The current limitation of a form processing model being tied to the SharePoint library where it was created is an important factor. This means that, as of today, there's no real pathway to using one of these models across your Microsoft 365 environment - so if your invoices/order forms/receipts get stored in many different SharePoint sites or document libraries you have a lot of work on your hands to replicate the solution.

This is somewhat surprising since the implementation is a Power Automate Flow. Conceivably, you could copy and paste Flow actions to speed things up - however, I note that simply trying to repoint the Flow to another SharePoint document library (by updating references) currently fails, perhaps indicating that there are some internal references which become out of sync. Indeed, the Microsoft documentation states:

Form processing models can currently only be applied to the SharePoint document library from which you created them. This allows licensed users with access to the site to create a form processing model. Note that an admin needs to enable form processing on a SharePoint document library for it to be available to licensed users.

Hopefully Syntex form processing models become much more reusable and portable in the future. 

Other benefits with SharePoint Syntex licensing

Notably, Microsoft provide some other capabilities as part of the Syntex license. These are badged as "premium" items and include:

  • Term store analytics
    • Insights on how tags are being applied to your content - term store operations, open and closed term sets, terms without synonyms and more 
    • See Term store reports | Microsoft Docs
  • Content type push to hub
    • More control over where content types get applied to your environment. Being able to pushing from the central term store to a hub can become the first part in a chain, where the second part is the existing "push from hub to associated sites" capability. In the end, you get your content types to where they need to be without PowerShell or other roll your own approaches
    • See Push content type to hub
  • Import using SKOS format

Who needs a Syntex license?

At £3.40/$5 per user per month for the Syntex add-on, understanding exactly who in the organization requires a Syntex license becomes critical. The SharePoint Syntex FAQ states the following, though the highlighting is mine:

Anyone using, consuming, or otherwise benefiting from SharePoint Syntex capabilities requires a license. This includes the following scenarios:

  • Access a Content Center
  • Create a document understanding model in a Content Center
  • Upload content to a library where a document understanding model is associated (whether in a Content Center or elsewhere)
  • Manually execute a document understanding model
  • View a library where a document understanding model is associated
  • Create a form processing model via the entry point in a SharePoint library
  • Upload content to a library where a form processing model is associated

In summary the licensing requirements are certainly pervasive - even viewing a SharePoint library where a Syntex model is used requires a license. 


An organization's ability to automate processes around documents, improve findability and extract important corporate knowledge from files will be important factors in agility and effectiveness over the next few years. You can find the AI that supports this in a few different places in the Microsoft stack (and the wider cloud market), but Syntex is the easy-to-consume technology that brings this directly to where your documents are in Office 365 - SharePoint and Teams. With a little experimentation and persistence, a non-technical business user can build powerful automations and effective search tools. 

Syntex licensing means that it's likely to be used in specific use cases - perhaps for your organization it could be something around CVs/resumes, RFPs, project documents, invoices, order forms or partner details - but you may not feel it's appropriate to license every user in your organisation, at least not until the value provided is clear.  

Making the right decisions between the two Syntex approaches of document understanding and form processing is vital and this can be a confusing area. Some of the major differences include what the AI models are capable of, how easy they are to use in different places, supported file types and licensing. Hopefully this article is useful in helping you navigate this.

Sunday, 31 January 2021

Slide deck and videos - Building AI into Power Platform solutions

This is a quick post to publish some resources I created recently covering considerations for using AI in the Power Platform. They are from a talk I gave at ESPC 2020 (the European SharePoint, Microsoft 365 and Azure Conference).

For many people getting into building Power Apps and Power Automate solutions, the obvious first choice is the "AI Builder" capability which comes as part of the platform, but as I've discussed elsewhere there are certainly options beyond that - each with different costs and capabilities. 

Topics covered include:

  • What you can expect to pay for AI
  • Different implementation approaches, specifically:
    • Power Apps AI Builder
    • Use of Azure Cognitive Services from code
    • Use of Azure Cognitive Services in a Flow (Power Automate)
  • A real world scenario - building an Incident Reporting Power App which uses AI to alert a human when a serious incident is detected
One area of focus is how Microsoft 365 technologies can easily be strung together to create high value solutions with minimal effort. The slide below depicts how Power Apps, SharePoint, Power Automate, Azure Cognitive Services and Teams each play their part in my demo scenario:

We can expand on how each technology is used as follows:

The slide deck hopefully has a few more useful slides too - it can be browsed or downloaded below.

Slide deck - Building AI into Power Platform solutions:

Demo videos

Demo 1In this video we take a part-built app and integrate with Power Automate to take the photo captured from the user's phone and store it in Microsoft 365/SharePoint:

Demo 2In this video we add AI to the application by integrating image recognition from Azure Cognitive Services. We do this using Power Automate in Microsoft 365, with no code required:

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Trends and predictions - I.T. project priorities for 2021

The holiday season and start of a new year is always a good time to pause, collect thoughts and reflect on what the upcoming 12 months are likely to bring. As usual for this time of year, there's no shortage of crystal ball-gazing and there are many forecasts and prediction lists from industry watchers and analysts. However, for our work at Content+Cloud I find that some specific thinking around the components of Microsoft 365, modern workplace, security and existing in the Microsoft partner ecosystem is helpful. Whilst these aren't our only service lines by any means, a significant slice of our projects revolve around these strands - and so my list has a sprinkling of these Microsoft-specifics mixed with my general expectations for the types of organisation we work with.

A backdrop of accelerated digital transformation

Before we get to my 2021-specific list, it goes without saying of course that the general theme of accelerated digital transformation will persist and the staple projects this brings in the Microsoft space will continue. Generalised examples for us include:

  • Adoption of Microsoft 365, including SharePoint and Teams migration projects, implementation of Teams Voice etc.
  • Public cloud adoption (Azure) - either led by datacenter migrations, Windows/SQL end of life, app modernisation or greenfield development
  • Desktop refresh/Managed Desktop implementation 
  • Digital Workplace implementation
  • Cybersecurity projects
  • Cloud operating model and service design

Given that many organisations are still on the cloud modernisation journey and the more mature see digital transformation as an ongoing process rather than an individual programme or project, all these are relative constants for our era that provide a bedrock of work to address. But moving beyond this segment, let's think about what might be more distinct for this year. 

Predictions and project types for 2021

  • Zero trust and information governance projects - representing continued security prioritisation, especially implementation of technologies which support zero trust (e.g. device and identity management), policy implementation, data classification and governance (especially around external sharing), security awareness training, phishing simulation, dark web monitoring and standards accreditation.
  • "Productivity governance" projects - for organisations invested in Microsoft 365 the need for need more robust Teams, SharePoint and Power Platform controls and policies will become commonplace. Organisations failing to address this will suffer from risk and complexity from the unmanaged proliferation of workspaces and apps and the lack of a coherent experience.
  • Teams apps and solutions growth - a move towards Teams becoming the "OS for business" with organisations having an increased appetite for bringing more of their tools inside Teams. Companies will reassess their posture for Teams store apps, custom apps and integrations - driven by user demand for enhanced meeting solutions, project and sales solutions, HR and team processes, remote collaboration apps and integrated calling (i.e. Teams Voice). New custom applications will be surfaced in Teams in many cases.
  • Hybrid working excellence - indeed, some companies will adopt a "remote first" approach when considering their tools and experiences. In both cases, focal points will include:
    • Digital Workplace - this will be a priority for companies who have not yet addressed their gaps, and ready-to-go solutions truly integrated with Microsoft 365 (like our Fresh product) will provide the best overall outcomes
    • Remote collaboration - co-authoring of whiteboards, mind maps, process flows etc. Notably, Microsoft need to evolve their Whiteboard offering to compete with Miro, Lucidchart/Lucidspark, XMind, and others here.
    • Employee experience - in particular employee onboarding, communications and engagement, knowledge sharing and communities of practice.

      For most this will be Digital Workplace-oriented (see above). However, others with specific needs may look to improve their communications ability in different ways (e.g. the rise of the "employee app" for retail and field-based organisations or those with a contingent workforce). 

      For others, the focus may be on modernisation of project or CRM tools.

    • A push on "working out loud" culture - regular narration of work on an internal social tool such as Yammer, publishing team news regularly (especially short form), early sharing of plans and work, lunch and learn sessions etc.
    • Virtual events and training - building the muscle and technology support for virtual town hall or leadership connection events (internally-facing) and webinars and mini-conferences (externally-facing). Teams Live Events may be the default for most organisations invested in Microsoft 365, but Microsoft will need to continue to innovate here too.
  • Return to office execution - for many organisation this starts with dusting off their plans delayed by later lockdowns, with the implications of the vaccination schedule providing a new lens. The threat of future legal challenges (perhaps from employees suffering long-term Covid health issues), in addition to internal optics, drives the need to prove that the employer duty of care was properly discharged. This means increased record keeping and proper implementation of social distancing - with desk/room/shared space booking apps, health declarations and Covid test result tracking coming to the fore. 
  • Process improvement and automation - deeper automation of customer and supplier operations, finance and HR processes, JML (joiners/movers/leavers). Expect to see integration of digital signatures and AI into more processes, and the auto-generation of Office and PDF documents (contracts, invoices and the like) to become more commonplace.

Other trends of note

In broad terms, we'll also see other impacts from movements such as the democratisation of AI and automation, data modernisation and the rise of low code technologies.

Other specific developments mean we can also expect big changes to how documents work in the future. We all use documents yet they have huge limitations (something I discussed recently in Project Cortex - training SharePoint Syntex to read your documents like a human) - however, the near future will bring "dynamic shared content" which can be surfaced and co-authored simultaneously in a document, e-mail message, Teams chat message and/or SharePoint page. This will be powered by Microsoft's Fluid Framework and will underpin a new generation of collaboration experiences from both Microsoft and 3rd party developers.

I believe other trends will also emerge, such as increased adoption of "portable huddle" technology - a BYOD approach to meeting room tech for equipping a shared space which is NOT a city-based corporate office or high-end working hub. This will support in-person local group collaboration in less formal locations for workshops, kick-offs, team meetings and so on, whilst providing a good audio visual experience and allowing integration with Teams and collaboration tools. 


These initiatives and project types represent a focusing of the lens for ambitious organisations looking to optimise organisational effectiveness in 2021. Aside from my list above and other emerging trends, other themes such as cost reduction are certainly not going to go away - projects around asset management and cloud governance/cost optimisation in particular will persist. 

2021 will be a fascinating year for I.T. as we emerge from a tumultuous period - but transformation opportunities abound for those able to seize them! 

P.S. If you think I missed something big in the Microsoft space or my views don't chime with yours, let's discuss on Twitter or LinkedIn