Tuesday 20 February 2024

Getting started with plugin development for Copilot for Microsoft 365

In my last post we looked at the return on investment for Copilot for Microsoft 365, specifically in terms of time savings required for the $30/£24.70 per user per month licensing investment to make sense. In this post I want to turn attention to extending Copilot and getting started in the world of Copilot plugins. Copilot for Microsoft 365 can become even more powerful when integrated with other company systems - I created the slide below recently for a deck I was working on, and the four areas provide ideas on where the value might be and potential scenarios:

However, at the current time (February 2024) getting started with plugin development is a bit gnarly - there's lots of documentation to read and there are some interesting practicalities to consider. I’ve spent some time on this, and the sections below give a quick summary of initial findings which may be helpful for anyone else going down this path.

Tenants and licensing

Much of the initial complexity falls into this bucket. Things to know include:

  • Copilot plugin development needs production Copilot licenses, there’s no way around this. This may mean developing in your production tenant (if you are a licensed user) or buying extra Copilot licenses for other tenants
  • Microsoft 365 Developer tenants cannot be used for plugin development 
  • If you’re on the Microsoft 365 Developer TAP (we are at Advania), these tenants can be used but you still need to buy Copilot licenses in that tenant
  • In addition to the core Copilot license, the user also needs to be assigned a "Microsoft Copilot for Microsoft 365 developer license"
  • Copilot for Microsoft 365 licenses effectively grant “Copilot Studio use rights” – importantly, this allows you to create and run M365 Copilot plugins only, not to run standalone Copilots (see note in the blue box below) 
  • Since plugin development is still in preview, production tenants need to be enabled for it via a special helpdesk ticket - there's special wording to use, indicating this is somewhat hand-cranked in the backend for now (see the Copilot extensibility prerequisites article linked at the end for the exact words to use) 

Developing standalone Copilots (not plugins)
Coming the other way round from the plugin focus of this article, the other primary use of Copilot Studio is to develop standalone Copilots using a low-code approach. Examples could be a HR chatbot providing answers on policies and internal benefits and hosted in Teams or a SharePoint intranet page, or a customer service chatbot on an external website providing answers from a knowledge base of uploaded documents. In these cases, you don't need a Copilot for Microsoft 365 license but you will instead be paying the $200/£165 per month run cost, which gets you 25k messages across all such Copilots (with additional capacity charged extra). There's a bit of nuance in what constitutes a message - a typical interaction counts as one message but invoking gen AI counts as two - but in short you are calculating based on expected usage.

The image at the bottom of this article more directly compares the two flavours.

Building Copilot plugins using the Power Platform (low-code)

The prospect of using low-code for plugin development is very appealing. In this space, note the following:   

  • Power Platform connectors can be turned into Copilot plugins by converting them to be a “Connector AI plugin” – whether custom or pre-built connectors (e.g. ServiceNow, Zendesk etc.) 
  • However, today connectors need to be certified – meaning custom connectors cannot easily be used for plugins, since certification is a complex process for major ISVs (i.e. not internal teams or partners simply trying to create solutions for a single organisation)  
  • Additionally, only read-only actions are supported for now 
  • Other Power Platform approaches are possible – using Power Automate Flows, the new AI prompts capability etc. in Copilot plugins. However, again this does not seem to be possible at the time of writing unfortunately 

Building Copilot plugins using Teams message extensions (pro-code) 

The alternative architecture for Copilot for Microsoft 365 plugins is based on Teams development, specifically Teams message extensions. This makes sense, and before the dawn of GPT we've used this approach at Advania UK to build other conversational bots in Teams. Some details to be aware of here:

  • The advantage of Teams message extensions is that plugins with more advanced UI can be used (e.g. adaptive cards in AI responses)
  • Conceivably, the solution you build as Copilot plugin could also be a regular Teams message extension in Teams chat and be surfaced in Outlook - enabling you to provide your experience in different ways within Microsoft 365
  • Teams message extensions are the right approach if you're working at scale (with large volumes of data or user load) 
  • Permissions - if you are developing your plugin using Teams message extensions, you’ll need the ability to side-load apps into the tenant
So that summarises some of the initial considerations in getting started with plugin development. It's also worth noting that Microsoft are pushing to create an entire ecosystem around plugins with marketplace approaches, meaning plugins can be sourced from internal developers, partners, specialist vendors and so on.

Also remember, Copilot extensibility is not just about plugins
All of the options and considerations above relate to plugin development, but this sits alongside the alternate path of bringing data into Copilot for Microsoft 365 using Graph Connectors. In that approach, the data you integrate is indexed (stored in the semantic index which sits behind Copilot) rather than simply being available via a read/write call-out of some kind. Graph Connectors bring other advantages such as making the data available in Microsoft 365 search, Viva Topics, Context IQ and even being used for content recommendations in Microsoft 365, but if you're working with data at scale you'll to purchase additional Graph Connectors index quota (you get 500 items for free per E5 or Copilot license). Microsoft's article Choose your extensibility path expands on these considerations.

Zooming out from plugin development in a different way, it's worth considering Copilot Studio as a whole since it's not just about Copilot for M365 plugins.

Copilot Studio - varying audiences, varying outputs

Copilot Studio can be slightly confusing in the Microsoft AI space because it's used to create different solutions and experiences - essentially including Copilot for Microsoft 365 plugins and standalone Copilots built with low-code. Many people recognise it as "what used to be Power Virtual Agents", but between licensing variations and what can be created there's a bit more to it than that. I posted the following on LinkedIn which summarises the two major usages of Copilot Studio:

That hopefully gives a sense of things from a Copilot Studio lens. Some of this is made clear from this table in the Power Platform licensing guide - see the image below, and note specifically that the output formats and available channels are different between the two paths, and that Copilot plugins using Power Platform approaches can use Standard, Premium and Custom connectors:

Summary

Extending Copilot for Microsoft 365 with plugins can be a great way to derive additional value by integrating systems, and opens the door to the possiblilty of Copilot becoming a universal interface for all of the apps and platforms an employee works with. The next few years could see significant changes to the employee experience in this regard, at least for organisations making the investment in Copilot for Microsoft 365. Other forms of Copilot can also be created - standalone Copilots (as Microsoft refer to them) are often focused on a particular business domain or use case, and can reach a broader audience because they surface in different places and don't rely on Copilot for Microsoft 365 licenses. Both experiences are created by makers/developers in Copilot Studio, but there are licensing and reach differences - and today, some things aren't quite in place (early 2024) because we're still in a preview phase for plugin development. No doubt the path will get smoothed out as we go through 2024.

References


Thursday 18 January 2024

Copilot for Microsoft 365 - the surprising truth about time savings and ROI

Now that Copilot for Microsoft 365 can be purchased by anyone (with no minimum license count), organisations are starting to think about it more seriously as they form AI strategies and budgets. Looking across Microsoft's family of Copilots, some are free, some are licensed, some are general, and some are targeted as specific personas - but most would agree it's Copilot for Microsoft 365 which stands as the principal Copilot for workplace use. We could be moving from an era where countless hours go into creating and consuming information in very manual ways to a new era where generative AI is doing more of the work - to write that report, create that presentation, or write the words to respond to that e-mail. Those are creation examples, but when AI can summarise, identify key points, generate follow-up actions, and even identify areas of accord and discord, so many of the consumption-based subtasks we do also become more optimised and accelerated too. With the most expensive price tag, Copilot for Microsoft 365 is also the one where the decision-making for the investment is most complex.

Something I spoke about in a recent talk (at the European SharePoint, Microsoft 365 and Azure Conference) that some people latched onto is how surprising the numbers are in terms of time-savings needed for Copilot to pay for itself. The license is a significant investment of course at $30 or £24.70 per user per month with a 12 month commitment - whichever way you slice it, that's an expensive proposition given that the list price of E3, the entire productivity suite for enterprise users, is $36 or £33.10 per user per month. When seen as a "AI bolt-on" the cost of Copilot is indisputably high, and perhaps unsurprisingly when Microsoft announced pricing the common response seemed to be "far too expensive, it doesn't make if it costs nearly as much as the entire suite". There are lots of ways to look at this, but despite the similarities (both Microsoft offerings, both related to productivity, both additive to each other) a direct comparison of one vs. the other actually doesn't make too much sense to me personally - the propositions and value provided are so different. 

Principles for a Copilot value case

Before we look at the numbers, let's agree on three things:

  • The value case for Copilot for Microsoft 365 shouldn't hinge on time savings and an easily-modelled financial equation alone - there are other benefits which are less easily quantified which constitute value. Every organisation will need to form their view on this, but I list examples later in the article.
  • Time savings have to result in genuine gains - whether it's five minutes or five hours, most organisations will take the view that any time saved needs to translate into real value. In other words, there's no ROI if the organisation doesn't benefit from the additional time, perhaps because the time benefit goes exclusively to the employee instead or it simply doesn't go on productive work
  • Basing the model on known or anticipated use cases doesn't work - you can try to predict use cases ahead of time, but the reality for both Copilot and generative AI on the whole is that the business will find benefit in unpredicted ways. Better to pilot the technology in some way and see what happens

A simple ROI model

The calculator below models the break-even point for Copilot for Microsoft, based on time-savings alone, for three different salaries. I'll go into details below but it uses UK parameters for employer tax and so on to arrive at the "true" total cost of an employee per day, but the currency used is Euros since that's where most of my readers are.

The real point of course, is that it doesn't take five hours or even two hours per month saved for Copilot to pay for itself. So long as we can stand behind them, the time savings required are quite minimal:

As the salary increases even less time needs to be saved of course - but even on the lowest salary we're talking only 36 minutes per month. This is the surprise to many people.

Some detail on the calculation:
  • The calculator uses UK parameters, in fact the true cost per day of an employee in our company (Advania UK). This means the current employer tax rate (National Insurance in the UK) and a 4% pension contribution, but excluding other aspects sometimes modelled such as an allocation for office space etc. 
    • I haven't looked, but I suspect these percentages won't vary wildly across countries enough to skew the overall model dramatically
  • Although the tax parameters used etc. are UK, the currency used is Euros to reflect my readership
  • The Excel is linked below if you want to download and amend

If using or pointing people to a web page works better for you, Dan Toft has taken this and created a great online calculator which also allows you to edit the parameters - ROI Calculator (dan-toft.dk).  You'll need to be able to calculate the total cost from a base salary yourself (i.e. calculations for employer taxes and pensions aren't built in), but it depends what you need. Excellent work Dan.
 

The wider value case for Copilot for Microsoft 365

I mentioned earlier that measuring the ROI for Copilot based on time savings alone is only part of the picture, that it's not just about productivity gains and time efficiencies. I used this slide in my talk to expand the discussion to some of the wider benefits:

There's obviously quite a lot wrapped up into those four bullet points and they're not quantitative benefits you would model into a licensing business case, but the positive impact on the employee experience and output needs to be considered somewhere. I feel there's a reduction in cognitive load, and switching between different contexts and tasks becomes easier and less painful. When creating content, regardless of how good you are as a writer your output can be improved - Copilot will often bring in a point you hadn't considered or simply articulate the message better than you would. That's not to say that Copilot outputs are always ready to go or it's able to do the work for you - that would be lovely, but more often than I iterate with further prompts and/or add/edit/delete to what Copilot has created. Nevertheless, I'm faster on quite a few tasks and Copilot's ability to research and bring in facts or approaches others have used helps on the quality front.

As referenced in the last bullet, one area Copilot is particularly helpful in is comms and e-mail. There's drafting e-mails of course, and being able to ask for a summary of my inbox in the last week and pull out any actions I need to take is extremely powerful - even if I scan through the mails myself too, I'll spend less time doing so. Using the "Summary by Copilot" feature to summarise the main points of a long individual e-mail or thread works very well too - picking up context and making a judgement at speed on any action/response makes moving through your inbox simpler and quicker. Finally, the "Coaching by Copilot" capability in Outlook is surprisingly useful too - there's an initial novelty of having your communications and tone judged at first but we all write mails at speed often without considering enough quite how it might read on the other side, and it has enabled me to catch a couple of sub-optimal communications. I'm a senior leader in our company, and perhaps Copilot is right to catch me on phrases such as (real example here) "it seems bonkers to me that...." and suggest some wording that might be more appropriate! You can take it or leave it depending on the context (and there's an argument that some authenticity often comes from our from-the-hip communications), but having things pointed out at least prompts the reflection and supports the choice.

All in all, there are lots of benefits beyond the hard numbers. It's also an interesting thought that as employees increasingly expect a high-fidelity employee experience and toolset that allows them to give their best, Copilot for Microsoft 365 does make a clear statement on that and perhaps becomes a differentiating factor between organisations and teams battling for talent.

License strategies for Copilot for Microsoft 365

So, do you license everyone or just a subset? Start big or with a small, focused pilot? No single answers on this of course, and it's going to be fascinating to watch how the Copilot era unfolds and how organisations approach the investment and benefits realisation. I won't share all the guidance we're giving to clients, but starting with a pilot covering different user types and personas makes sense for any significant investment in new technology like this - and that's how most 1000+ seat organisations I've spoken to are starting. With regards to coverage, clearly the investment required for Copilot is dramatically different if licensing 10-20% of the business compared to 100% - and this differential obviously scales to big numbers for the largest organisations. To license all users at list price for 30,000 employees would cost over £10m, and no less than £33.6m for 100,000 employees. No doubt those are hypothetical scenarios since such a deal would be heavily negotiated as part of an Enterprise Agreement (and/or perhaps in exchange for a high-profile case study - look out for those soon), but it is illuminating to consider the difference between licensing some and licensing all.

My feeling is that most orgs will structure the case based on licensing a subset of users according to persona/role and the value conferred. This makes sense because no-one would argue that all roles will benefit from Copilot and gen AI to the same extent, and licensing users who simply aren't adopting the tool heavily doesn't make sense either. 

Along with the information governance/data security piece (something we've spent a lot of time on developing services for), the different aspects of licensing mean that there can be a few steps on the Copilot for Microsoft 365 journey for most companies who are buying in. Hopefully this post on some of the economics has been useful though.

Thursday 4 January 2024

Speaking about Copilot for Microsoft 365 – IntraTeam webinar, January 11 2024

Copilot for Microsoft 365 presents a huge opportunity to transform work and unlock productivity. If you're interested in the world of AI, Copilots, and Copilot for Microsoft 365 specifically, I'll be delivering a webinar on the topic as part of an event run by IntraTeam on January 11 - the event is free and hosted over Microsoft Teams, but note that it's for practitioners working with Microsoft 365 in global companies only I'm afraid - if you're a consultant, vendor, student etc. then apologies, but IntraTeam need to keep a more focused audience for this event. Hopefully anyone interested will be able to find me at other events through the year though - it's great to finally be talking about Copilot for M365, and I had great feedback from a similar talk at the recent European SharePoint, Microsoft 365 and Azure Conference - so, I'm looking forward to sharing what I know, hearing the perspectives of others, and no doubt learning a lot from the conversations myself.

2024 is going to be a pivotal year for Microsoft's Copilot offerings, and in the entire landscape I'd argue it's Copilot for Microsoft 365 which is the most prominent and relevant for many organisations. At Advania, we've been on the Copilot Early Access Program and have learnt a lot from early hands-on use, and in this period we’ve also spent a lot of time developing our views, approaches, and tools on the best way to prepare for Copilot. Data security and information governance comes into focus for sure, and while there’s a lot of generic/high-level guidance out there (both from Microsoft and partners), we’re feeling good about the ground we’ve covered and guidance we’re able to give. Additionally, we’ve learnt a lot from being immersed in "custom Copilot" build projects which implement generative AI for our clients. The headline is that there's certainly a space for both, and the AI strategy for many organisations will combine multiple tools.

This webinar will focus on Copilot for Microsoft 365 however. Here’s the agenda for my 1 hour session:

Copilot for Microsoft 365 – What to know

  • Copilots everywhere - Microsoft AI for every role
  • Digging into Copilot for Microsoft 365:
    • Real-world scenarios and demos with our data
    • Advanced usages and prompts
    • Is it worth it? Copilot economics, ROI, and value case
    • Copilot readiness - licensing, security, and information governance
    • Extending Copilot - integrations and plugins
  • Where does Copilot for SharePoint fit? Simplifying content authoring and intranet management
  • Summary and the path forward

I look forward to sharing some information, demos, thoughts, and lessons learnt from our experience so far. If you’re interested in the topic, the session runs at 10:20 CET on January 11 and here’s the registration link:

Copilot for Microsoft 365 – What to know - IntraTeam.com

 

Content snippet

There's lots to talk about! Here are a couple of snippets of things I'll show and discuss:




Join us if you can!