Microsoft Cortex paves the way for AI-enabled knowledge management

If ever there was a reason to swap legacy legal document management systems for mainstream Microsoft 365-based matter management, this is it.

The potential for artificial intelligence, and machine learning in particular, to transform enterprise content management has been clearly identified. And no sector stands to gain more from this capability than the professional services world, which is so closely bound with hefty and complex documentation. So it was amid great anticipation that we welcomed the recent unveiling of Microsoft Cortex.

Project Cortex is a suite of new Microsoft AI tools, designed to analyse content created across the Microsoft 365 platform, and shared across teams and systems – to form an on-demand ‘knowledge network’ across the enterprise which is organised and updated automatically in connection with common topics. (It also offers the facility to automate processes based on content discovered and extracted from incoming documents, with the potential to save busy knowledge workers a great deal of time scouring files for the critical information they contain – something I’ll cover in my next blog.)

AI for all

For the professional services world, and for legal teams in particular, the arrival of Cortex is potentially transformational. Up to now, AI-based tools for legal teams have tended to be expensive, niche products designed for specific tasks such as automated contract assembly or document content analysis. But now that Microsoft is championing AI-based content services, richer and more diverse capabilities will come with reach of entire enterprises, potentially spanning multiple use cases -including all kinds of legal applications. And it’s these legal uses cases that Repstor will be homing in on and making easy and intuitive for busy professionals.

So what can we expect in the way of improved knowledge management?

With Cortex, any client or matter-related content or information created or passing across the Microsoft 365 platform will be able to have AI techniques applied to it – so that it can be identified, categorised and discovered more readily, via smart automation.

This isn’t just about content itself, but about the wider picture – for example identifying the relevant people working on a particular client matter, the experts in a particular field, and/or the key documents linked to a given topic.

Powered by the Cortex AI tools suite, Microsoft 365 will be able to distil themes and key attributes from email, documents and teams activity to determine distinct topics and important materials and information linked to them, drawing all of this together so that it can be found instantly. Better still, teams will be able to guide Cortex in its learning so that it becomes more accurate at determining what’s important, or the topics to which materials and experts are linked.

Exponential efficiency gains

For legal teams under pressure to be more productive and contribute more directly to the business, Microsoft’s new smart knowledge management capabilities will save substantial time spent looking up related email threads; previous matters or contracts; or legal experts involved in similar or adjacent cases.

Although Microsoft may not have specific credentials in legal content management, this is where Repstor comes in – bringing the best of proven, mainstream, Microsoft IT to the intricacies of legal matter management. Put another way, we enable legal teams to benefit from the billions upon billions of dollars that Microsoft has invested in the latest, smartest and most secure content management, collaboration and business productivity software.

Content technology analysts such as Gartner are hailing Microsoft as a visionary leader in the field. It is no coincidence that Microsoft has invested billions and achieved industry leading set of patents on AI.   Repstor has fairly exclusive access to ongoing plans for the platform too, as an official Microsoft content services partner. This, coupled with our deep legal sector expertise, positions us perfectly to bring AI to bear where it really matters. So watch this space.


Accounting 2020: accelerated digital disruption gives way to new national growth opportunity

Digital disruption in accounting: it started with cloud-based accounting software; received a boost from government digital tax initiatives; then COVID-19 came along to compound the imperative – for accounting firms to become more digitally advanced in their operations. This, in turn, is going to pave the way for huge, irreversible change for the industry – something firms need to be ready for, while it still presents an opportunity for them to differentiate their services in new ways.

Accountancy Age has been charting the acceleration of digital transformation across the sector since the arrival of COVID-19, noting the growing sense of urgency for firms to update their capabilities.

This is not just because clients expect it, or even that the current climate demands it. The wide-scale acceptance of digital ways of working also presents an opportunity for accounting professionals to think about what they do in new and innovative ways.

A new era for accounting

Post lockdown, accounting firms and their clients have realised that remote collaboration works perfectly well and saves everyone a lot of valuable time. This realisation, coupled with now-widespread familiarity with Zoom and Microsoft Teams, has set new expectations about how accounting work should be managed in future.

For clients, it is a relief not to have to keep track of paperwork as digital records become the norm. When they can submit documents online at their own convenience, knowing the details can be retrieved and reviewed at any point (via a client portal, for instance), there is new efficiency and peace of mind. No one likes meetings, especially if they are paying for the time involved.

For accounting firms, advanced document and process digitisation makes it possible to improve margins, as professionals are able to recoup time previously spent attending client meetings or chasing paperwork.

Moreover – and this is the exciting part – they can start to think about growing the business geographically.

Location no longer matters

In a post-COVID world there is no reason why a small firm in Leeds couldn’t go after business in Hertfordshire. If everything can be done very efficiently at a distance, location ceases to matter.

But this is where firms need to be clever. As physical boundaries dissolve, competition between service providers will soar – and it will fall to each firm to find new ways to differentiate its services. At one end, this is likely to include driving costs down through new process efficiency, enabled via automation and client self-service (eg letting clients upload their own documents or retrieve their own records). At the other, opportunities will be linked to smarter analytics and new value-added services.

It’s why we’re seeing such a surge of interest in Microsoft 365 as a default platform for organising and running accounting operations.

Invest where the innovation is

Microsoft 365’s core functions and means of navigation are already familiar, comfortable and used every day by almost everyone – including clients. So, rather than spend a fortune on special software to support digital reinvention, accounting firms can simply meet clients where they already are.

There’s so much more to Microsoft 365 these days, too – and Microsoft is enhancing and adding to the platform all the time, with the very latest technology. Beyond Outlook, SharePoint and Teams, tools like Cortex, PowerBI and Power Automate make it possible to streamline and optimise workloads. For an accounting team, the ability to rapidly retrieve the details of any clients advised on previous HMRC updates could allow professionals to proactively target these accounts next time there’s an update to tax requirements, for instance.

Repstor can provide direct integration with existing business systems, providing vital links with existing document and information sources, so these are readily discoverable from within Microsoft 365 applications. By helping professional services firm move from costly, bespoke or ‘best-of-breed’ solutions to this powerful, extensible and commonplace platform, we help them take advantage of the billions of R&D dollars MS has invested in it – to transform the way they work, compete and win.


The big clear-out: content platform consolidation will be a legacy of COVID-19

As I’ve noted previously, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the urgency around digital transformation. Many professional services firms aren’t simply reviewing their IT now. They are talking purposefully about ripping out the legacy of bespoke and stovepipe content management systems in favour of a simplified, consolidated platform strategy.

No half measures

We hear it in almost every client interaction today – with small legal teams, mid-sized accounting practices and Big-4 consulting firms. All accept that ways of working will never be the same again. Microsoft Teams has become so intrinsic to everyday practice that managers never want to revert to former means of collaboration. If ever there was a time to go ‘all in’ with Microsoft 365, it is now.

One of our newest customers expects to save more than 50 per cent of its IT costs by consolidating all of its activities on MS 365. As well as reducing costs and simplifying its IT estate, bringing all users onto the same platform accessible from anywhere, defaulting to MS 365 will pave the way to all sorts of new state-of-the-art content management capabilities and features as these become available.

The rise & rise of Microsoft 365

The uptick in more widespread use of the Microsoft platform is palpable. By mid-June, MS Teams use was up 894 per cent on mid-February – further boosting take-up of MS 365 which had already recorded 58 million additional seats in the six months to March.

Crucially, Microsoft no longer positions MS 365 as an ‘office suite’, but as a cloud-based platform underpinning an extensive suite of integrated applications – as well as smart business/process analytics, and continuous access to cutting-edge innovation.

All of this has huge appeal in the professional services sector, where we know from direct conversations across the spectrum, from the big 4 right through to medium and smaller professional services firms (and also legal firms) are busy rethinking their operations.

Take Microsoft Cortex, which will pave the way to automated knowledge management and instant information discovery across entire global organisations. For an advisory firm, this could help teams call up examples of relevant previous project delivery, and leverage successful work in future engagements – accelerating outcomes, improving the client experience, and boosting margins.

As more firms consolidate their content management on MS 365, Repstor provides an essential bridge – enabling tight integration and intuitive content management exchange with core business systems.

We can also help distil greater insights about working practices, as organisations explore scope to be more efficient – by being smarter in their resourcing, or by digitising and automating more processes.

Reinforcing business continuity post COVID: lessons professional services firms have learnt

There is nothing like a global pandemic to test organisations’ business continuity plans, and when whole countries locked down almost overnight earlier this year, it exposed the gaps in their provisions – something I touched on in my last blog.

How well-equipped were staff to work from home, in reality? How easy was it for them to access the latest client and engagement/project/matter information, collaborate and maintain productivity, when whole teams were dispersed suddenly?

While some were quick to improvise, many professional services firms were caught on the hop. Not all staff had laptops; nor secure access to files stored at the office. Many had to resort to workarounds to pass files back and forth in order to progress client work. All the while, IT departments and information compliance teams have had the huge headache of how they might bring everything back together if and when ‘normal practice’ resumes.

As that process begins – as businesses continue to reopen, and managers map out a post-pandemic workplace (which supports social distancing, and caters for those team members with underlying health conditions/who may be shielding vulnerable people at home) – firms are looking with a new sense of purpose at where their business continuity provisions fell short and how to plug any gaps.

Speed matters

BUT this is not a time to map out ambitious IT projects with two-year timeframes. As the COVID lockdown highlighted, successful adaptation is about speed – and Repstor, harnessing the familiar MS 365 tools people already use every day, is perfectly geared up to facilitate this.

When Kari Vislosky, Canada’s VP of People Solutions at Baker Tilly, recently reflected on the rapid transition towards remote work during lockdown, she described it as an exercise in ‘getting the job done’ – in contrast to the usual process of assessing all the options from every angle. In the light of COVID, she notes, the firm will be reviewing its relationships with technology.

Baker Tilley is far from alone in this, something we’ll  come onto in our next article – a reflection on the accelerated digital transformation and platform consolidation efforts the pandemic has inspired.

Re-imagining professional services post COVID: from continued remote working to the rise of the ‘flexible contingent workforce’

The COVID-19 lockdown has been a good test of professional services firms’ ability to work dynamically and productively from anywhere. Whether engaged in accounting, auditing, risk management, tax advisory, business consulting or legal services, teams have had to pull together remotely to deliver what’s needed – efficiently, and confidently. And on the whole, firms have probably managed this better than they expected to – drawing on tools like Microsoft Teams and associated collaboration tools to keep everything coordinated and under control.

But the extreme conditions of the last three months have highlighted some problem areas too, and provided food for thought as firms approach the post-lockdown return to work. As in most other business sectors, the realisation is dawning that the familiar workplace and modes of working of old will not and cannot be reinstated – something McKinsey and others have been mulling over in some detail.

Dynamic team assembly

The big rethink is not just about the physical design of workspaces; it also involves the make-up of teams. Now that professional services firms have proven their ability to maintain service levels over distance, and as the economy languishes in the doldrums, the case for being able to deploy resources flexibly and scale-ably has become stronger and more urgent. The better equipped teams are to collaborate and perform remotely, the more sense it makes to draw on experts as and when needs arise – harnessing third-party and freelance talent to fill specific gaps, while allowing the core business to stay nimble and agile.

KPMG, a long-standing customer of Repstor, has been reflecting a lot on the future for professional services value chain and has arrived at exactly this conclusion. It talks about the growing importance of the ‘flexible contingent workforce’, for enabling new service agility and rapid scalability.

Others have described this as described as a shift to a ’liquid workforce’ with up to 30 per cent of the US workforce already thought to be contingent, ‘on-demand’ workers.

In the wake of COVID-19, given that offices won’t be able to operate at full capacity or support hot-desking as they may done previously, it is anticipated that between 10-30 per cent of the professional services workforce (most typically 20 per cent) will need to be resourced remotely. Many professional services firms have had to furlough people during the lockdown and it’s expected that not all of these professionals will return to work. Yet to fulfil client engagements firms will need the flexibility to plug in external consultants to scale up resources on demand, or fill gaps in expertise.

The shifting priorities of professionals

Professionals themselves have new expectations, too. JLL, a real estate specialist and client of Repstor, confirmed this in a recent poll of its employees – whose results it compared with a similar survey a year earlier. Among 1,300 professionals, some 40 per cent were now looking to move house (versus 20 per cent last year), citing Internet broadband speed and the need for a designated home workspace as chief reasons for upgrading their home. Post-COVID, a large majority of JLL employees said they would prefer to work from home at least 3-4 days a week from now on.

Having experienced an alternative work-life balance over the last three months, a lot of professionals are rethinking their priorities in this way, and their employers will need to accommodate their evolving needs to hang on to valued talent. Especially if any house moves involve professionals relocating away from cities and seeking to renegotiate their terms of work.

Whatever the eventual mix of talent, the immediate practical challenge for professional services firms is how to manage more diverse teams securely, as collaboration extends beyond not just physical boundaries but potentially also beyond organisational firewalls – as contingent workforces are formed. This isn’t just about managing projects and critical documents in secure, traceable and compliant ways. It is also about being able to on-board associates/subcontractors quickly, so they can hit the ground running.

The conversations we’re having with professional services firms today, as we help them to make this more dynamic future a reality, are inspiring. I’ll be sharing more of these insights as well as practical solutions over this new series of blogs.

To join the conversation, and share your latest thinking on the future of the professional services firm, why not comment below or get in touch.

Repstor: Our pedigree in Professional Services

Repstor’s people are experienced experts in optimising Microsoft 365 and MS Teams productivity and information control for professional services firms and legal teams. We are also frequent home workers, so we practise what we preach. Our software is used extensively by two of the Big 4 consultancies, 50% of the top 10 professional services firms, and numerous law practices and corporate legal departments across the UK and beyond.