Digital assistants are entering the work place, Microimage unveils Asia- Pacific’s first
Microimage launches the first workplace virtual assistant on Microsoft’s Azure platform in Asia-Pacific
Pandemic’s destruction won’t outweigh its silver linings. However, a transformation in the way people worked has accelerated due to the pandemic. Since technology has made it easier to communicate and collaborate, flexi time and working from home has been creeping into office culture.
However, workers are also overwhelmed as they now have to use different apps for video conferencing, for word processing and spreadsheets, email, ERP and systems like HR. It’s not uncommon that most remote workers have to login to several platforms every day to get work done.
Before the pandemic, tech company Microimage’s founder and Chief Executive Harsha Purasinghe understood that people were challenged by myriad systems at work. Microimage itself deploys one of these systems, MiHCM, which digitizes the human resources function, allowing employees to interact with HR on an app. MiHCM has gained market share in South & South East Asian countries against global competitors including SAP’s Success Factors, Oracle and Workday, since launching MiHCM three years ago.
“People don’t like to log in to too many systems. When they are logged in to, say Office 365, they want to work from within that system rather than go into another application,” says Purasinghe.
Microsoft’s Office 365 is the world’s most widely used cloud-based productivity software for word processing, spreadsheets and email. Since the pandemic hit, Office 365’s messaging and video calling app ‘teams’ is popular for communicating and collaborating. Microimage’s newest product, a virtual workplace assistant, called MiA, runs on top of Microsoft’s Teams software. The rise of virtual assistant software that mimics the skills of a human secretary; creating reminders for appointments, completing simple tasks and tracking productivity, are transforming work and aiding remote work in many parts of the world.
How MiA works is rather similar to Siri on Apple devices or Alexa on Amazon, except instead of speaking instructions users will type these into Teams. MiA is also proactive in engaging users unlike digital assistants from Apple, Google or Amazon. Microsoft’s software’s natural language processing capability understands plain English inputs, like a user asking ‘what’s on the calendar today?’. The MiA chatbot will then display the day’s schedule fetched from the calendar app.
Virtual assistants overcome several challenges workers face. The first is eliminating the need to login to a workplace assistant app as it runs on Microsoft’s Teams. The second advantage is eliminating or reducing the need to log in to other platforms as MiA accesses data from connected systems to help with work. So far Microimage’s own MiHCM platform and several of Microsoft’s systems, like ‘Planner’, have been enabled to work with MiA. “People can focus on what they are good at, which is problem-solving and decision making.
The rest of the tasks can be done with virtual agents like this. For instance, with MiA you don’t need to submit a form applying for leave. Instead, you say ‘I’m taking annual leave Monday to Friday next week’. The system will submit the request to the company’s policy engine for compliance and then submit for approval,” he explains Purasinghe says work to integrate MiA with top tier ERP systems has commenced.
Like it is leading the Asia Pacific region when it launched its digital HR software MiHCM three years ago, the virtual assistant is also a leader. “We are the first virtual assistant in the Asia-Pacific region in the Azure marketplace,” Purasinghe points out.
Underlying the rise of virtual assistants are two trends; that search is becoming more personalised, interactive and is able to connect to closed information systems though APIs and second, there is a gradual shift away from individual apps to an ecosystem of services coordinated by software assistant. With MiA, which is a product independent of the digital HR system, Microimage is targeting these trends.
With the Covid lockdown, Microimage decided to fast track the launch of MiA, which had been trialled in one of Sri Lanka’s largest telcos and several other companies. “They absolutely loved it,” says Purasinghe, “with the feedback we also enhanced the product.”
“Companies were concerned about people’s wellbeing and at the same time they were concerned about whether people were productive. Through these systems, it’s possible to submit timesheets. Sometimes this data can also be automatically captured. MiA then calculates individual and companywide productivity.”
Even before the pandemic, the debate about how mobile, the cloud, data and social media are shaping the future of work was animated, according to Purasinghe. The circumstances of the pandemic have accelerated changes before the debate was settled. However, Purasinghe believes without enabling technology like workplace virtual assistants, these changes will be less sticky.
“The ultimate vision is to build a digital twin for a person, a powerful digital assistant for every worker,” he says. “During a month this won’t cost more than the cost of a coffee. With that, you can empower every worker with a virtual agent to make work productive and engaging.”