Microsoft’s ‘Copilot for Finance’ aims to revolutionize the spreadsheet with AI

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Microsoft made waves in the artificial intelligence world today with the announcement of the public preview for Microsoft Copilot for Finance, an AI-powered assistant designed specifically for finance professionals. 

The new AI assistant aims to help finance teams be more efficient by automating tedious data tasks, in addition to helping teams search for the right information in a growing pool of financial data.

“Believe it or not, the most popular ERP system is Excel,” Emily He, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President of Business Applications Marketing, said in an interview with VentureBeat. “The reason we build Copilot for Finance is we get so many requests from customers that want to use Excel to do their ERP tasks. They want to be able to pull data to make all the identification variances much easier.”

“Microsoft is unique, because we own Excel and we can leverage the Excel calculation engine, but also the ERP data to make it easier and more streamlined for finance professionals,” she added

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Built on top of Microsoft’s existing Copilot technology that was released last year, Copilot for Finance can pull data from financial systems and provide suggestions in Microsoft 365 apps like Excel and Outlook. It focuses on three main finance scenarios — audits, collections, and variance analysis. 

Specialized for finance roles

Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President of Business Applications & Platforms Charles Lamanna said that Copilot for Finance represents a shift in how AI assistants are built.

“In the past, Copilot didn’t really understand specific jobs and roles,” Lamanna explained. “Copilot for Sales, Service, and Finance make Copilot start to really understand your job.”

This specialization sets Copilot for Finance apart from Microsoft’s general Copilot assistant released last year. While the original Copilot provides broad productivity recommendations, Copilot for Finance is designed specifically for finance professionals’ needs and designed to work directly within Excel.

For example, it can pull data from financial systems to analyze variances, automate collections workflows, and assist with audits all without the user having to leave the Excel application. While limited to certain scenarios for now, Lamanna hinted that dedicated assistants for other roles may be coming later.

Connects systems in daily workflows

Microsoft’s move into role-based AI represents a strategic play to gain ground over rivals. Copilot for Finance has the potential to help finance professionals at organizations of all sizes accelerate impact and possibly even reduce financial operation costs.

“Customers want access to all of their business data in the apps they use every day,” said Lamanna. “So that’s really what today’s about — how do we enable interoperability between Microsoft 365 and a company’s existing data sources?”

Data privacy and security still a concern

While promising major efficiency gains, AI-driven systems like Copilot also raise potential risks around data privacy, security and compliance. Microsoft stated they have taken steps to mitigate these concerns, like leveraging data access permissions and never directly training models on customer data.

Nonetheless, the stakes are high for Microsoft as Copilot for Finance moves into general availability later this year. Several members of the Copilot for Finance launch team suggested the general availability would be made in the summer, but cautioned that the timeline could change depending on the feedback from the public preview.

With over 100,000 organizations already using Copilot, rapid adoption of this new finance assistant could usher in the next era of AI in the enterprise. But the tech giant will need to ensure data governance measures are bulletproof, while expanding Copilot’s skills, to maintain a competitive edge.

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Michael Nunez