Interlink CTO Wilson: AI ‘The Most Impactful Technological Change Of Our Lifetime’

‘How do we evolve beyond where we are? How do we stay relevant with Microsoft? But this is a sea change. And even things that we do today, we are reorienting around AI in the possibility space,’ Interlink CTO Mike Wilson tells CRN.

Even before much of Microsoft’s generative artificial intelligence products become generally available, Mike Wilson and his team at Interlink Cloud Advisors are discussing how to structure content, how to change security and compliance and even how billing as an MSP could change to take full advantage of generative AI.

Wilson, CTO and partner at Mason, Ohio-based Microsoft solution provider Interlink, a member of CRN’s 2023 Managed Service Provider 500, told CRN that even with tools such as Microsoft 365 Copilot not yet generally available, he’s used the AI hype to educate customers on tools such as Viva, Azure OpenAI, Azure Cognitive Services and Power Platform.

“I think this AI moment is going to be the most impactful technological change of our lifetime,” Wilson told CRN. “I really do. … This is a sea change. And even things that we do today we are reorienting around AI in the possibility space.”

[RELATED: Microsoft Partners: This Is Your Copilot Speaking]

On content structuring, Wilson and his team revisited architecture in Microsoft SharePoint. For security and compliance, Wilson will educate customers on how to protect payroll data and other sensitive information employees might turn to generative AI to help find.

“We now have the ability to go through and search much more effectively. And we want people to be able to do that,” he said. “But at the same time, we’ve got to put the boundaries in place so that they’re not using that inappropriately.”

And on MSP billing, Wilson believes executives will have to visit how they bill customers if activities that previously took five hours now take one. MSPs might have an opportunity to employ people for less hours or completely rewrite job descriptions if AI eliminates some of the low-level tasks of IT.

“We’re going to have to navigate those conversations because there is going to be a lot of change as people’s job roles adapt to AI,” he said. “I don’t see it replacing a lot of jobs, but I do think it ultimately changes many of them.”

Here’s what else Wilson had to say to CRN.

Are Interlink customers interested in generative AI yet?

AI is all of a sudden at the center of pretty much every conversation that we’re having with customers both internal and external.

The short-term example is around a meeting that we were having to put together an internal service catalog in SharePoint. And I had one of my SharePoint architects on the phone along with my marketing manager and one of our practice leads. He was the guinea pig for this effort to get it set up.

And it’s not just around how do we go through and put this content in SharePoint? It’s how do we set up and structure the content in a way that we’re going to be able to maximize the usage of the AI tools once Copilot rolls out to our tenant?

As we’re pulling together content for a particular solution that might include a PowerPoint presentation, it probably includes a template scope of work. We probably have an offer in the Microsoft AppSource [marketplace] that we want to link to. We’ve got content on our website. How do we make those things available to Copilot eventually in a structured way? How does it know what an AppSource offer is?

Well, OK, I could just have a link on a page that’s a quick link that goes to it. Or I could go through and store that in a SharePoint list on a link that has a title to a particular column. Or I could go through and actually mark the content itself, essentially, with metadata to go through and enable that.

And so it’s just a microcosm of things that a lot of organizations need to be thinking through as they start to prepare for some of these tools.

How important is generative AI?

I think this AI moment is going to be the most impactful technological change of our lifetime. I really do.

When you look at not just the potential impact of it, but how quickly it’s going to go through and be adopted. … How do we evolve beyond where we are? How do we stay relevant with Microsoft? But this is a sea change. And even things that we do today, we are reorienting around AI in the possibility space.

So take security and compliance. The example that I love using with customers when we talk about AI and the potential for this is, you remember the first time that you saw Delve [released in 2014, three years after Interlink started] on Microsoft 365? And you see all of this content that other people are producing. You see what they’re working on. You can click to the document and go see.

Right now you’re not seeing private content. You’re not seeing stuff that’s in their personal OneDrive. You’re seeing stuff that they’re working on in a public site that you have access to. And for a lot of organizations, it terrified them. Like, I’ve got to go turn that off. People are not allowed to see that.

Now imagine Copilot. And you don’t think that someone on your team, the first thing they’re going to do is go ask Copilot to find payroll data. And if you haven’t taken the time to go secure your content, then you’re going to have the same issue that you had with Delve, just much bigger.

So understanding content structure, understanding content security. We now have the ability to go through and search much more effectively. And we want people to be able to do that. We want them to be able to go through and find existing content and use that to be able to create new stuff faster. We want to do that.

But at the same time, we’ve got to put the boundaries in place so that they’re not using that inappropriately. It’s a similar conversation to what we’re having historically. We always want to talk about information security, information governance, that’s all very relevant stuff. But at the same time, this is only more important in the context of AI.

How did Interlink react to Delve’s release?

That was always part of our standard demo of Microsoft 365 and then how to collaborate on Microsoft 365 and the value of it. Delve was always, I thought, a better alternative to search.

If I was collaborating with somebody on a document and I don’t remember the document name, how am I going to go search for it? Maybe I know the topic, but, especially when I’m working on Microsoft and Office 365, I can’t search on any of that stuff in my environment.

But if I knew who I was working on it with, I could go to Delve and I could see what other documents they were working on. And that was an easy way to get it done. So it’s like taking social and applying it to search.

Even though our bread and butter initially was moving email out to the cloud, we were always digging into that collaboration capability on 365.

How will Copilot conversations compare to the Delve ones you had with customers?

There is so much buzz around AI that people are very interested. They see some of the potential use cases. And they definitely see some of the positive aspects of it.

But I think there’s a lot of things that people aren’t necessarily thinking about when it comes to AI that they’re going to have to wrap their arms around how this is going to impact the business. … As a professional services firm, let’s say I can go through and make somebody on my team 25 percent more productive than they were previously. Very real possibility. Creating a deliverable for a customer should be so much easier than it ever was before.

So something that may have taken me five hours to go through and create that—maybe I can get it done in an hour now for that deliverable. So what do I bill a customer for?

Do I bill an hour? Do I bill five? Do I bill one hour at five times the rate? We’re going to have to navigate through that stuff—both for me as a professional services firm, but I think for a lot of organizations.

If all of the sudden, your employees are more productive, do they work less? Do they work the same? Do they demand more money? How much does the organization give credit for providing the AI tools versus the employee gets for being more productive and using them?

We’re going to have to navigate those conversations because there is going to be a lot of change as people’s job roles adapt to the fact that AI— I don’t see it replacing a lot of jobs, but I do think it ultimately changes many of them.

Has Interlink made any decisions in that area yet?

We’ve batted around some scenarios on that one. Ultimately, it’s probably going to be some level of splitting the difference on that where we end up in between.

In the end, ultimately, you get paid for where you add value. And if we’re the ones adding the value, then obviously that’s meaningful. But it’s not here yet, which is part of the problem.

We’ve done a little bit of playing with ChatGPT—actually a lot of playing with ChatGPT—but we’ve got to be very careful around what data we share because that’s a public tool that ultimately retains the data.

So [I get] a lot more excited when we get to use something like Copilot where I understand that it’s inside of my security and compliance boundaries.

Is Interlink making any sales yet with Copilots?

It’s a challenge that Copilots are available to so few organizations right now. There’s so much demand here. And Microsoft obviously has to scale up compute capacity to go through and have the tool work. So I get it.

There’s tons of buzz. The challenge for us as an organization right now is—probably one of my customers has it. Almost nobody does. And so everybody cares about it. Right? And so for us, we’re focused right now on the readiness conversation, preparing customers for that.

Copilot’s awesome, but there are a lot of other AI technologies that are out there, too, between Azure OpenAI, Azure Cognitive Services, image recognition, that kind of stuff. The forms recognition capabilities that are in the Power Platform. Syntex.

So there are a lot of other AI technologies that exist. So there’s a possibility here when we’re looking at readiness around things like Copilot to also start looking across their business. How do I prepare my security and compliance? How do I prepare my people for the change? How do I monitor the health of them?

So we’re actually seeing a tie into employee experience in [Microsoft] Viva. How do we manage this change as an organization and make sure that our employees see this as a positive thing?

And then how do we start looking across the business? What are the use cases that we can use? And how do we help customers?

We can go through and do that business consulting around—let’s look role by role in your organization, identify AI use cases. And again, Copilot is going to be part of that. But it’s not always going to be. In fact, many times, it’s not going to be.

And then in some organizations that are going to want to be more self-sufficient, how do we help them build internal centers of excellence?

IT needs to change their approach from being providers of infrastructure into being—at least having some of IT—pure consultants to the business.

How do we take this conglomeration of tools that are on Microsoft 365 that now have AI capabilities, how do we take these tools and Azure to ultimately solve business problems?

And AI is going to make that easier for a lot of business users to self-help. But they’re still going to require IT guidance to truly optimize the usage of the tools.

Going role by role with customers, is that new for Interlink?

We’ve always done some element of that, but it was more on a case-by-case basis.

Generally, the customer identified some sort of business challenge that they wanted to go through and solve. And we would consult to understand how to go through and use the tools best to go through and do that—put together an architecture.

And so sometimes it’s SharePoint. And sometimes it’s Power Platform, sometimes it’s other process changes. Things like that. But the difference now is that people are starting to rethink this at scale and that it’s maybe not one or two use cases here and there.

Going back to my point about this being ... the most impactful technological change—the first-movers here are going to have big advantages.

And if you are not going down the AI path, you’re going to get left behind very, very quickly relative to your competitors.

So people now are thinking about this. I’m not worried about one or two people on my team that I can go help. I have got to think about this big picture and how AI is going to impact everybody.

Which roles do you think will not be affected?

People that are working on physical machines, construction, that kind of stuff. I’m not going to change how someone necessarily goes through and builds a building and hammers a nail into a piece of wood.

But it might change the way that I project manage them. It might change the way that I communicate with them. It might change some of the technology that they use to track progress.

Maybe rather than just going through and building it, maybe I put quality control mechanisms in place where I can go through and take pictures of what has been done and I use AI to go through and compare that versus the blueprints.

So there’s interesting things like that that you might see. But the first wave of this is going to be more white collar than anything else—people who are information workers spending time at computers. You’re going to have tasks in accounts and accounts payable and receivables. You’re going to have a lot of things in marketing and sales.

Viva Sales, for example. If I’m a salesperson and I’ve always had the ability to capture information out of my email system and track that against a particular customer inside a CRM, any kind of CRM system.

And I’ve always had opportunities there and I could have it spin up a template for me, but if I could go through and ask Viva Sales to look at the recording of the last meeting that we had and send a follow up email that understood the context of the conversation, that’s amazing.

I’m saving some very significant time versus having to go through and create that from scratch or edit a template that is not as reasonably generic and not specific because it understands the context.

And so you’re seeing use cases like that multiply over and over and over. Anybody who’s creating content, you should never have to start from scratch again. And that’s going to be just a tremendous mindset shift across organizations and across the world, frankly.

Did you have an aha moment for seeing generative AI as ready for prime time?

We’re 100 percent Microsoft. So we don’t have the luxury of having other solutions that we can go through and sell and make money. We make money when we help customers get value out of Microsoft technologies.

And Microsoft partners with us because they know that we are aligned with their goals. But then you have got some of this new stuff. Take Teams Premium, for example. Leverages AI. It’s an awesome new technology. There is not a lot of technical work to go with it. There is just not.

I’m going to turn on Teams Premium. License the users. Maybe you want to create a few meeting policies. A couple of things like that.

But fundamentally, there’s not a lot of technical enablement. There is no services money in that for me if my focus is on technical.

But there is money in helping organizations reimagine how they do meetings—how do we change meeting culture across the organization? You’re going to see with a lot of these AI technologies, there is some technical readiness and things. And I want to go do all of that. That’s good work.

But at the same time, the real value of this comes in how do we help organizations manage this change? How do we help them get their employees to leverage it? How do we implement these AI solutions? But these are all business conversations.

For me, it was seeing the future with Teams Premium and how rapidly some of this stuff is coming around.

We already do a lot of the stuff that we’re talking about here today. But we’re to a large extent pivoting our business in the direction of AI.

Are you open to a price increase or E7 license from Microsoft due to all these new AI capabilities?

I’ve heard rumors about that. I’ve joked about it myself. I don’t need a rumor to think that Microsoft is probably going to have an E7 or some sort of bundle post-E5 that pulls in all of these things.

Microsoft is always going to be looking for places where they can drive incremental revenue with customers. And, frankly, why wouldn’t you consider bundling Copilot and Teams Premium and Intune Suite and Viva and all of these things that they have developed that are above and beyond E5?

We’ll see how this shakes out. But I don’t think it matters at this point unless it’s an opportunity for customers to get more discounting by bundling.