Copilot for Microsoft 365 deep dive: Productivity at a steep price

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The AI age has come upon us more quickly than anyone imagined. In just a year and a half, OpenAI’s generative AI tool ChatGPT and its offspring Microsoft Copilot went from a fad to must-have business tools in which the companies are investing billions.

Now the genAI frontrunner, Microsoft is building Copilot into its full product line. There’s a free version of Copilot in Windows and in the Edge browser. There’s a paid Copilot Pro subscription for individuals. There’s a Copilot for Security, a Copilot for Sales, a Copilot for Finance, and many more.

Several months ago, the company released the most anticipated Copilot of them all, the subscription-based Copilot for Microsoft 365, which integrates AI features into the business versions of Microsoft’s office suite. That signaled the end of the hype phase of genAI. It’s now time to see how much it can help businesses in the real world. The rubber’s finally met the road.

Is Copilot for Microsoft 365 right for your business? Is it right for anyone’s business? To find out, I put it through its paces, testing how well it works (or doesn’t work) in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook, the core Microsoft 365 apps. I also tested its ability to help you get big-picture overviews that combine information from all those apps.

Based on those results, I made recommendations for whether it’s ready for prime time for businesses, and if so, which companies could benefit from it. Read on to see what I found.

In this article:

Copilot in Word

One way or another, many people’s work revolves around drafting text documents — reports, memos, planning documents, marketing materials, budget suggestions…the list is endless. So odds are that a significant amount of time you spend in Microsoft 365 will be in Word.

How much Copilot will help you depends not only on how much time you spend in Word, but also on the complexity of the documents you write and how comfortable you are with writing. Some people — think of them as the lucky few — sit down at the keyboard, and words start flowing in a well-organized way, everything phrased succinctly and to the point, with very little editing or rewriting required, even in complicated documents. For them, Copilot might not be a tremendous time-saver or productivity booster.

But then there’s the rest of the world. Those who stare forlornly at the keyboard when they’ve got to write a memo. Who feel angst when confronted with a deadline for a project proposal or a marketing document. Who live by the saying: “Writing is easy. You just open up a vein and bleed.”

Those are the people for whom Copilot in Word is designed. And while Copilot won’t solve all their problems, it does quite a good job making efficient writers of most people.

Creating document drafts from a description

Copilot’s help starts the moment you want to create a document. Press Alt-I and the Draft with Copilot screen appears. Describe the document you want to create, including an outline or notes if you have them. Copilot goes to work right away and produces a draft for you.

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Don’t expect anything flashy or unique; Copilot won’t wow anyone with its writing style. It’s workaday and often pedestrian. But for many people in many jobs, workaday and pedestrian is fine, as long as all the information is there, the writing is clear, the document is organized well, and there are no obvious grammatical errors. And I found every time — whether drafting a project proposal, marketing document, or sales pitch — Copilot turned out exactly that kind of document.

Making it more useful is that after it generates a draft, it asks if you want to change it in any way — for example, to make it more or less formal or to make it shorter or longer. You can keep iterating it like this until it reads the way you want it.

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After you draft a document using Copilot, it allows you to refine the draft in any way you’d like.

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And keep in mind that the hardest part of writing is often just getting a first draft written; you can add flash and pizazz afterwards if that’s what you want. So even experienced writers can find some use for it, because it can quickly generate initial drafts.

Beware of ‘hallucinations’

Copilot at times will do research on its own about the topic you’ve asked it to write about, and include that information in the draft. That can be both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good when the additional information reflects what you’ve asked it to do. But it can be seriously problematic when it makes up information on its own — especially when that information is incorrect. In my tests, it did that on several occasions.

For example, I asked it to write an email memo to the Director of Data Engineering of an imaginary company I created (Work@Home, which I say sells home office furniture) complaining about data inaccuracies I’ve found. I didn’t provide specific details about what those inaccuracies were.

Copilot, on its own, wrote that I had found “missing values, incorrect labels, inconsistent formats, and duplicate records.” It added in the draft, “I have attached a spreadsheet with some examples of the data errors I have found, along with the sources and dates of the data.”

None of that was true, and I certainly had no spreadsheet that contained the imaginary errors.

I also found that Copilot for Word wrote different drafts for me when I asked the same question on different days. The second time I made the request I detailed in the previous paragraph, it made up far more details than the first, citing nonexistent problems such as “many rows with missing values for important variables such as customer ID, purchase date, and product category… incorrect labels for some variables, such as gender. Some values were labeled as M or F, while others were labeled as Male or Female.”

The draft also complained about outdated information, such as old prices. (Again, none of this existed.) It even added a section with recommendations about how to fix the problems — recommendations that I never made.

The lesson here: You need to very carefully review whatever Copilot creates for you. Copilot, like all generative AI software, is subject to what researchers call “hallucinations” – that is, making up things, and doing what we would call lying if a person did it.

So as always when using genAI tools, it’s important to check Copilot’s output for factual errors, whether you’re using it in Word, PowerPoint, or other apps. Even when it’s creating a draft based on an existing document, it may introduce new material that is incorrect.

I found in my tests that when I included a great deal of detailed information in my request, Copilot tended not to hallucinate like this. So keep that in mind when using it. Asking Copilot to list the sources where it got its information from can also help mitigate hallucinations.

I found another oddity with Copilot for Word. When you create a new document in Word, there are two ways to make a Copilot request: You can click the Copilot icon on the Ribbon or else press Alt-I. When you click the icon, a Copilot pane slides in from the right, and you type in your prompt there. The draft appears in that pane as well. You’ll have to copy and paste it into a Word document manually.

When you press Alt-I, there’s no Copilot pane. Instead, a small “Draft with Copilot” screen appears, and you type your request there. In that instance, the draft is created in the document itself. You’ll be much better off pressing Alt-I, not just because it simplifies your work by creating the document directly in Word.  When do it that way, you can also ask Copilot to use an existing file as a starting point for your draft. (Details about how to do that follow.) You can’t do that using the Copilot right pane.

In addition, I found that when you use Alt-I, you get a more comprehensive draft. Although that’s a good thing, I found that Copilot is much more likely to make up information on its own when using this method to create a draft.

Creating drafts based on existing materials

As I mentioned above, there’s another even more useful feature when creating a new file — having Copilot reference an existing file as the basis for creating a new one. You can feed it several Office file types, including DOC, DOCX, FLUID, LOOP, PPT, PPTX, and XLSX, as well as OpenOffice ODP and ODT files, RTF files, PDFs, and many image files, including GIF, JFIF, PJPEG, JPG, PNG, and WebP.

When you do this, Copilot can take existing information, reorganize and rewrite it, using new information that it finds. For example, I used my initial brief, disorganized notes about this review and created a file from it. Then I fed it into Copilot, which did a credible job of writing a brief description of what Copilot is, listed its pros and cons, and summarized what I wrote.

The more detailed the information in the file you give to Copilot, the better the new document will be. You can, for example, tell Copilot to write a sales pitch based on a marketing document. That’s exactly what I did: I had it write a sales pitch for buying office furniture for those working at home, based on a marketing document — a document that I had previously asked Copilot to create based on my suggestions. In the new sales-pitch document it did an excellent job of highlighting the product’s benefits and making a well-targeted sales pitch. As with everything Copilot creates, the prose wasn’t scintillating, but it did the job.

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This sequence of events showcases how Copilot, when used properly, can be a tremendous productivity booster. It took only about five minutes of typing in notes for me to have Copilot create the original marketing document, and once it was done, only a few minutes of my time to create an accompanying sales pitch. Add in another twenty minutes for checking the drafts and rewriting, and I came away with two well-done pieces of sales and marketing materials. All that took less time than it would take most people to write even a single initial draft of a marketing document.

There is one minor problem with the feature. When you click the “Reference a file” button to choose your existing file, you see only the three most recent files you’ve opened in Word. There’s no way to navigate to others. So if you haven’t opened the starting file recently, you’ll have to open it, then close it. That’s not a tremendous problem, but it’s annoying enough to notice.

Also, keep in mind the source file has to be stored in OneDrive, either locally on your PC, or in the cloud in your OneDrive or someone else’s in your business.

Summarizing documents

Copilot in Word does more than create new documents. You can also use it to edit or summarize existing ones. Open a file, then click the Copilot icon on the upper right of the screen. Copilot’s right pane appears. It will have suggestions for what you can do to the file — for example, summarize it, check it for a call to action, and so on. But you’re not just limited to that. You can also ask Copilot to rewrite it in a more or less formal tone, to reduce its length, and so on.

I was surprised at how well it worked. Summaries were succinct and on-target, it followed my directions for rewrite well when I asked it to make a more or less formal document. It even correctly identified the call to action in a marketing document.

Keep in mind that because it’s a chatbot, you’re not limited to pre-created actions. Ask it to do anything you want. The worst that could happen is it will balk at doing it.

There’s another use for Copilot in Word as well — not just working on your own documents, but getting information from one sent to you by a colleague. You can ask it to summarize the document, its most important points, and so on. You can also ask Copilot specific questions about the document, such as finding a particular data point. I found it surprisingly accurate.

Copilot in Word: The verdict

Copilot in Word surprised me — it was far more useful than I expected. It drafted documents according to my specification, did a very credible job creating new documents based on existing ones, and was quite useful when I asked it to rewrite. Those who have trouble writing will find it exceptionally useful. Even experienced writers may be able to reduce tasks they find unpleasant — for example, if they need to provide summaries of a document to others.

However, there is a significant caveat here. You need to carefully review everything it creates in case it includes inaccurate information. That brings up a larger point for enterprises. If they decide to deploy Copilot for Microsoft 365, they should offer serious training to their employees with a significant focus on how to detect Copilot-created errors, and how to use Copilot in a way that makes it less likely it will create errors in the first place.

Copilot in Excel

Word may be the most used application in Microsoft 365, but still, most of us need to create an Excel spreadsheet at one time or another. For people who aren’t spreadsheet jockeys this can be particularly problematic — how, again, do you create charts? How do you insert formulas? How can you make sense of complicated spreadsheets?

That’s where I hoped Copilot would help. In my tests, though, it didn’t. Unlike in Word, I wasn’t able to invoke Copilot when I created a new spreadsheet, describe what I wanted done, and have Copilot do it for me. Instead, I had to create a spreadsheet as I normally would and face the dispiriting vision of its emptiness laid out in front of me.

And I soon discovered another limitation when I clicked the Copilot icon on the upper right of the screen. The Copilot pane slid into the right part of the screen but said only: “You need an Excel table in this sheet to continue. If you want to see an example, I have one ready for you.” If I didn’t know how to create a table, I’d have to figure that out before I could start using Copilot in Excel.

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Copilot in Excel initially wouldn’t do anything unless your data was in table format.

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However, Microsoft recently announced some improvements to Copilot in Excel. The biggest one: Copilot will no longer be limited to use in tables. If you format your data with a single row of headers on top, you’ll be able to use Copilot on it.

This change is gradually rolling out to users, and I don’t have it yet, so I’m currently unable to test it. But it remedies one of the major limitations I encountered with Copilot in Excel.

Creating charts

Continuing my testing, I created a table that included revenue data, including monthly revenue. I asked Copilot the most basic of requests: “Chart revenue by month.” I wanted to see whether Copilot would choose the right kind of chart (a line chart), and whether it would then create it for me.

The answer was both yes and no. It knew enough to create a line chart and to select and chart the proper data. However, Copilot created the chart in its side pane, not in the spreadsheet itself. I couldn’t find a way to have Copilot insert the chart into the spreadsheet. I had to ask Copilot to create a new spreadsheet, and then asked Copilot to insert the line chart there by clicking “Add to new sheet.”

At that point I had a spreadsheet that had only the line chart and the small amount of data accompanying it. But I wanted the chart in the original spreadsheet. So now I had to manually copy the chart back to the original spreadsheet. I ended up spending far too much time doing something very simple: creating a basic line chart. I could have saved myself a lot of time by creating the chart myself. Copilot had made me less efficient and productive, not more.

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Again, though, a fix appears to be coming. Among the improvements being rolled out, Microsoft says, are “more conversational and comprehensive answers to a wide array of Excel-related questions.” So you should be able to do things such as getting step-by-step instructions for accomplishing certain tasks in Excel. These instructions can include formula examples. Copilot, Microsoft claims, will also be able to correct and explain formula errors it finds.

Because I don’t have the new features yet, I can’t say how well the improved Copilot lives up to these claims — but Microsoft is clearly working toward addressing a major shortcoming of the initial version of Copilot in Excel.

Finding data insights

Even testing its earlier iteration, however, I found one very useful application for Copilot in Excel. Instead of asking Copilot to do a specific task for me — say, create a specific chart — I asked it to find insights that I might not have found myself in an existing table. With a table opened in a spreadsheet, I clicked “Show data insights” in the Copilot pane. It created a bar chart that showed the total number of days that were required to finish each type of task in the table. I most likely would never have found that on my own — I wouldn’t have even thought of looking for it.

It was, however, quite a useful insight. It could help me do a number of things: more accurately put together a project schedule, identify bottlenecks in projects, examine tasks that took the most time to see if they could be streamlined.

I kept clicking “Can I see another insight” and saw other charts— some useful, some not. I still couldn’t directly insert the charts next to my original table — each chart was placed, along with its data, into a new spreadsheet on a new tab, and I would have to copy and paste them into a new tab or spreadsheet if I wanted to use them in other ways. Still, it’s a powerful tool that does a very good job of mining tables for useful, real-world insights.

Copilot is open-ended enough that you should be able to endlessly query data for useful insight and information in this way.

Microsoft claims Copilot can also help with creating complex, advanced formulas. However, I’m not a spreadsheet jockey, so can’t judge its ability to do this.

Copilot in Excel: The verdict

Copilot in Excel falls short in several important ways, especially for people who don’t have advanced spreadsheet skills. It can’t create spreadsheets from scratch based on a person’s needs, which can be the most difficult and time-consuming task for many people. And when you ask it to create charts, it can’t insert them into your existing spreadsheet — it can only insert them into a new spreadsheet in a new tab.

In its initial iteration, Copilot in Excel would only work with data in tables, and it was less than helpful when asked to perform basic spreadsheet tasks. Microsoft is gradually rolling out changes that address these limitations; you may or may not yet have them in your instance of Copilot for Microsoft 365.

All that said, Copilot in Excel can also be quite useful, notably in identifying insights that you might otherwise miss, no matter your level of expertise. And it may be able to create advanced formulas that could be quite useful. Overall, it seems more suited to people who are comfortable with spreadsheets, rather than those who don’t use them on a regular basis.

Copilot in PowerPoint

Could there be anything more dispiriting than encountering an empty PowerPoint screen when you’ve got to build a presentation for a product launch, marketing plan, or any other reason? A blank Word document is bad enough — but there, you’ve only got words to work with. With PowerPoint, there are visuals, slides, transitions, maybe even multimedia…what could be more intimidating?

Copilot in PowerPoint can help. It can draft an entire presentation for you from scratch, or by pointing it at a document. Will the presentation be perfect from the get-go? No. But it’ll give you a solid starting point.

At first glance, there appears to be no way to get Copilot to create a presentation. When you launch PowerPoint, the Copilot icon on the upper right is grayed out, so there appears no way to use it. Pressing the Alt-I key combination, as you do in Word to have Copilot draft a new document for you, won’t work either.

Instead, you have to create a new presentation or else open an existing one, then click the Copilot icon. When you do that, you’ll be asked if you want to create a new presentation from an existing document, create a new slide in the presentation you’ve opened, or create a new presentation based on your description of what you want done.

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Creating presentations from a description

Asking Copilot to create a presentation from scratch proved to be significantly problematic. Using the Copilot prompt, I asked it to create a marketing document in presentation form for my imaginary Work@Home business selling home office furniture. I didn’t provide a document as a starting point. Instead, I wrote a brief description of what I wanted: “Create a sales presentation for Work@Home home office products.”

Within minutes, Copilot created a comprehensive 15-slide presentation with a remarkable amount of granular detail and accompanying graphics. One slide, for example, touted the Work@Home line of chairs due to their “Ergonomic design,” “Variety of Styles and Colors,” and “Adjustable Features,” along with detailed, paragraph-long descriptions of each of those benefits.  Other slides did the same thing for Cable Management, Desks, Lighting, Optimal Illumination, Monitor stands, and many more.

It was impressive, given the bare-bones instruction I had given Copilot. Unfortunately, it was all purely a hallucination. Copilot had gone out to the web, done research on its own, and created a presentation that had nothing to do with reality.

In subsequent attempts, I provided more details, including the specific number of slides and what each should say. That led to a presentation without hallucinations. But it didn’t save me much time, if at all. I might as well have created the presentation myself without Copilot’s help.

Creating presentations from existing materials

A better approach is to feed an existing document with the appropriate information into Copilot for PowerPoint. (Copilot in PowerPoint can handle the same file types as Copilot in Word, listed above.) If you’ve got the right document as a starting point, that’s the way to go.

When I used the Work@Home marketing document that Copilot had created for me in Word, I got exactly what I wanted. Within minutes, Copilot built a well-organized, seven-slide presentation, complete with graphics and speaker notes, that closely mirrored the marketing document.

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