Beca’s FranklyAI startup was a significant departure for a century-old firm known more for its engineering consultancy. Its mission, to leverage the power of AI to help Beca’s teams and others perform better and boost inclusion, was a challenging one five years before generative AI hit the headlines. Yet with the arrival of FranklyAI integrated into Microsoft Teams, Beca is now set to turn its savvy investment into global success as a SaaS vendor at the cutting edge.
While the speed of the generative AI boom has caught most of us by surprise, Beca saw it coming a long way off.
“In 2018, we sat down and looked at what technologies were going to change our work. One of the two we identified as the most significant was natural language processing AI,” explains Matt Ensor.
“In those days, AI was largely limited to not very impressive chatbots, but we saw it was going to become one of the most powerful technologies in the world.”
FranklyAI was the brainchild of that “sit-down”, spun off to empower Beca’s internal teams and improve its processes through large language models, and support customers along the way. As founder and CEO, Matt set out to make FranklyAI as relevant to his teams as possible – particularly saving time and cost.
Or as Matt puts it: “Tackling the things that people would love not to do”.
“Frankly speaks as many languages as our organisation”
The initial goal was to replace forms and surveys with natural conversations online using AI in more than 100 languages. An early focus was incorporating indigenous languages from Torres Strait Creole to te reo Māori and Pasifika languages, to do what typical translation tools weren’t.
“With traditional online methods, we kept hearing from the same people and we weren’t hearing from the true diversity of the community,” Matt says.
“Our mission statement, no voice left behind, really reflects the fact that things are moving – things are changing and we need to hear from all parts of the community. The role of FranklyAI is to remove the barriers to engagement, whether they’re cultural, language, financial or just not having enough time. Frankly speaks as many languages as our organisation.”
Incorporating GPT-3, the previous iteration of generative AI developed by Open AI, the technology was certainly impressive. Yet still Matt was regularly faced with customers’ negative perceptions of AI and what it could be. Those “unimpressive” chatbots had created resistance in many quarters as to the technology’s limits.
That changed virtually overnight when Microsoft announced its partnership with Open AI.
“Suddenly there was no hard-selling required”
As Matt explains: “After the beginning of 2023, I no longer needed to explain it – suddenly there was no hard-selling required.”
In March 2023, FranklyAI leaped at the opportunity to pilot a new integration within Microsoft Teams, powered by the latest generation GPT-4. The focus of this integration brings safe and secure access to the most powerful GPT models through the trusted Microsoft Teams product. With no new systems to deploy, organisations can immediately integrate FranklyAI into their Teams environment, giving staff access to confidential generative AI suitable for corporate information.
The team customised the new FranklyAI for Microsoft Teams product with firm guardrails to provide customers with the choice of limiting high-risk use cases, and the level of confidentially upheld. That included creating a master off-switch. Many organisations want transparent audit trails of generative AI use, so these are automatically stored for future analysis, but the master off-switch provides the option of not logging information for full confidentiality in highly-sensitive industries.
Matt’s crew also created new versions of FranklyAI tools to take advantage of GPT-4’s advanced language capabilities, including a brand writer persona. Beca is a diverse company and a document might have five authors, some of whom don’t speak English as a first language. The tool analyses Beca’s brand voice guidelines and countless texts written on behalf of the company to automatically translate every document into the right tone and style.
Having to develop a customised curriculum vitae to attach to every project bid is usually a significant headache, but employees can now tell the FranklyAI for Microsoft Teams platform what their clients are looking for, and it will review their CV and suggest changes in seconds.
Personal development is where it’s particularly valuable. FranklyAI is a powerful tool to produce scenarios for staff to test their skills in responding in various scenarios. A Lessons Learnt module and interactive dashboard enables lessons to be shared across the business during projects and after they have wrapped, to increase organisational improvement. Most helpful of all, the Stakeholders tool tests people’s ability to communicate well with stakeholders.
In May 2023, FranklyAI launched on the Microsoft Teams Store.
A Frankly spectacular trajectory
Within two months, 800 organisations were using FranklyAI with Microsoft Teams across the globe – especially the US and Europe. Having a recognisable interface already used by millions of people has certainly helped. Meanwhile, more than 100,000 messages have been sent via the Teams application within Beca.
“We could put the same AI into a chat window and get very little uptake. The secret sauce has been putting it onto Microsoft Teams. It’s an app people trust, which overcame the resistance. Having it within Teams means people feel safe to try things out with generative AI, but it gives them guardrails so they can’t get it wrong where it matters,” Matt says.
Beca is now poised to become as great a success in SaaS as it is in engineering.
Microsoft Director of SaaS and ISV Partnerships, Lizelle Hughes, says:
“Getting in on the ground floor of generative AI has been an incredibly prescient move by Beca and FranklyAI, and moving into SaaS mode means Beca could continue to grow significantly without having to take on as many extra people on the ground. This is going to be a big part of their business for the next few years, and we’re looking forward to our partnership supporting no voice left behind.”
However, boosting productivity within the organisation is just as important as revenue. Matt’s already seeing junior staff becoming adept at using AI to do tasks they used to do manually, learning faster because they’re able to review more content, more quickly. For him, businesses simply can’t afford not to adopt it.
“I always say AI won’t take your job,” he says.
“Unless you’re not using it.”