Exclusive for WebMind: Kristina Tikhonova, General Manager for Southeast Europe at Microsoft

In March, a month dedicated to women, our mission is to bring you inspirational stories of successful women in the IT and tech industry. Meeting Kristina Tikhonova, the General Manager of Microsoft for Southeast Europe, at the Sinergija23 conference, which stands as the epicenter of news and trends in the IT industry and the business world, has provided us with a unique opportunity to hear firsthand how one of the world's leading technology companies is preparing for the future.

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Source: Microsoft

Kristina Tikhonova, whose career, and achievements inspire, shares with us insights into the role of artificial intelligence in the future development of the technology sector, Microsoft’s preparations for upcoming challenges, and the impact of Microsoft Copilot on the way people interact with technology. We discussed the key goals of Microsoft with this product, its contribution to efficiency and productivity in business, and the industrial sectors that most utilize its capabilities. Kristina highlights the key strategies that Microsoft recommends to companies, Microsoft’s current vision regarding innovations, and strategies to maintain a leading position in technological development. Additionally, we talked about how Microsoft supports the inclusion of women in the technology sector, which initiatives have proven most effective, and the company’s approach to reporting on ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) issues and the specific sustainable goals the company actively pursues.

Follow us in this exclusive interview with Kristina Tikhonova, the General Manager of Microsoft for Southeast Europe.

What role do you see for artificial intelligence in the future development of the technology sector, and how is Microsoft preparing for these challenges?

When talking about AI, we need to understand that it is not yet another tech buzzword. It is a transformative force set to shape the way we think, work and live. Not just in the technology sector but everywhere. We also need to understand that there are problems we simply cannot solve without the use of artificial intelligence. During the past year there has been a lot of noise about AI writing our emails or preparing our presentations, and maybe the overall approach has been slightly more playful, but if we take a deep dive, we will see that AI can truly apply everywhere, from the more complex problem-solving of businesses and organizations regardless of their size and maturity to some of the greatest challenges we face including climate change, natural disasters, health-related issues – healthcare and drug discovery – and so on.

For me, the greatest value of this journey is enabling people to focus where it matters, enabling us all to create value. And to address biases! Of course it will play a pivotal role in the future development of the technology sector itself among others. It will transform the industry in a number of ways, through enhanced efficiency and automation, through data-driven insights and decision-making, through personalization and customer experience, autonomous systems and robotics, natural language processing, cybersecurity and threat detection, smart cities and infrastructure. The list goes on and the scenarios are endless.

Microsoft has been at the forefront of the AI race and in the most formidable position to deliver on the AI promise, not just on the technology front but also on the responsibility one, which I think is one of the greatest challenges in developing artificial intelligence. We have been prioritizing responsibility from early on as we are fully committed to bringing technology and people together to realize the promises of AI responsibly, guided by a core set of principles: fairness, reliability, safety, privacy and security, inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability. We are putting these principles into practice across the company to develop and deploy AI that will have a positive impact on society.

How does Microsoft Copilot change the way people interact with technology, and what are Microsoft’s key objectives with this product? 

Even the name Copilot indicates our overall AI approach. We are introducing a copilot for everything we do, from a simple Bing search to modern work to cybersecurity. Speaking of the latter, imagine that for the first time we can have all the benefits of Generative AI and apply them to cybersecurity defense, making it possible even for those with less training and experience to deliver significant cyberdefence.

The Copilot is designed to be our everyday AI companion helping us in researching, learning, writing, designing, coding! It can support us through automating mundane tasks, reducing busy work, providing valuable insights, enhancing productivity, collaboration, and user experiences. Our key objective is in tune with our overall vision to empower every person and every organization to achieve more. Unlocking creativity, uplevelling skills and reducing time-consuming tasks. Think simply of the time allocated currently by doctors on administrative tasks. A doctor can spend up to 20 hours a week on such tasks, imagine the impact of this time returning back to the patient!

In what ways does Microsoft Copilot contribute to efficiency and productivity in business, and which industries benefit most from its capabilities?

Moving from the year of the announcements to the year of making it real, AI adoption grows and the potential to transform work becomes even more significant. The first key findings are beyond promising. On the productivity boost, there is a 70% increase in productivity. 73% of Copilot users are completing tasks faster while almost 70% have reported that it enhanced the quality of their work. Users were completing tasks such as searching, writing and summarizing nearly 30% faster.

They could catch up on missed meetings nearly 4 times faster. I would also note that almost 80% of Copilot users said that they did not want to give it up after using it. All these findings show that Copilot not only boosts individual productivity but also sets a new baseline for the entire organization, empowering employees with diverse skills and amplifying expertise. You are asking which industries can benefit the most and this takes me back to the real power of the democratization of AI. It is about making artificial intelligence accessible to everyone.

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Source: Microsoft

What are the key strategies that Microsoft recommends to companies in the process of digital transformation? 

We have to remember that digital transformation – I would even say AI transformation moving forward – is a journey, not a destination. I would invite everyone to adapt, learn and evolve while navigating this exciting landscape. Being an early adopter of emerging technologies, especially AI, is crucial. Start understanding how AI can enhance your business processes, improve customer experiences and drive innovation, all tailored to each business’ goals. No one has the perfect AI strategy from the outset, experimentation is essential! And this is one of the beauties of tech, we can experiment and iterate rapidly based on feedback and results. Through experimenting – and sometimes failing – we learn faster.

But what is most important is that we get to adjust our strategy from real-world implementation. Cultivating a growth mindset is key in the process, we need to stay curious, embrace change as a constant, encourage risk-taking and value progress over perfection. AI is here, it is real, and we cannot afford waiting for a flawless strategy, this is counterproductive and will leave us behind. In the digital era, time is of essence. I would urge us all to avoid spending months crafting elaborate strategies and start executing, even imperfect action beats prolonged planning. And consider practical scenarios, how AI can impact your business, your customer interactions, your supply chain or product development.

What is Microsoft’s current vision when it comes to innovations, and how do you plan to stay at the forefront of technological development? 

Innovation, accessibility, and collaboration. Working in technology means we are always looking ahead, but the foundations for embracing innovation in its core started with Satya (Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella) behind the driving wheel. We went through a colossal cultural transformation one that puts innovation at the forefront along with trust. One needs to feel safe to be able to innovate. We became an AI company and this is a huge shift, one that has set the ground for what lies ahead. We have made huge investments in AI because we are optimistic about what it can do to help people, industry and society as already mentioned.

We will continue investing in research and development. We will continue supporting students, startups and developers as part of our ongoing effort to contribute to groundbreaking solutions. We will continue collaborating with our partners and customers to solve critical problems around the future of business, sustainability, security and more. We will continue democratizing AI. Demand is not slowing down, yet customers need to invest wisely and cost effectively. To that end, one of our strongest assets is our commitment to Model-as-a-Service, which extends beyond technology, it is about empowering organizations to harness AI’s potential without the complexity.

Think of it as a platform for models. A variety of models available to customers, ready for deployment and seamless integration into the organization’s existing infrastructure. Instead of building models from scratch – an option that is also available – business can leverage these models to access powerful AI capabilities responsibly without the complexities of training, fine-tuning and maintenance yet with all the security standards – data privacy, encryption and compliance – built into the service. This way businesses can quickly deploy models and focus on problem-solving. While on the topic of responsibility, we believe that when you create powerful technologies, you also must ensure that those are developed and used responsibly.

We have been prioritizing responsibility from early on as we are fully committed to bringing technology and people together to realize the promises of AI responsibly, guided by a core set of principles: fairness, reliability, safety, privacy and security, inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability. We are putting these principles into practice across the company to develop and deploy AI that will have a positive impact on society.

How does Microsoft support and promote the inclusion of women in the tech sector, and which initiatives have proven to be most effective? 

Another area where AI can help significantly through mitigating biases. According to Boston Consulting Group, AI has the potential to mitigate the gender gap in leadership by addressing biases in hiring, evaluation and promotion decisions. Additionally, it can contribute to improving the retention of female employees as well as to enhancing interactions that impact employees’ sense of inclusion. A McKinsey report further highlights women could benefit from more productive and better-paying work if they are empowered to make the necessary transitions between professions and sectors. These are all areas we prioritize and we are active in. But let’s start with our own home first and take a closer look at our annual D&I report; in the US alone women earn $1.006 total pay for every $1 earned by men with the same job title and level.

The company has been constantly making efforts to improve gender diversity in our global workforce. Our very own Board of Directors is one of the most diverse among technology companies. It consists of women and individuals from ethnic and racial minorities, holding nine out of twelve positions. It reflects our ongoing effort to create a representative and inclusive leadership team. We have numerous initiatives and programs aimed at promoting gender equality, diversity, and inclusion. These efforts include recruiting practices that aim to increase diversity, providing equal opportunities for career development, and creating an inclusive work environment. Also, we have created Employee Resource Groups (ERG) that connect, support, and nurture diverse communities of employees, such as Women at Microsoft, and we are offering scholarships, mentorships, and leadership development programs for women and other underrepresented groups in the tech industry. Microsoft Learn offers certification opportunities, with 86% of women in IT positions holding at least one certification, emphasizing the impact of continuous learning on professional development.

To inspire the next generation, Microsoft women volunteers actively participate in the DigiGirlz program, introducing young girls to diverse tech career opportunities. Reaffirming its commitment, Of course it’s important to note that the journey towards gender equality at work is ongoing and requires the collective effort of the entire industry. To that end, we forge strategic partnerships and sponsorships globally, creating a supportive environment and providing resources for women’s overall growth in the technology industry. Of course it’s important to note that the journey towards gender equality at work is ongoing and requires the collective effort of the entire industry.

In Serbia, we have an excellent example through the initiative of the Microsoft Development Center, Women Know IT, whose goal is to motivate girls to start and pursue their careers in the IT sector. Within the initiative, various activities have been carried out over the course of 10 years, from the “Her Journey” series on the MDCS Instagram and YouTube channels, where girls can learn more about the career paths of women already employed in IT, to events and workshops that have involved more than 1000 girls and women. The numbers and initiatives like these are evidence of how we work within the local community.

How does Microsoft approach ESG reporting and what specific sustainable goals the company is actively working towards, reflecting its commitment to environmental, social, and governance responsibilities? 

Again, our work here starts with getting our very own house in order first. We have set ambitious goals in reducing our carbon footprint, conserve water and eliminate waste. We are set to be carbon-negative, water-positive and a zero-waste company that protects ecosystems by 2030. We are not only reducing our carbon emissions, we wish to remove more carbon from the environment that the one emitted.

The goal for 2050 is to remove all the carbon the company has emitted since its birth in 1975. Again, an area we are investing heavily in as this involves a multifaceted approach from the use of renewable energy to carbon-removing technologies to leveraging data-driven insights for sustainability to innovative partnerships that accelerate the development of innovative climate solutions. We have our very own AI for Good lab that does tremendous work in this direction, focusing specifically on AI for Earh among other areas. These efforts are part of our broader commitment to net-zero emissions and a sustainable future for all. We aim to lead by example and encourage our partners and customers to leverage our solutions along the way as we really want to help businesses and organizations become more sustainable. We are committed to sharing learning, accelerating markets, scaling solutions and being transparent about the progress.

Our Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability is a tool that can help better manage and prepare data as well as track and advance towards sustainability goals. And we already have great examples in Southeast Europe of companies who have chosen us as an ally in their sustainability journey, achieving stellar milestones like being up to 98% more energy efficient through their Cloud transition. Specifically on Cloud for Sustainability, we have been actively integrating AI capabilities into it, to help move business from commitment to action. One key advancement in this area is the Copilot.

It works seamlessly with Microsoft Sustainability Manager providing an integrated AI model for deeper analysis of calculated emissions data, identifying reduction opportunities. Just one among various steps we are taking to empower organizations make meaningful progress in their sustainability journey.

For old gamers Wand, for the business community director WebMind. Front-end developer, web3 enthusiast and entrepreneur who has been in digital marketing for almost a decade.

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