Introducing Project Cortex: The future of enterprise knowledge gets a big boost at Ignite

Microsoft is touting game-changing knowledge management innovations at its Ignite 2019 event. Project Cortex is a new service in Microsoft 365 that uses AI to reason over organizational data and organize it into shared topics like projects and customers.

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Today, at Microsoft Ignite 2019, Microsoft unveiled Project Cortex (final name to be announced in the first half of 2020), a new service in Microsoft 365 that uses AI to shape organizational data and organize it into shared topics like projects and customers. This announcement represents a glimpse into the future of knowledge management software – a big step in a vision that began in the 1990s when enabling technology first started to address this critical organization need.

Project Cortex: the realization of a vision of knowledge management software

Twenty-five years ago, I was the director of knowledge management at a global consulting firm. Our key goal was to make sure that as an organization, we knew what we knew and delivered that collective knowledge and experience to every client engagement. We relied on a collection of people activities (communities of practice), processes (a culture that encouraged knowledge re-use and a promotion culture that required the demonstration of knowledge leverage, not just revenue generation), and enabling technology (a collection of Lotus Notes databases that were frustratingly difficult to search – but were the best that we had at that time).

We recognized that people and their knowledge were our greatest assets and we invested in as many approaches as possible to help use technology to support expertise location and leveraging existing work and prior experiences. And we did a pretty good job back in 1995. Still, even with a culture that valued and rewarded knowledge re-use and the many programs and initiatives that we promoted to enable knowledge transfer, it was hard to get people to keep their expertise profiles up-to-date and to integrate the variety of knowledge assets, sources, and locations that we had – spread out over 9,000 people and multiple cities and countries.

We did have a vision, however, for a solution that would integrate our structured knowledge in a variety of databases and solutions and our less-structured knowledge in documents, and deliver that knowledge when and where our consultants could use it – on any device – to make better recommendations to our clients, to find expertise in any part of the company, and to make sure that we weren’t reinventing the wheel on every engagement.

Today's announcement from Microsoft showcases a service that can make that vision a reality.

Project Cortex, a new service in Microsoft 365, turns content (structured and unstructured) into a knowledge network, delivering relevant knowledge to people across an organization through topic cards and topic pages. According to Microsoft, “the service brings innovations in smart content ingestion, to analyze documents and create sophisticated content models; machine teaching, to allow subject matter experts to teach the system how to understand semi-structured content; and knowledge retrieval, to make it easy for people to access the valuable knowledge that’s so often locked away in documents, conversations and videos.”

That challenge I mentioned about getting people to keep their profiles up-to-date is going to get some enhancements, too. Project Cortex will automatically augment the Microsoft 365 "people profile" with information from Project Cortex to dynamically associate expertise to individuals without harming any humans by asking them to keep their profile up to date!

Enabling knowledge networks in Project Cortex will take some training of the engine. But, in general, very few humans have to be harmed in the process of getting successful outcomes in the context of where you work. Project Cortex is designed work deliver knowledge in context – what you need, when you need it, in the flow of your work in the apps you use every day. This doesn’t mean that you don’t need to apply metadata to content. (As an Information Architect, I am pretty much required to say this, but it’s totally true – AI and human curation are much better together!)

There are plenty of cases where it’s really hard to extract metadata from humans – think about how hard it is to get people to update their profile data, even when they know they should – which is where the power of Project Cortex comes in to play. “Project Cortex in Microsoft 365 applies AI to empower people with knowledge and expertise in the apps they use every day. Cortex automatically organizes content across your teams and systems to connect topics like projects, products, processes and customers.”

Project Cortex is currently in preview with select customers. It is expected to be generally available in H1 2020. Pricing plans have not yet been announced, but it will be a premium experience for Microsoft 365 (which probably means that it could be included in the higher-end licenses or as an add-on to lower-end ones – but this has not yet been announced).

How it works

Here is an oversimplified explanation of how this all works. Project Cortex includes an ingestion engine where you effectively train the AI model based on your content. This includes internal content from SharePoint and file shares as well as external systems and other repositories. It automatically creates topic pages and knowledge centers based on this content. Topics can be enhanced by authorized editors and, most importantly, if you do not have permission to see the content curated by the topic – or even the topic itself – you will not see it.

This is key: Project Cortex respects all the permissions you have applied to your content and systems. Topic pages are based on the elegantly simple wiki-like pages in the modern SharePoint experience. Topic summary cards deliver knowledge from topics in the context of where you are working - across Outlook, Microsoft Teams and Office. If you are already leveraging SharePoint in Microsoft 365 for your intelligent intranet, using the topic cards will be a familiar experience. And if you aren’t using SharePoint in Microsoft 365, I have just one question:

Why not?

The metadata that’s applied to content – by AI or by experts – is managed in an updated Managed Metadata Service (MMS) that’s been extended to support tagging content across Microsoft 365. Managed metadata allows you define common terms in a taxonomy, including synonyms and multilingual support, to allow for precise tag definitions. Organizations that have used MMS taxonomy will be able to mine those tags to recognize topics in their content.

Here are some screen shots that demonstrate just some of the experiences in Project Cortex. Learn more in Microsoft's blog post about Project Cortex.

project cortex in email Microsoft

Project Cortex connects topic cards to relevant terms in email.

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Project Cortex connects topic cards from within pages in SharePoint.

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Project Cortex automatically generates topic cards that an authorized user can enhance and adapt.

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Project Cortex creates knowledge centers that users can explore independently.

project cortex web parts Microsoft

Project Cortex web parts allows Topic editors to easily enhance the automatically created topic pages.

But wait, there’s more …

Project Cortex is the next generation for knowledge management and while it’s getting a lot of attention in Orlando this week, it should also generate some buzz at KM World in Washington, D.C.  Chris McNulty is flying from Ignite to KMWorld in Washington, D.C. to deliver a keynote to my tribe of KM practitioners from across the globe.

Today is only the first day of Microsoft Ignite. There are more announcements and blog posts to come. Stay tuned to this blog. But if you can’t wait, you can participate in all of the action live by tuning in to Microsoft Ignite remotely. Every session is being recorded and will be available for streaming. Check out the Microsoft Tech Community for more information about how you can participate in the action from wherever you are.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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