Project Cortex explained: what it means for public sector organisations

Following the news that Agilisys has been named as one of just 14 Project Cortex launch partners, Zoe Wilson, Head of Enterprise Collaboration and Productivity at Agilisys explains more about the latest Microsoft product and outlines how it can benefit public sector organisations.

What is Project Cortex and why is it so exciting?

Microsoft describes Project Cortex as a knowledge network that brings together content in Microsoft 365 along with external data sources, enabling organisations to manage knowledge and streamline processes with advanced security, compliance and automated workflow. Artificial intelligence (AI) is used to automatically analyse and organise content and deliver innovative experiences such as topic cards, topic pages and knowledge centres across Office, Outlook and Microsoft Teams. Ultimately, this will deliver improved knowledge and insights, as well as an understanding of content and the value contained within it which has just not been possible to date.

For me, this is incredibly exciting because there’s an enormous amount of potential to transform how people work. We’re not talking about superficial changes either – I truly believe Project Cortex will change the way we connect with and use content forever.

Since Microsoft 365 really took off a few years ago, it has been exciting and rewarding to see organisations embrace products like Teams and realise the benefits of SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business. The ability to co-author documents and so on really helps improve workflows and enables people to collaborate effectively. To me, Cortex feels like the next piece of that journey. It’s brilliant that people are working more in Teams and that they’re able to collaborate and work in real time. Once Cortex is in place, the idea that the information you need will come to you in the form of just-in-time knowledge, exactly when and where you need it, is phenomenal.

What’s the need for Project Cortex?

If you look at the stats, Project Cortex is very much needed. An IDC research paper found that information workers spend an average of 4.5 hours a week searching for, and not finding, the files they need. Then they spend more time recreating what they haven’t found. Plus, if you have to stop the flow of what you’re doing to search for something, or you’re disturbed and you break your concentration, it takes anywhere from nearly half an hour upwards to get back to the same level of concentration (23 minutes and 15 seconds, plus the length of distraction, to be exact), according to a study by the University of California, Irvine.

Further stats highlighting the impact of frequent workplace interruptions suggest:

  • On average people spend 11 minutes on a project before they’re interrupted, according to the UC Irvine study.
  • After a 2.8-second interruption, subjects in a study doubled their error rates. And their error rates tripled after a 4.5-second distraction, says the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
  • Workers who are frequently interrupted reported 9% higher exhaustion rates, according to the International Journal of Stress Management.

Project Cortex can help to address these alarming statistics. Put simply, if people aren’t wasting time looking for information, and the information they need will come to them, where they’re working, whether that’s on email, in Word or via Teams, it will help people to become even more productive and more efficient, which is brilliant. This is why I’m so excited to be a launch partner!

Given how Covid-19 has changed the work landscape and accelerated the move to remote working and so on, has Project Cortex become even more relevant to organisations?

At this year’s Microsoft Inspire partner conference, there was a lot of talk about how work is becoming increasingly complex – and how this complexity is ever-increasing. Covid-19 has made it clear why organisations need to be able to respond quickly and change – and think about how they work. The organisations that coped best with sending everybody home were those who’d already undergone quite a large part of their transformation.

Project Cortex builds on the flexibilities and collaboration offered by products such as SharePoint and Teams and takes it much further, which can only be a good thing given the current situation. Improving access to knowledge and to expertise which is hidden currently will help make more organisations more responsive and able to find information and react quickly when needed.

What’s the real potential of Microsoft Cortex for the public sector?

For the public sector, there are various areas within Project Cortex that are worth focusing on.

Knowledge management centres around the benefits I’ve already mentioned such as connecting people to knowledge when and where they need it. Content understanding is all about using AI and machine teaching to understand what content you’ve got and then intelligently classifying it. This classification enables organisations to optimise the compliance that you’ve got, which is really the key element public sector organisations should be aiming for.

There are some interesting stats around how long it would take to manually classify all the content within a Microsoft 365 tenant, and it’s just not affordable or practical for public sector organisations. However, they need to comply with lots of rules and regulations, including NCSC governance. Cortex will help to understand what information organisations have got, classify it, and then protect it, all at a pace that’s much faster than they would otherwise be able to do it.

Do you think Cortex will stimulate more thinking around data management and data migration, while prompting organisations to accelerate the next stage of their transformation journeys?

Yes, absolutely. If you think about it as a Microsoft 365 maturity journey, you often see organisations just dipping their toes in the water by moving their email into Microsoft 365 and their identity. They then start to look at other content sources, like file shares and legacy on-premise SharePoint environments, document management systems etc and understand what they want to do to start mapping and migrating that into Microsoft 365.

As you follow that maturity journey, you start to see organisations using technology to change behaviours and how they work. As they mature, they start to get all the content in the right place, and start to apply some information protection, for example. If you think about Cortex in that way, it is very much at the later stage of the maturity journey.

Organisations can get ready for Cortex by getting content into Microsoft 365. Ultimately, Cortex will connect multiple sources, but from the start, the best recommendation we can make is to get content into Microsoft 365. This involves ensuring all SharePoint sites are using modern page templates rather than classic and starting to look at information architecture. This prep work is good practice anyway because it helps to get information in the right place and structured correctly, in turn making it easier for people to access documents. Get these foundations right and rolling out Cortex will be much easier.

Looking ahead, by classifying information, will organisations be able to better use the knowledge that they have to deliver data driven decision making?

Definitely. I’m very much an advocate of making data-driven decisions, rather than going by gut instinct – and it goes without saying that it’s imperative the public sector uses data as effectively as it can.

By classifying content, you bring together knowledge and insights that will absolutely help organisations to manage both people and content and drive productivity benefits and efficiencies.

Another key benefit of Project Cortex that we’ve not really touched on is around ensuring organisations are managing the expertise they’ve got. The way the knowledge management piece works, having topics and pushing that information to people, AI will learn who the experts are on topics. Some of that may be tacit knowledge, which isn’t visible currently within the organisation. Cortex will therefore really start to surface details about who has expert knowledge within the organisation and make people aware so that you can really get the full value of that expert or historical knowledge which is quite often hidden away.

In terms of timeline and how this is going to come to market, what should readers of this article look out for?

Microsoft is yet to confirm launch dates, but we don’t think the announcement is far away. Over the coming weeks and months, as we prepare for the launch, we’ll be publishing more articles about Project Cortex, including some deep dives into the technology.

Microsoft talks about Project Cortex as the biggest product launch since Microsoft Teams in March 2017. I’ve worked with document management and collaboration platforms, including SharePoint, for over 15 years and Project Cortex is one of the most exciting product launches I’ve seen in this time. I can’t wait to work with our partners in the public sector and help them realise the huge potential for their organisations.

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