The Back Yard​

Thoughts, tips & tricks
from the Lemonheads

How to Explain Project Cortex to Your Boss

Coming soon to a company like yours in 2020 (…we think).

Project Cortex is the latest innovation in Microsoft’s 365 suite. A grab-bag of artificial intelligence cleverness deeply, yet silently, embedded into your Microsoft 365 ecosystem. Learning from your user’s activity, without them even realising, and delivering back in the form of a knowledge hub, of sorts.

It’s a bit of a mystery. We can only speculate as to what this thing will look like. The Project Cortex initiative has been locked away in a highly selective private preview dungeon. No visitors allowed. So how this will play out in a public release landscape remains to be seen.

Here’s what we think this is all about.

So – what is Project Cortex?

Well – as we said, we’re not entirely sure. For starters, Project Cortex is only a working title. It remains to be seen what the final name will be. What we do know is that Project Cortex will use Microsoft’s powerful search capability along with the highly extensible Microsoft Graph API to do its thing.

It looks like Project Cortex is going to surface just-in-time content ‘in-line’ (within the context of what you are doing). This is content that you might never find – or think to find. Perhaps content that you didn’t know existed and thus could never benefit from. The information might have been curated or tagged by designated ‘Knowledge Users’ or selected automagically through Artificial Intelligence mechanisms.

The intention is to harness and deliver a sort of ‘tacit/implicit/explicit’ knowledge experience to you, based on your and others’ behaviour. Pushing content that is deemed to be of value to you, based on what you are doing now.

…make… sense…?…

Ok. Put simply – Project Cortex information will be served to you within SharePoint Online and Microsoft Teams, directly in context, i.e. at the point of need, within the flow of your work and represented as unobtrusive ‘smart topic’ cards.

…got it… no?

How about something like this:

Right – got it. So how will it work?

Project Cortex uses AI to “reason over content across teams and systems”.


Raymond Chen does a good job of explaining this in his The old new thing’ blog:

“To reason over something is to be able to make programmatic decisions about them, usually to produce a higher-level result.

For example, if you have a bunch of digital photos and you can obtain the date the photo was taken, then you can reason over the photos and do simple things like sort them chronologically, or more complex things like look for date clustering and attempt to infer events. If you also had location information, you could reason more confidently over the photos to identify photos taken at the same event.”

Raymond Chen - Microspeak genius

Thanks, Raymond – that helped.

So – to ‘reason over’ is to analyse, extract and sort data to intelligently surface in context. Cortex will analyse and aggregate data from your systems (teams, content, etc.). Then tag it all up into a logical knowledge base of topics. Ready to serve up wherever you need it. And possibly where you didn’t need it – but perhaps might appreciate it.

Ok what next?

If you’re interested and enthusiastic – you should plan for this right now. 

The good news is that any planning and preparation will be of benefit to your organisation with or without Cortex. The things you need to do are things you should already be doing if you are serious about cloud productivity. 

Here’s a short-list to get you started:

1. Get cleaning and sorting
The quality of your output will be determined by the quality of your input. AI and automation can perform the logic, but only with the information available. So start thinking about the quality of your data and identifying the content that warrants inclusion. Don’t let ‘junk in/junk out’ be the reason this fails.

2. Get online
Move away from file shares and on-premises and get OneDrive and SharePoint Online embedded in your business. The benefits of doing this go way beyond Project Cortex. Microsoft has provided some handy guidelines to help you consider ways you can migrate – essential reading if you’re not familiar with the range of possibilities.

3. Get modern
Modernise your online experience by aligning your productivity apps with the Microsoft 365 roadmap. If you are still on-premises or using SharePoint Classic sites, you should be planning to move to Modern Sites as soon as possible. For Classic Site users there’s a handy open-source/Microsoft endorsed modernisation scanner available to help you assess and prepare for your move to Online.

4. Get moving
If you’re (and we all know we are) dealing with the seedy underworld of shadow IT, we recommend you begin the process of reining in these apps. For Project Cortex, it’s essential to shut these down to simplify your knowledge landscape. Microsoft has recently acquired and released Mover, available to all 365 customers, to help you with basic ‘lift-and-shift’ file moves. We think ShareGate remains the industry standard for a comprehensive migration.

5. Get searching
Understand how Microsoft Search connectors work across internal and external resources. Mapping your known resources to your search will have a significant impact on the depth and success of Cortex.

6. Get communicating
The scale of this initiative will require change and communication to truly understand the benefits. So start the conversation now.

What we think

Project Cortex sounds exciting and could be a game-changer in the world of just-in-time knowledge provisioning. However, it will rely heavily on your business’s engagement level. The scope is up to you to define and manage. Suffice to say, the more ‘open’ and invested you are in knowledge capture (curation, sharing and reuse), the more you will benefit from Project Cortex.

Microsoft is still telling us this will be released commercially in the first half of 2020. Licensing remains a mystery. We should continue to hear more on this over the coming months.

We will be watching with interest.

If you want to stay in the loop on Project Cortex, you can register here.

(Not an actual Lemonhead)