In-Depth

Microsoft Clarifies Project Cortex's Scope, IT Controls and Product Delivery in Q&A

Microsoft on Wednesday offered a Q&A session on Project Cortex, its emerging "knowledge network" solution for Microsoft 365 users.

Currently, Project Cortex is at the private preview stage, requiring acceptance to try it, although Microsoft provides all of the licensing to use it. Microsoft is currently accepting applications, but it's "an extremely selective process," and "a lot of customers are going to be disappointed," said Chris McNulty, a senior product marketing manager for SharePoint and Office 365, during the Q&A.

Project Cortex is currently at the "release candidate" stage. It'll be more broadly available "in the middle of the year," McNulty said.

The recorded April 8 Q&A, when available on demand, can be found at this Project Cortex Office Hours page.

Here are some of the Q&A's highlights.

Project Cortex in a Nutshell
Project Cortex is a new product that combines existing Microsoft technologies, including Microsoft Search and the Microsoft Graph for surfacing content, artificial intelligence for information structuring and SharePoint Online for content management and collaboration. It surfaces information for end users via so-called "Topic Cards." SharePoint gets mined for the Topic Card information, but also the Microsoft 365 suite. "Eventually, we'll get to your Exchange mailbox, too," McNulty said.

While it uses the Microsoft Graph, Project Cortex is based a new type of entity, the topic in your organization, explained Naomi Moneypenny, director of product development for Project Cortex, during the Q&A. It's different from Delve, which was the first product Microsoft built based on the Microsoft graph, McNulty clarified. Project Cortex is based on knowledge and content, but since it's coming from the Microsoft Graph, there are some similarities with Delve, he added.

The aim of Project Cortex is to save time and money for organizations and make content "smarter," such as when managing legal agreements and contracts, Moneypenny explained. It creates a knowledge network from information associated with Microsoft 365 subscription use.

SharePoint is used for Topic Pages and wiki-like capabilities, McNulty added. It's used for advanced content processing, such as forms processing, as well as for building machine teaching functionality, so that unstructured content can be processed to extract what you need, he said.

Microsoft is building Project Cortex because customers asked for it, according to Moneypenny. Top challenges for organizations are about upskilling people, and getting people up to speed quickly when they change roles. Organizations also want a better way to deal with repetitive work via automation, and they want to generate more insight on their data, she said.

Microsoft is planning to offer Project Cortex as a premium product. It won't be included in baseline E1 and E3 Microsoft 365 licensing, McNulty indicated. Packaging and licensing details will be disclosed at the "general availability" product-release stage.

When released, Project Cortex initially will be supported in the English language. Languages with broad populations, such as Chinese and Spanish, will be prioritized next.

Classic SharePoint and Metadata Mining
The Q&A revealed that Project Cortex also will be available for so-called "classic" SharePoint Online users, namely those organizations still using the nonmodern user interface form of the product.

"Yes, we can mine content from classic sites," Moneypenny said. "We are updating all of the modern metadata services, so classic will have a new modern metadata experience," she added.

McNulty recently described Microsoft's efforts to enhance its Managed Metadata Service (MMS) in an April 3 SharePoint blog post. Sometime this month, Microsoft plans to release an updated MMS to Microsoft 365 "targeted release" recipients with the following SharePoint enhancements:

  • A modern term management system in the SharePoint admin center. 
  • A modern content type gallery in the SharePoint admin center, to create and manage content types in the content type hub. 
  • An update to the tagging and filtering interface for MMS columns in lists and libraries.

"You'll be able to work with your preexisting global term sets and create new sets without reconfiguring your existing MMS Taxonomy," McNulty indicated. It'll add new capabilities without having to change the data.

The MMS enhancements will "be essential to delivering new premium value to Project Cortex later this year," he added. Microsoft plans to answer questions about it during its upcoming May 20 Project Cortex Office Hours call.

Project Cortex Security, Scoping and IT Controls
The security of Project Cortex was addressed during the Q&A.

Project Cortex is built on the Microsoft Graph, so it has that continuity, McNulty said. Aspects like data residency and multigeographic situations are respected. He later explained that an organization's data stays in their tenancy, but some information is held internationally transiently and then purged. Microsoft will provide documented guidance on compliance issues associated with Project Cortex via the Microsoft 365 Trust Center, he added later.

Organizations can add controls on the topics that get mined, Moneypenny said, adding that "the scoping of the mining is completely up to you." Some organizations have cultures where things are super locked-down, while others want to crowdsource everything. Microsoft offers a range of settings to adapt to the cultural perspective. Nothing is done that's different with the permission settings on documents, she added.

If wanted, organizations can vet the topics mined beforehand through personnel having a "knowledge management" role, Moneypenny said, and "we will have a number of different controls there." One role will be to check who has visited the page. Administrators will be able to scope things on the sites that get mined. A subject manager (experts) will be able to curate Topic Cards and Topic Pages, she added.

IT controls over Project Cortex were briefly described. When it becomes available, Project Cortex will be turned off by default, McNulty indicated. "This absolutely won't get turned on without your approval," he added.

Microsoft 365 administrators will be able to turn Project Cortex off at the tenant level, McNulty said. It'll have a full set of administrator controls for the functionality, he added, and there will be a tab in the Microsoft 365 Admin Center for management. He suggested that Project Cortex could be tried in phased rollouts in smaller parts of an organization.

Custom branding of Knowledge Center pages will be possible with Project Cortex. "Search connectors" for "third-party" content also will be available, some of which will be available out of the box, such as one for ServiceNow content, McNulty said. There also will be a search connector for Windows file shares.

Developers will get an application programming interface (API) to use with Project Cortex.

"Cortex will have its first set of APIs shipping later this year; we will have more information at Microsoft Build next month," Microsoft indicated during the Q&A.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.

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