by Peter Sayer

Microsoft Ignite showcases first Project Cortex AI tool for SharePoint

Sep 22, 2020
Artificial IntelligenceCollaboration SoftwareMachine Learning

Civil engineering firm Mott McDonald has been testing SharePoint Syntex, the first product to come out of Microsoft’s Project Cortex proving ground for AI-based content management tools.

A multiple-exposure shot shows a human profile with gears overlaying and representing the brain.
Credit: Metamorworks / Getty Images

Microsoft previewed Project Cortex, a suite of cloud-based AI-powered services designed to understand content and help users automate processes with it, at its Ignite developer conference in Orlando last year.

The first of those services to go on sale, SharePoint Syntex, will be revealed at this year’s Ignite, a virtual event taking place in your browser this week.

The content management tool learns to extract important or relevant semantic information from documents for use in workflows or for enforcing policies. Enterprises might use it to automate the processing of requests for proposals (RFPs) or service contracts to filter out those that don’t meet requirements, or to pay expenses claims based on scanned receipts.

While other software vendors have released AI-based tools dedicated to processing expenses, Syntex’s role as part of the broader SharePoint workflow management platform gives it an edge, said Jeff Teper, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365 Collaboration: “If you’re building collaborative business processes where you need to customize them and integrate them with end-user experiences, and you want to integrate with our search and recommendation capabilities, then you’re outside the scope of what a pure expense management system can do.”

Rather than training a machine learning model using thousands or millions of examples, Syntex uses an approach that Naomi Moneypenny, director of product development for Project Cortex, calls “machine teaching.” In a demo on the eve of Ignite, Moneypenny showed how users can teach Syntex to find key information using as few as five example documents containing the desired features. Adding a counterexample that doesn’t have necessary information helps refine the model. “The machine will learn a lot faster because of that,” she said.

Processing documents in Microsoft’s cloud takes just a few minutes, and a project manager could build a model in an hour or so, Moneypenny said.

Syntex will be available as an add-on for Microsoft 365 commercial customers from Oct. 1, charged per user accessing a Syntex Content Center, along with the models and documents it stores.

The second tool to come out of Project Cortex, so far unnamed, will organize people and information into topics so that users can find them more easily. It will be generally available by year-end, said Teper.

Project Cortex in action

Simon Denton, productivity application architect at engineering firm Mott MacDonald, is one of dozens of Microsoft customers who have been experimenting with tools from Project Cortex for the past year.

He joined Mott MacDonald as a civil engineer, managing construction projects in power and communications networks, then moved eight years ago to the company’s IT department, where he now builds applications in the company’s Office 365 ecosystem.

Recently, he’s been looking at how to surface relevant content to help employees with their work. Mott MacDonald’s previous approach was labor-intensive, with staff suggesting pieces of content they found interesting, and then the team sharing it to a Yammer community and tagging it according to the company’s taxonomy before storing it in SharePoint.

With Project Cortex it’s easier to scale and evolve: “It makes suggestions, ‘I think this is of use to you,’ which is a different lens, and gives you a different volume of information to consider,” said Denton.

So how easy is it to test a recommendation engine that takes time to train?

“One thing we learned really early on: You couldn’t effectively simulate how people would interact with content in a sterile test environment,” he said. “It was really hard to do, so the best thing to do was start throwing it into production and see how it worked out.”

Over the past six months, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many employees to work from home and miss out on chance encounters at the water cooler or in the line for lunch that could help them advance their projects.

Suggestions from the forthcoming Project Cortex tools have helped fill the gap, said Denton.

“Tooling to help with that serendipitous discovery of knowledge and the right people at the right time has never been as vital as it is in the current situation, so it really has helped. The technology has come out at the right time to assist that process of trying to draw the groups of the organization back together,” he says.

Ignite online

SharePoint Syntex is just one of the innovations Microsoft will be showing at this year’s Ignite.

While other tech firms have reformatted their customer and developer conferences for an online environment, spreading keynote presentations over a month or more to allow those working from home to weave them into their daily routines, Microsoft has stuck to its usual three-day format for its first virtual Ignite.

The densely packed online program reproduces other aspects of the on-site experience, including networking sessions, the option to schedule one-to-one meetings, and even digital swag you can “bring home” for your kids.

More importantly, it plans to present a host of other product innovations of interest to CIOs, including new Azure features to improve resiliency and disaster recovery capabilities, or to facilitate Windows Virtual Desktop adoption for remote working.

There’ll be new features on the desktop too. For instance, the analytics powering the “Insights” sidebar that staff see in Outlook are now being made available to managers. They too will be able to see how much time employees are spending in meetings, and whether they are responding to requests from colleagues and customers. While that could serve as a crude form of performance review, Microsoft presents it as a way to help those at risk for burnout from long workdays and meeting overload.

Meanwhile Teams is responding to the new reality of widespread working from home with features such as breakout rooms (available by year-end) allowing meetings to split off into smaller discussions and then reassemble, and support for meetings with up to 1,000 participants, or up to 20,000 in view-only mode. Up to 25,000 will be able to participate in chat and channel conversations. There are also new controls to handle shift-working, to ensure messages are sent only to team members scheduled to be working.

Microsoft is also pitching Teams for applications beyond its traditional white-collar user base. The Teams Walkie Talkie app for Android turns smartphones into a push-to-talk communications system for blue-collar workers in industrial environments or out in the field, and integrates with rugged hardware from BlueParrott, Klein Electronics and Samsung, giving CIOs a whole new category of users to support.

Teams is also targeting the white coat market with connectors for electronic health records including Epic EHR, allowing doctors to launch virtual patient visits or consultations from within Teams, while integration with dictation software from Nuance will make it easier for doctors to maintain records of such virtual visits.

The Microsoft Ignite virtual event runs Sept. 22-24.