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How a new AI-powered service is helping one global company transform employee knowledge sharing

Developing a master plan to transform John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Replacing a double-deck road with a massive tunnel in Seattle. Keeping beachgoers safe from polluted waters in New Zealand with advanced analytics.

Those are just a few of the thousands of complex projects delivered each year by Mott MacDonald, a global engineering, management and development consulting firm headquartered in London. With 180 principal offices in 50 countries, the company helps solve some of the world’s most urgent social, environmental and economic challenges.

Because Mott MacDonald doesn’t create physical products, its success relies on the knowledge and expertise of its 16,000 employees. To help them share and learn more easily, the company uses Project Cortex, a new service in Microsoft 365 that is part of Microsoft’s vision to transform knowledge and help people learn and grow their skills and expertise.

a profile photo of a guy with glasses
Simon Denton, productivity applications architect at Mott MacDonald.

Announced this week at Microsoft Ignite, Project Cortex uses artificial intelligence to create a knowledge network that automatically connects and organizes organizations’ content into topics and generates topic cards, wiki-like “topic pages” and other new experiences in Microsoft 365.

The experiences will appear seamlessly in familiar tools like Office, Outlook and Microsoft Teams to help people find information, learn quickly and get up to speed faster within the apps they use every day. When employees see an unfamiliar acronym or project in email or chat, for example, they’ll be able to hover on the word and pop out a topic card with a description and related experts, documents and videos. A click on the card will call up a topic page, curated by AI and experts, with richer information like diagrams that link related and adjacent topics.

These capabilities “are going to further enhance our ability to reach our business goals with quicker access and connection to colleagues and their expertise — what we call our connected thinking,” says Simon Denton, Mott MacDonald productivity applications architect. “They’re going to help us build an even stronger knowledge network so people can have the right knowledge at the right time to deliver more excellent project outcomes for our clients. It’s going to be brilliant.”

The company already organizes its many experts and vast business knowledge into 47 communities that cover aviation, bridges and other practice areas. It began building its initial knowledge management system a few years ago to classify content in SharePoint and add people to Yammer groups based on interest.

Project Cortex, currently in private preview, will give Mott MacDonald even more advanced capabilities. Already secure and compliant, the product will allow automated policies based on precise document tags for added security. Its knowledge experiences, which build on an organization’s existing SharePoint content services, will permeate everyday work tools in Microsoft 365 and could one day include learning content from such platforms as LinkedIn Learning.

The solution will have powerful capture technology to make ingested content smarter. Powered by AI, it can extract information from structured content like forms, receipts and invoices. With machine teaching – having experts teach the AI how to respond – Project Cortex can also pull information from unstructured content like legal contracts and employee agreements.

It then adds metadata and classifies the documents into topics, automatically doing tasks that are traditionally manual and slow.

“We’re really excited about that,” says Denton. “We’re already talking about processing 30 years’ worth of drawings with good information on how something was built and how it needs to be maintained for the future. It’s going to unlock a lot of latent knowledge.”

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The knowledge vision

Scheduled for general availability in the first half of 2020, Project Cortex is the first new product to emerge from Microsoft’s knowledge vision, which includes new capabilities in other Microsoft 365 services such as Yammer, for communities of practice; Microsoft Stream, for intelligent video creation and sharing; and Workplace Analytics, for organizational insights.

As a longtime concept for organizing and re-using information, knowledge management has never fully solved the challenges it seeks to address due to disconnected information silos, technical limits and clunky end-user experiences, says Seth Patton, general manager of Microsoft 365 marketing.

But demand for knowledge has become particularly timely due to sweeping changes in the workplace. Automation, gig economies, flex work, skills shortages and retiring baby boomers have heightened the need for organizations to retain knowledge, share it with employees and help them learn new skills and expertise faster, Patton says.

“Business leaders and CEOs are recognizing the importance of their people’s skills and talent in their organizations’ ability to succeed,” he says. “It’s a recognition that upskilling and learning are the new workplace competitive advantage.”

a man and woman standing in front of a laptop
Personal assistant Laura Smith talks with civil apprentice Shey Sewell at Mott MacDonald offices in London.

Microsoft’s advances in AI and machine learning, SharePoint’s massive cloud content repository, the intelligence of the Microsoft Graph and integration with Office 365 apps have helped overcome previous challenges in knowledge management to help customers solve unmet needs.

 “All of us have had the experience of joining a new project, team or company,” Patton says. “It takes a long time to understand the language before you can contribute and participate. With Project Cortex you can get up to speed quickly and start contributing right away.”

Microsoft Search will also integrate Project Cortex, so people will be able to find topic cards and knowledge pages when they search. Microsoft Search is an important component in the company’s knowledge vision, bringing a unified, intelligent search experience across Microsoft 365 and Bing. It also extends to externally connected content, such as file shares. As content is crawled, it’s added to the knowledge network.

As video becomes an increasingly powerful way to capture and share knowledge, Microsoft Stream applies AI to provide automatic transcription for things like recorded meetings. AI-powered voice enhancement helps reduce background noise so people can better focus on what was discussed, and they can also now create short videos from mobile devices to share in Teams and Yammer.

More than a decade after it was created, Yammer has been completely redesigned with dozens of new capabilities, as well as new integrations with Teams, SharePoint and Outlook. These new features allow people to connect and share knowledge across teams and geographic locations.

Mott MacDonald connects people in Yammer communities that span 47 practice areas so they can share knowledge, ask questions and get answers.

As another way Microsoft 365 helps people share knowledge, Workplace Analytics provides business leaders insights into how people collaborate and spend their time with new self-service dashboards. These insights provide the context of industry benchmarks, as well as AI-driven analyses of business processes and networks of people.

a screenshot of a topic card in outlook
An example of a topic card in Outlook.

This information can help identify high-performance trends such as close relationships between effective salespeople and engineers, or correlations between good onboarding experiences and more managerial one-on-ones. Leaders can then encourage and replicate similar patterns elsewhere.

The solutions are designed to be easy-to-use, customizable solutions. For the new Project Cortex, AI does the behind-the-scenes “heavy lifting” of mining and collecting useful, internal information, says Naomi Moneypenny, Microsoft director of content services and insights. Then experts can edit, update and add content to make sure knowledge pages are current and relevant.

“Our goal is to put intelligent content and knowledge services into the flow of the work you do every day to help you find the information you need, discover what you want and make your business processes more efficient,” says Moneypenny, who leads the Project Cortex product team. “All while enhancing and enforcing your security and compliance policies.”

At Mott MacDonald, Project Cortex will help build stronger connections across the company’s large, global communities and deliver timely information that helps employees create solutions to many complex challenges, build expertise and save time, all while enhancing service to customers, Denton says.

“I’m really excited by Microsoft’s vision for creating Project Cortex,” he says. “It fits completely with our strategy for knowledge networks. The idea of connecting people to content and content to people and building this network out, powered by Microsoft 365 — it’s going to be a game-changer for us.”


Lead image: From left to right, civil engineer James Balla, project principal Jonathan Hine and civil engineer Cleopatra Meade work together at Mott MacDonald offices in London. (Photos by Mark Mercer)