Microsoft Graph aims to make search smarter by prioritising content created by people close to you in your network. But is this a good idea? There is a trade-off between search efficiency and the reinforcement of silos. Organisations should think about the transparency of content promotion algorithms, particularly in light of the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica revelations.
This collaborative post by Matt Varney (KCTCS), Agnes Molnar (Search Explained) and Sam Marshall (ClearBox) came about from a Twitter exchange at a recent conference. We outline the risk, consider mitigations, and explain how Microsoft Graph works.
Modern search and the Graph
At Microsoft Ignite, September 2017, the big news was Satya Nadella’s demonstration of new search capabilities in Office 365. Modern, ’personalised’ search became a popular topic very quickly.
Why? – Because it was, and still is, very promising. Instead of using the classic search index, it relies on the Microsoft Graph, which provides not only search results, but recommendations based on your previous activities and relationships. The experience is always personalised. What I can see is targeted for me. Anyone and everyone else in the organisation will see a different set of content in a different order.
Modern search ranks results by what is closest to me in the Microsoft Graph. This is calculated based on my relationship to the documents, their authors, and also the timeliness of the content. For example, a document that has been modified yesterday by someone who I work with regularly will be ‘closer‘ to me than something that has not been opened for months, and belongs to someone who I rarely communicate with.
This way the suggested documents are always ‘relevant‘ to me. But this kind of relevance should be rather called ‘timely‘, I feel. Another challenge is that we don’t have real control over what is in the Graph, or what is displayed to our users.
Modern search does a good job when we want to get back to the recent work of ours or colleagues, or to discover content even if we don’t know if exists. But with the limitations above, we might have the impression that something is missing…
It’s important to mention that we still have the classic search center in Office 365, too, with its well known, customisable capabilities. However, classic search cannot get the benefits of Microsoft Graph today. See a detailed comparison by Search Explained.
Social distance and silos – what’s the risk?
When Britain voted to leave the EU, just about everyone was surprised at how narrow the vote was. A reason for this is that social media has created an echo-chamber effect. Everyone was hearing that their opinion was the dominant one because nearly everyone else in their network felt the same.
Companies can be similarly surprised when their internal networks become too siloed. We know that uniformity of opinion is bad for innovation. We also know that the echo-chamber is poor for risk-assessment, because everyone is blind to the same things.
The more we work with people, the more we think like them. The more our search results amplify the views of people close to us, the faster that will happen. That’s what Modern search is doing. Social capital isn’t neutral and can be damaging to companies if strong allegiances are not aligned with organisatonal goals.
However, silos are useful sometimes. For example, they can play a strong role in the diffusion of innovations once part of a group has chosen to adopt a new idea or approach. Silos can be a great help in getting day-to-day work done because they build trust, strong tacit knowledge, and a specialist vocabulary (‘jargon’ to outsiders).
What should organisations do?
People naturally want to be around others with whom they agree, and simply want comfortable and familiar conditions and scenarios. This is nothing new and it means that silos are almost inevitable. The trick is to spot them, and then actively work to dilute them to break down the walls and separations where appropriate.
So we’re not talking about deliberate manipulation Cambridge Analytica style, but a natural tendency in organisations. Technologies like the Microsoft Graph do not necessarily create silos, but they can amplify them and allow them to grow larger and at a faster rate. Because their scale and scope is different, the normal analog tools and methods have had to adjust, and may not have kept pace.
Some traditional communications methods used to break down silos in the analog world are evolving and extending with ‘Work Out Loud‘ approaches that use the power and speed of technology to deliver communications and ideas to newer recipients. The walls can still come down.
However, using traditional ways to identify the silos in the first place can remain difficult. The search indexes of the Microsoft Graph could provide the network mapping, for example, and help us understand where silos are forming.
The technology is able to not only index the content and information within an enterprise, but it can also track all the actions of the people creating and consuming that information. It can provide the first truly omniscient view of what an organization does, and how it is doing it, and with whom the information is shared. Data driven decisions – in real time and at organisation scale – could potentially occur with regularity.
The organisation could use these data to identify the numerous internal silos from the view from the top, and then work to tear them down as needed. Further, the organisation could find and celebrate successful efforts to work out loud, which helps build momentum for working more openly.
What should individuals do?
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of working with this new and powerful perspective is at the personal level. Individuals can see the organisation in new ways from their point of view and through the lens of the now exposed (to them) personal trends. They can see more clearly and visually that they work with certain people or groups more or less often than they may have thought.
Modern search still works to return results from right across Office 365 if you know how to use it. Martin White makes many valid points about how transparent we should be with personalised (graph-based) search. But once you have this understanding it provides an increased chance to discover a new colleague or collaboration partner within your organisation, someone with similar interests and experiences. Those serendipitous moments around connecting to new people and new content can add joy and satisfaction to everyday work.
Silos happen. Humans and technology working together can help diminish their negative influences such as isolation, groupthink, and blind spots of the bigger picture. At the same time, those forces can accentuate positive actions, such as connecting with previously unknown content and collaboration partners.