(Knowledge) Management by Walking Around

At Microsoft’s recent IGNITE conference, Microsoft showed the global community of users, consultants and aficionados lots of incremental improvements to core products such as Azure and Microsoft 365. This content is incredibly useful, as it’s one of a few opportunities each year to hear Microsoft’s technical roadmaps for products on which enterprise customers may spend or save millions of dollars.

At the same time, Microsoft continues to share its progress against three core initiatives or “big bets” for the future:

  • Quantum Computing
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI)
  • Mixed Reality

Of these, I was most inspired by the mixed reality content.  Of particular interest is the intersection of mixed reality and knowledge management.  The spatial organization of information is as old as the Ancient Greeks and Romans’ “Method of Loci“, and the marriage of spatial information and digital content creates new opportunities for knowledge managers and consumers.

Knowledge Management Meets Mixed Reality

Curators of information frequently use spatial metaphors to do so:  the book “Moonwalking with Einstein” recounts how competitive “memory athletes” capable of memorizing vast amounts of data use “Memory Palaces” to add a spatial element to their mental model of the data. More commonly, many modern meeting organizers and scribes use a meeting schematic to document where people were sitting in a meeting or a conference in order to recall meeting goings-on more clearly.

I see two places where mixed reality and knowledge management will intersect in interesting ways:

  1. Virtual, immersive environments where I can organize content spatially in whatever way helps me remember it best, from memory palaces to virtual libraries with content on shelves I can arrange, or have arranged for me (by topic, author, title, year published, etc.). Part of the benefit of these environments is the combination of physical and digital attributes, not having to choose between flat, indexed, digital information (“small pieces loosely joined” a la Wikipedia) vs physically organized analog information that can only be in one place at a time (a la your local public library). Two solutions in this space merit watching:
    • Spatial (www.spatial.is) – a maker of shared, augmented workspaces for virtual or distributed teams. These workspaces work across devices, can be persistent, and use realistic avatars for real-time collaboration in three dimensions as well.
    • SharePoint Spaces – Microsoft’s attempt to marry a pre-eminent KM platform (especially in light of exciting new Project Cortex announcements at IGNITE) with a n immersive VR experience.  While SharePoint Spaces represents an interesting forward-looking “moon shot” investment by Microsoft, my current impression from both sessions and booth time at IGNITE is that its current incarnation is substantially underbaked.
  2. Augmented/mixed reality environments for KM where I can organize content (or have it organize itself using AI) in the context of existing physical environments, and overlay one over the other.  This content can be:
    • Asset-centric – For example, when close to or looking at a specific asset, I can see asset history, provenance, maintenance records, etc.
    • Dynamically organized based on my physical location – I get served data in a screen overlay based on proximity to specific places or things, based on my own history, stated preferences, Microsoft Graph signals, etc.
    • Contextual to a meeting or event – For example, what meetings or events relevant to me took place here?  What photos exist of them that are relevant to me? Etc.

The Real World Scenario

So, to apply this to a real-world scenario, I’ll take up the mantle from Microsoft’s Sadie Van Buren, who presented on mixed reality at Ignite, via her post-conference blog post on this subject:

If digital files can be associated to a precise physical location, and viewed in a virtual space, why should anyone have to spend time searching for the right manual, policy, or SOP for a particular piece of equipment or process?  What if all the documentation, specs, training, issue history, and support contact info could be virtually attached to every piece of equipment in a facility?

A Matter of Degree

This scenario requires some foundational work. Knowledge management experts will need to consider such issues as:

  • Spatial metadata – some content already has spatial data (lat/long), but a great deal more precision needs to be added for many scenarios (for example, the location of assets on a factory floor or precise coordinates within an exhibit hall at a large conference). KMers should engage MR experts on this, as they are used to thinking in three dimensions and can bring unique insights to the KM world.
  • A thoughtful security architecture – this is important in any classic KM system, and permissions are a challenge for many site administrators.  Adding spatial data (e.g., “Should I have permissions groups by location? Do I show objects in space but hide their metadata if the user doesn’t have permissions?”) literally adds a new dimension to security.
  • Integration with systems of record –frequently, asset-centric information lives in dedicated asset-management systems, engineering content management applications, and field service applications. Examination of these could inform metadata decisions.

But we’ll also need mixed reality experts to add their own insight and capabilities on such issues as immersive 3D models of spaces for organizing content, new hardware, and new user interfaces like gaze, gesture, voice and haptic feedback to help users realize the “art of the possible.”

Calls to Action for KMers

Here’s what I recommend for calls to action for knowledge managers interested in the marriage of KM and Mixed Reality:

  • Seek use cases — For some additional information about how to put these creative ideas into action, look to organizations who have solved this problem before – read the Microsoft customer evidence, which is full of great ideas.
  • Think about spatial dimensions of your content — Spend time thinking about your content in new ways: the location/context in which it’s most meaningful/useful, and how you would tag it by adding spatial metadata to it (x,y,z coordinates, meeting room locations, booth locations, shop floor locations, etc.).
  • Test your hypotheses — Use your local Microsoft Technology Center to test the new HoloLens 2, and consider an accelerator like Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Studio or a qualified partner to accelerate your process of creating a pilot solution. 
  • Plan/budget for a proof of concept — The hardware is ready, especially in light of the new HoloLens 2 announcement, and pure MR solutions are somewhat mature, but SharePoint Spaces is still a “futures” kind of play, and the services eco-system is still considering how to put these solution components together.

While the ripest area for immediate return on investment is currently asset-centric, highly-engineered environments, MR benefits will soon accrue to knowledge workers and curators of intangible assets. Start planning now, and seize the high ground early!

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