In this final instalment on Microsoft 365, we’ll be taking a look in detail at the automation tools available.
What is particularly interesting about this set of tools, known as the Power Platform, is the low code/no-code approach Microsoft has taken. In theory, users with little or no coding experience can create their own applications and publish them for their colleagues. The traditional barriers around skills, experience and resource that prevented firms from automating their processes can be effectively removed. We’re now in an era where the FD can be given the capability to create their own reports, instead of waiting for these to be delivered by internal teams or consultants. The training on the technology is freely available from Microsoft and they even supply templates that allow you to deliver useful business tools in minutes.
Of course, traditional developers (not looking at anyone here, David) will say the new tools are in some ways actually harder than writing “direct code” as they remove the ease/power of writing code to do exactly what you want – but that is the point. The simplification of development into business terms rather than technical knowledge.
Yes, those processes may need three steps that a developer could do with one, but those three steps can be done and understood by people without decades of training and knowledge.
What exactly is the Power Platform?
First up is Power Automate, a tool that allows you to automate the mundane repetitive processes you undertake every day. That could be anything from sending a document for manager approval through to populating a spreadsheet from responses submitted via a survey. Power Automate integrates with other software through a range of connectors. These are hooks into popular applications that allow you to pull and push data between them. For example, besides the standard Microsoft connectors, there are connectors for Adobe Sign, Google Drive and Twitter.
Getting started with Power Automate couldn’t be simpler, as Microsoft provides hundreds of pre-configured workflow templates for you to use.
Sitting alongside Power Automate is Power Apps. With Power Apps, firms can deliver custom-built software applications to desktops and mobile devices. The quality of the applications that can be built means that Power Apps is a viable alternative for firms to traditional applications for managing expenses, booking meeting rooms and hot desks, or even creating your own automated response “chatbot” for your website.
Going a step further, Microsoft has introduced an Artificial Intelligence (AI) tool in Power Apps that can be used to analyse documents and extract pre-defined data types. A good example of this is identifying invoice fields to extract data for financial systems. It can even be used to detect key talking points within a document.
As noted above, Microsoft also provides templates for Power Apps which means that firms can quickly build their first application or learn more about the process of building one by dissecting how these templates have been put together.
The final part of the Power Platform suite is Power BI. In all honesty, I don’t class Power BI as an automation tool in the same way as Power Automate and Power Apps, but it is certainly worth a mention.
Power BI is the business analytics/intelligence look which we’ve seen used to create dashboards for reporting key metrics such as time recorded, or fees billed. The real strength in Power BI is its ability to visualise this kind of data with minimal coding. Once a data visualisation has been created, these reports can be easily deployed not only to the desktop or smart devices in the Power BI app, they can also be embedded in other Microsoft 365 products such as SharePoint and Microsoft Teams.
I do think that some knowledge of data modelling and querying is useful to make Power BI work but the hard work is taken out of creating the visual front end.
When all these elements are combined, the Power Platform is a compelling proposition. However, there are two major things to consider.
1. Licensing & Costs
While it is easy to access and start using these tools, there can be significant costs involved in deploying them to staff or using some of the tools to interface with clients. When considering the use of the Power Platform it is always worth undertaking a cost-benefit analysis before committing time to development.
2. “Wild West”
Given the ease in which applications can be deployed (and the lack of technical skills/ traditional change management processes) of those developing them, it may become hard to maintain and support the application environment. Especially when considering these applications/processes can be automated responses to data events (receipt of email/change of a value in a database).
For example, one process may automate one process which then inadvertently triggers another process created by another user.
This concludes our series on Microsoft 365 and I hope you found it useful. If you missed our earlier articles these can be found below. It is worth keeping in mind that Microsoft never stands still with their development of the technology and I am sure we will see some interesting developments over the coming months and years. Where a significant development arises for the legal sector, we will be sure to keep you informed.
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