Microsoft has really changed the way we do business with some of the services available in Azure. I am in the Azure platform more than is probably healthy, but with that, I start to connect some of the services with tasks that I see done all the time. The power platform available on Azure really brings the automation side of things to the small business. We are going to take a look at what makes up the power platform and what it can do for us.
You have probably heard people talking about building apps, business analytics, and automation I know I have at least. Azure was supposed to be this great thing in the cloud that would allow people to do the things that you have to be a big corporation to be able to afford. What happened with all that? Well, Microsoft did it. They built the infrastructure needed to allow for this and make it available at your fingertips. Some of this is probably already available in your office 365 subscription.
The Power Platform consists of four tools;
- Power BI
- Power Apps
- Power Automate
- Power Virtual Agents
Let’s take a look and see what they can do to help us. Now not all of these are going to be right for everyone. That is why we have them in the power platform. You can pick the right tool for the right job.
Business Intelligence it’s not just some cool new tool, it has some great uses out there. Power BI is one of the better platforms I have seen for it too. I guess before we talk about Power BI we really need to explain what the “BI” is. Business intelligence is a way for you to look at the data, any data really. It’s all about becoming intelligent about your business. Looking at your data in new and innovative ways and analyzing it. This gives you the ability to see where you are or can make money for your business, how you can increase efficiencies and so much more.
Let’s look at what this would look like. If we look at a retail store, you would want to know about your sales, stores that have opened and just basic data. In the past this would mean you would ask the CPA for a profit and loss statement, maybe create some spreadsheets throw in some pivot tables. All that takes time and you have wait for the data. Then you can spend a few hours looking at spreadsheets. Sounds like a lovely way to take a nap.
If we look at the same data in Power BI, you have to understand that you still have the underlying data here. All you are really doing in Power BI is presenting it in a format that is easy for you to read and sort through. Having this data will allow you to start looking at trend analysis and figuring out where you think you should go with your business.
Here are your boring spreadsheets in Power BI…
The really cool part here is, this all becomes dynamic which is really hard to show you without video or a live demo. You could actually click on each of these and drill down into the data and open up more visuals that will expand upon that data you want to explore. Let’s dive a little deeper into our toolbox and see what we have next.
Our next in the magical toolbox of ours, is Power Apps. This allows you to create your very own customized apps. These I see more for specific purposes than anything else. We can use power apps to quickly create custom apps to accomplish a variety of things. The question I must ask is, just because you can, should you? I can see the benefit here, for some things this can be a game changer. What if you are in a medical clinic or a hospital in the middle of this Covid-19 situation. You are running low on critical supplies, like ventilators or masks, or a hundred other things that you need to help treat your patients. Well pull out your phone and bring up that app, and punch in the numbers for patients and what you need and alert your critical response team. There are hundreds if not thousands of things you can do with this technology.
Well that sounds great, but I don’t know how to code an app!
With Power Apps you do not need to know! This allows you to build an app in a pretty simple interface without the need to code. You can customize it to look and do what you want. It can even be put in your MS Teams channel, webpages, SharePoint, or your mobile device. This really makes it versatile and for the right problem this can be the game changer that pushes you over the finish line.
Power Automate is a service that helps you create automated workflows between your favorite apps and services to synchronize files, get notifications, collect data and more. Ok so what does that mean.
Power automate lets you setup these workflows to bring together the data and services you are collecting from different sources. There are several different types of flows you can do to accomplish different types of things.
- Automated Flows – Create a flow that performs one or more tasks automatically after it’s triggered by an event.
- Button flows – Run repetitive tasks from anyplace, at any time, via your mobile device.
- Scheduled flows – Create a flow that performs one or more tasks on a schedule.
- Business process flows – Define a set of steps for people to follow to take them to a desired outcome.
- UI flows – Record and automate the playback of manual steps on legacy software.
The different types of flows allow you to customize what you need to be done and when. There are thousands of templates already made and more show up every day, check out which ones can help you.
Making automated flows works great for times when you want things to happen with you having to do them. Kind of the definition of automate. Think about the different services you use, and what you do with those. Look at Microsoft Forms, once a form is filled out you must go look at the response. Well, that is a lot of extra work for something you could have in your email or delivered to a teams channel. I use Power Automate to do just that. One of the more useful things I use the automated flows to give me a mobile device push when I get emails from specific people.
Use Case (Power Automate)
I had a request from an HR director to help them with the hiring process. They wanted to have a document that the hiring managers could fill out and email over to everyone in the approval chain.
What if we took as much of the process away from manual intervention?
What if we had a way to fill out the document, and have it send itself to each of the managers in the approval process? What if it even told HR who approved it and who didn’t? What if it told HR when the final approval was done?
So, we broke out a whiteboard and sketched it out to see who needed what and when. Then we took the steps and went to the power platform and took out the right tool for the job! Here comes Power Automate to the rescue.
We built the form using MS Forms and then used Power Automate to gather the form data when it is submitted and create an approval to send to each of the hiring managers. Each step of the way we are informing the hiring manager that submitted the request and the HR department. When it is all said and done, the HR department gets an email saying it was approved and can go do the magical things that HR does.
There are tons of things you could make this work for just in the Microsoft world, but it doesn’t stop there. There are connectors and services you can use for 3rd party applications too.
What if you want to know every time someone uses a specific hashtag on twitter? The marketing people might love that idea. To know when someone is talking about your company or product.
You could just as easily have this email you when it happens or give you a mobile device push. We also have button flows; these work great for times when you need it to happen whenever you want it to. I have button flows for impromptu meetings so I can block my calendar, I even have one that gives me the weather based on my phone’s current location.
The business process flows are really designed around guiding end-users through the process. This would be something like onboarding a new employee, or the hiring process. This could even be how your salespeople validate moving an opportunity to a lead to a client. These are a bit more complicated to build, but once you have them you don’t need to do it again. I have always believed that taking the time to add the process to your business saves time for everyone.
If you want to try this out, check out https://us.flow.microsoft.com/
Power Virtual Agents
Have you heard people mention bots? Or seen that little chat pop up when you visit a website? That is what we are going to talk about here. Virtual agents are those little “bots” to do things for us, so we don’t have to. Power Virtual Agents lets you create those bots without needed to go learn the coding behind it. You can use a graphical interface to tell it what you want it to do and when.
These have been used for years on websites, to gather information or help you with an order. The usefulness of having a bot to take care of things you would normally have to do is immense. We always want to drive traffic to our websites, but this let’s us gather some critical data about who is going to the website. What if we can capture those website visitors and turn them into leads or sales. What if you need a place your employees can go to ask questions about Covid-19 and get the latest responses without having to stop someone in HR and have them provide that info? You could provide it once, and then have a bot available to answer those questions. You could even use the bot as a method to notify HR if someone tested positive, the bot could gather the info and then notify HR about it or you could combine this with Power Automate and have a mobile device push to your emergency response team.
These tools allow an incredible amount of flexibility and ways to increase productivity. That becomes even more evident when we start combining these tools with each other and other services. We can integrate them with Microsoft or 3rd party services and applications. I have barely touched on what these tools can do, the possibilities of what we can perform with these tools is endless. I would encourage you to take a problem and dig into how you could use things you already have available to solve it. I see all the time where someone buys a 3rd party app to do something they could do already. It takes a little time to build the solution with these tools, but not really that much. The whole idea is to reduce the time it takes and bridge the gaps between subject matter experts and the end-user.