All businesses strive to create repeatable systems that will improve employee productivity, reduce time to market, reduce gaps between steps, and eliminate errors. We all want to be well-oiled machines, but often businesses find themselves ‘reinventing the wheel’ by repeating steps or by failing to follow defined processes. This leads to rework, mistakes and wasted time. We can reduce these inefficiencies by employing automation with the Microsoft Power Platform.
Types of Automation
Let’s go over some of the basics. A processes automation or workflow in Power Automate is called a flow. At the time of this writing, there are five types of flows to choose from.
The five starting points seen in the screenshot above are:
- Automated Cloud Flow – this is a process triggered by an event (e.g., a file created in SharePoint or OneDrive, a task assigned to you in Planner, the moment when you receive an email, when someone creates or closes a pull request, and many, many, many more).
- Instant Cloud Flow – these types are meant for repetitive tasks you want to trigger on the fly with literally the click of a button (e.g., the ability to tap a button on a mobile device that automates a build in Azure DevOps and sends a push notification).
- Scheduled Cloud Flow – Scheduled Cloud Flows are simply automated activities that begin at a scheduled time. Pick a start date/time and specify how often it repeats. You can use these to automate backups, set daily reminders (great for personal productivity), frequently check data from a list or database, and receive notifications based on specific criteria.
- Desktop Flow – this type of flow, also known as UI Flow, is what is referred to as Robotic Process Automation. Let’s assume a process requires manual interaction (e.g., entering data into a legacy desktop application or a web application). A desktop flow allows you to record an example of you entering that information into the desktop app or site and makes those steps repeatable. Note: this flow requires a premium license.
- Business Process Flow – this flow type is designed to visually guide people through a defined set of steps or stages in a process. Think about getting your car serviced: you walk in, someone asks for your name, maybe your phone number to call you when the work is done. Step 2, they’ll ask for the make and model of your car and how many miles are on it. Step 3, they go through a checklist of tasks that need to be performed for your particular service. Step 4, they return your car and collect payment. Those same steps occur for every customer coming in to have their car serviced. A mistake at any step could cause delays, poor service, or financial loss. A Business Process Flow can be used to ensure everyone knows what step we’re in and what needs to be done in that step.
These flows are your starting point. You would use them if you want to start from scratch and know what you need to build. What if you’re new to Power Automate and aren’t sure where to get started? Power Automate provides a library of templates that solve common tasks. Use them to solve your specific need, get ideas for other areas to automate, or as a starting point you can tweak for your unique use case.
Start with Templates
If you’re not quite ready to take the plunge and create your own flows from scratch, then below the five options just described are a series of pre-structured templates. You’ll need to configure them and possibly even add a few actions to meet your unique use case, but they’re great if you need to hit the ground running or just need an idea of where to start.
It’s worth nothing that not all of these templates will work for you. Some require premium licenses or connect to third party tools you may or may not have. I encourage you to take a look at the templates. There are quite a lot of them and they are broken up by categories, including: remote work, email, notifications, social, data collection, productivity, and more.
Create Your Own Simple Automations
So far, we have gone over the basics of getting started from scratch or from a template. But, how do you go about incrementally improving your business? The most successful businesses find ways to create systems. Systems act as a checklist of tasks that must be completed to achieve a specific goal. Systems reduce errors (e.g., forgetting to perform a critical task in a process). Systems also free-up time and, as a result, improve productivity by enabling people to use that time to focus on high-value work.
A Quick Look at an Approval Template
Nine times out of ten, when I’m approached about building an automated solution, there’s an approval process tied to it—so let’s look at one of the approval templates as a starting point. Start by selecting remote work to see what templates are available. The first one you’ll see is called “Request manager approval for a selected item.” At the top, you can see the main connectors used, which include SharePoint, an Office 365 connector which (as shown further below) is to get user information. There’s also a notification, mail, and approval that occurs in this template. At the bottom of the page, you can see what accounts are used when using those connectors. If this one meets your needs (or maybe is close to what you need), you may decide to start with it and tweak it.
Next, you’ll see the approval process is defined and fairly intuitive to configure. In reviewing the template, you’ll see this one is triggered when a person selects an item in SharePoint and starts this flow. The flow then retrieves that user’s profile and identifies that person’s manager. An approval task is then created with the title being “Approval request:,” followed by the value in a name column from the SharePoint list item. You would need to create that column in your list or choose a different column. The approval task is assigned to the manager of the person who started the flow; details from the list are added to the body, and the flow pauses there while it waits for the manager to approve or reject. Once the manager responds, a message is automatically sent to the requester with the results.
This template might just meet your specific need (save it and use it), or maybe you want to swap out some steps. For example, you might want to receive a text message—or maybe the person who needs to approve the task isn’t your manager but rather a designated approver from another department (e.g., a procurement supervisor).
How about Personal Productivity?
Process automation doesn’t need to be limited to a team. There are templates designed for personal productivity as well. If you filter the templates by Productivity, you’ll see a series that contains a mix of personal and team productivity. Taking a quick look, you’ll see templates that will save your email attachments to OneDrive or send you a push notification when a blog post is added on a site with an RSS feed. If you use Planner, there’s a template that will send you daily summaries, and another that will automatically create and assign a task to you whenever you flag an email. There are endless possibilities, and eliminating small, repetitive tasks that pull your focus away from high-value work will provide long term benefits.
Think Beyond Microsoft
At this point, you’ve seen how you can create a Flow from scratch. You’ve also learned how to leverage a template to get started improving team and personal productivity. These templates have been primarily geared toward the suite of Microsoft products: SharePoint, Planner, Outlook, etc. I want to point out that Power Automate has connectors to 3rd party services as well. Some may require additional licenses, so you’ll need to determine if the automation benefits outweigh the cost, but these connectors greatly expand the possibilities of what you can build and automate.
Where do I go from here?
Process automation through Power Automate is just one piece of the puzzle designed to define and execute your systems. Take inventory of your daily tasks to identify areas or activities that are drains on your time and should be automated. You’ll also want to identify businesses processes that have a defined set of steps that either experience frequent mistakes or delays that cost you time or negatively impact your business. Once you’ve created that list of processes, you can plan which one you want to work toward automating. You’ll also want to measure its impact. If automating an approval process doesn’t correct the mistakes, speed up the process, or free-up people’s time for high-value work, then it might not be a proper candidate for automation—or you might just need to revisit the process and see if there are ways to incrementally improve it.
Getting started is the easy part but you need to be careful, too. The tool is very intuitive, but you can make mistakes (e.g., accidentally email-bombing your CEO with an approval while he or she is out on a golf trip because you failed to put a proper validation step before sending the email). Occasionally, gaps in the connectors might require you to write some code (e.g., an Azure Function) to fill in the gap.
Power Automate is the backbone of a nearly endless set of solutions you can build for your business. It is merely a component of a set of products that allow you to create end-to-end business solutions at a fraction of the cost of a full development project. Its ability to orchestrate business processes for products in and out of the Microsoft ecosystem, its intuitive design, and its ease of use provide you with an easy, low-cost entry point to develop proof-of-concept solutions. These solutions could end up transforming your business—and we haven’t even talked about the additional tools you can couple with Power Automate to design mobile and web applications, reports and dashboards, and integrated artificial intelligence! Those are topics for another day. However, if you can’t wait and would like to know more, please feel free to reach out to us here at Anexinet! For now, go forth and automate.
SharePoint/Office 365 Architect