25 Oct Elevating your Microsoft 365 – A Quick Guide to the Power Platform
Whether you’re new to Microsoft 365, or you’re a long-time customer it’s likely you were enticed by its class leading productivity tools. These are the products that have come to define the Microsoft 365 product offering, and include the likes of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Teams, Outlook and SharePoint. These, supplemented by workflow management tools like Planner and To Do, tend to be the tools that businesses are most likely to engage with. With their intuitive interfaces, seamless cross-platform integration and wealth of internal features, they have helped countless businesses improve workplace productivity and embrace flexible work practices.
If you’re familiar with these platforms you may think you’ve mastered Microsoft 365, but many users are unaware that 365 offers another class of tools which offer next-level workplace productivity potential.
The Microsoft Power Platform is a set of ‘low-code’ business application tools. They differ from the productivity tools we’ve mentioned, in their ability to link up and rationalise data from multiple sources for various purposes. The Power Platform consists of four distinct yet interrelated tools: Power BI, Power Apps, Power Automate and Power Virtual Agents. Let’s explore each of these, to help you determine whether the Power Platform might have a useful role in your organisation.
Today’s businesses generate masses of data. The challenge for business leaders lies in drawing together this data from segregated sources, translating it into meaningful business insights, and presenting it in a communicable, easy-to-interpret way. Power BI is a tool designed to assist in this exact challenge.
Power BI is a business intelligence tool that can draw together data from multiple sources in order to produce immersive and intricate visualisations. It’s comprised of multiple components each with a distinct role. These include:
- Power BI desktop. This is where data visualisations are realised. An intuitive ‘drag and drop’ canvas makes rationalising and presenting data easy.
- Power BI Services. This is where reports created in the desktop app can be published.
- Power BI Mobile. A handy mobile app lets you view business insight dashboards anywhere.
The platform supports a vast number of data sources including SQL databases, Excel spreadsheets, Azure cloud platforms, social media sites like Facebook, Salesforce, Google analytics and much more.
Once the data sets are chosen and critical data extracted, Power BI offers many charts, graphs and diagrammatic forms designed to make the raw data meaningful to outside observers.
Once a report is created, a link is generated to permit easy sharing. You can also make dashboards viewable in Microsoft Teams with the Power BI teams app, and embed your reports in SharePoint sites with the use of special web parts. With Power BI your team can have easy access to the organisational data relevant to their role or department, and you can share relevant data with external parties as necessary.
Power Apps is a low-code business application development tool. This intuitive platform makes web and mobile app development accessible and fast, requiring little or no coding expertise thanks to a library of pre-constructed templates and connectors. Power Apps allows for the creation of 3 distinct forms of business application:
- Canvas Apps. As the name implies, these apps start from a blank canvas, allowing for a high degree of customisation in terms of workflows and appearance. These apps are typically end user facing, and could be useful for tasks such as holiday requests, support ticket generation or expense claim filing.
- Model-driven apps. While canvas apps start with a framework into which data is inserted, model-driven apps use data as a starting point and subject this data to processes to determine the outcome.
- A portal allows you to present exiting apps or data in outward facing web interfaces. Grant access to clients, partners or vendors using authentication via the likes of LinkedIn, Microsoft, Google or Facebook.
Power Apps can be used to conceive intuitive, low-code applications for a wide range of business functions and processes. Some common use scenarios include: employee onboarding, expenses approval, appointment scheduling and support ticket generation. Power Apps functions as a business automation tool, allowing complex processes to be structured and streamlined and multiple data sources to be integrated without clunky manual handling. Apps can also be created to improve customer engagement, with the ability to make relevant, insightful data and resources accessible to external parties.
Power Automate allows repeating manual tasks to be automated using a simple and intuitive workflow generation interface. It achieves this in 4 key ways:
- Cloud Flows. Cloud flows can initiate predetermined actions according to a schedule, when a button is pressed or when certain input criteria are met. For example, you could trigger an email to every member of your team whenever a new client is added to your database.
- Business process flows. By generating a business process flow you can structure internal process and ensure complex procedures are executed accurately and consistently. This feature of power automate is great for framing out complex, dependency-laden processes such as customer onboarding.
- Robotic process automation. This capability of power automate is useful for automating processes involving applications which don’t feature APIs, such as legacy databases. Using capabilities like keystroke logging, robotic process automation can enable the easy transfer of data between segregated systems without laborious manual handling.
- Process mining. This investigative tool allows you to analyse processes and identify sticking points with the aim of improving efficiency through process optimisation.
Featuring pre-constructed connectors and templates, and with the ability to incorporate artificial intelligence for next-level business efficiency, power automate is an empowering tool for levelling-up workplace productivity. Establish and structure business processes, apply automation to speed up workflows and then review and optimise the process from beginning to end.
Power Virtual Agents
Online chat has become an increasingly popular medium of first engagement for online businesses. Chatbots are a great way to drive engagement and can be used to lessen service workloads by directing customers to the right assistance or enabling some degree of self service.
Power Virtual Agents allow for the creation of highly customisable, ‘no-code’ chatbots. An intuitive ‘drag and drop’ interface allows users with no technical expertise to construct and launch chatbots, with the ability to structure the conversation and define the script to suit unique circumstances.
Once some conversational context is given, Power Virtual Agents uses artificial intelligence to comprehend ‘natural language’ inputs, making for a more organic chat experience. The platform can also use connectors to initiate further actions. This reduces workloads for human agents and allows customers to attend to their own needs without assistance.
The Azure bot framework allows chatbots to be integrated into numerous environments, including Microsoft Teams, Facebook, your website and mobile applications. Chatbots are most often associated with customer-facing environments, but with Power Virtual Agents you could launch chatbots internally. You could for example, construct a bot that assists with HR enquiries, and launch it within Microsoft Teams.
Microsoft’s Power Platform Summarised
So what makes the Power Platform distinct from the rest of Microsoft 365. Put simply: automation! Automated features designed to enhance productivity can be found throughout Microsoft 365, but the Power Platform takes these capabilities to the next level. Complex workflows can be executed with no user inputs, connectors allow data from unrelated sources to be consolidated without manual handling and AI-powered chatbots can enable employees, customers and vendors to attend to their queries without the requirement for a dedicated human chat agent.
At Netcom we are well-versed in helping companies in various sectors to navigate the often mystifying, jargon-filled world of IT. With over 15 years’ experience covering virtually all aspects of business IT, we can help guide your business to a prosperous future with the right IT at your side every step of the way. We can help you deploy cutting edge solutions that will not only help you weather the storm that is modern IT but also keep your business at the top of its game. Contact us today.
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