Power Platform: From Paper to Automated Process

Image: Microsoft Services Digitise your paper-based services header Screwed up paper Power Automate Power Bu and Power Apps icons
By Clarissa Gillingham on

Using Microsoft’s Power Platform to digitise your paper-based processes

There are times when I love paper. I love drawing using traditional sketch paper, I love jotting down notes in a notebook, and – for me – nothing can beat the feeling of curling up on the sofa with a mug of hot chocolate and a good old-fashioned paperback book.

But I’m not blind to the downsides. It’s so much easier to share a picture drawn on Photoshop with an art tablet than a traditional sketch, my physical notebooks will never magically gain a Search feature (no matter how much I want them to), and you can take a hell of a lot more books with you on holiday if you have a Kindle.

In fact, we now have so many alternatives to paper that – with the prevalence of mobile technology, the increase in concern for our planet’s well-being, and the physical impracticability of storing and using an inordinate amount of paper – the world is moving away from it entirely. Especially now, when we are all working from home and unable to just hand a piece of paper over to a colleague, it’s time for business processes to join the digital revolution, adapt and move forward.

So what are my options?

Business has a long history with paper (we’ve even coined the term ‘paperwork’), so chances are you’ve experienced some of the shortfalls of paper processes in your own working life.

  • Have you ever had someone in your organisation fail to fill out a form correctly?
  • Have you ever had to chase colleagues for their written response?
  • Have you ever had to spend hours looking through filing cabinets for the right piece of paper?
  • Have you ever thought, “There has to be a better way?”

The truth is, there are lots of better ways.

You could opt for a pre-packaged solution that you can buy off the shelf and have running in a matter of hours. But what if it’s not quite the right format for your users? What if there’s a form that is almost right, but missing a vital question? This can lead to an adoption and training nightmare.

You may, instead, want to procure a fully bespoke solution. These can be used to absolutely hit the nail on the head for what you want, getting your forms perfect for your org, but with a significant cost in time. Building an application from scratch is not a five-minute, five-day, or even five-week job. And often during the time it takes to develop such a solution, your requirements may have changed. Similarly, many bespoke solutions can end up being reflections of one person’s, or one group’s, interpretation of the initial requirements, and it can be difficult to subsequently make changes after large amounts of development work is done. Add to that that bespoke solutions are usually developed only for a particular platform – you’ll need to choose between iOS, Android, Web or Desktop from the start – and you start to end up constrained by the choices you made at the project’s initiation.

Most organisations find they need something flexible, something with in-built cross-platform compatibility, something fast to develop but with powerful customisation options, something that will handle their data and access securely; in essence something that hits that ‘Goldilocks’ sweet spot in the middle.

Luckily this happens to be the perfect description of Microsoft’s Power Platform.

Why pick the Power Platform?

Microsoft’s Power Platform is a framework of tools designed to allow all types of businesspeople to create digital solutions. That’s essentially a fancy way of saying that the Power Platform allows you to:

  • Make use of Microsoft’s authentication and security systems
  • Use tools designed to simplify the creation of applications that natively support concepts that would traditionally require a Software Developer
  • Provide access to these powerful tools via your employees’/colleagues’ Microsoft accounts

Most Microsoft Office-users are comfortable using Word as a tool to create fully customisable documents, Excel to create fully customisable spreadsheets, and Power Point to create fully customisable slide decks. In much the same way, the tools available within the Power Platform are designed to make users feel comfortable – regardless of their experience level – and empower them to quickly create solutions that fit their organisation’s needs.

Let’s explore each element of the Power Platform, one by one, and see what they can do to help you get rid of your paper processes.

Image: Microsoft 365 Services Power Apps icon

Create your own fully customised solution with Canvas Power Apps

Canvas Apps is the Power Platform’s tool to create User Experiences. The beautiful thing about Canvas Apps is that it allows the user to put together building blocks to create an application in much the same way as you would add elements onto a slide in Power Point. The editor is WYSIWYG (“What You See Is What You Get”), which means you get instant feedback on how your app is going to look and feel right from the get-go.

Canvas Apps can also connect to a huge host of different data sources, from Microsoft 365 sources like SharePoint, Excel, One Drive and the Common Data Service (which we will cover in more detail a little further down) to external connections like SQL, Twitter, GitHub, Google Drive and Salesforce. This means that with just a couple of clicks you can pull in your data and start creating forms.

But Canvas Apps is not just there to allow you to add text boxes or drop-down controls for users to enter or view information, it also allows you to start injecting logic into your processes. If you have a phone number field on a form, then you probably want the user to enter a valid phone number. With paper processes there is no way to validate or verify that a user has correctly answered a question before they have already sent in their submission, but with Canvas Apps we can introduce formulae that check to make sure our users are entering the correct information before they submit.

Why stop there? We can also use formulae to control which fields are visible to the user based on their previous answers, or to colour-code responses for easy interpretation of data. Have some company branding? Make your form match with low-code/no-code customisation options. The possibilities are only limited by your own imagination!

Moreover, every app you make in Canvas Apps will be accessible on PC, sporting inbuilt support for all web browsers, and on all smart mobile devices. That’s right, one solution that can be consumed on iOS, Android and the Web. This means that however your team works, wherever they are, whatever device they have, they will be able to engage with your application.

Image: Microsoft 365 Services Power Automate icon

Cut out the middleman with Power Automate

Power Automate is the Power Platform’s tool for (you guessed it!) automating your processes. Almost any mundane or repetitive task can be replaced by a flow in Power Automate. Need to send form responses to a colleague? No more walking across the office with a piece of paper in hand, instead just automatically notify them via email or in Microsoft Teams! Need to transfer data between an Excel spreadsheet and a database? Why do it yourself when a flow can do it for you? Need to create and sort documents in your One Drive? Let Power Automate do the work so you can focus on more important (and interesting) things.

Just like Power Apps, Power Automate can connect to hundreds of different data sources and applications. We can use these connections to automatically trigger processes (e.g. “When our business is mentioned in a Tweet” or “When a new item is created in a SharePoint list”), or to execute actions (e.g. “Create a file in One Drive” or “Send an email”).

These actions are chained together in a simple flow chart style, using drag and drop boxes to create an intuitive design experience that allows even those with no previous experience of coding or software development to quickly and easily put together logical processes. Logic can be injected at every step, allowing you to create complex flows in a minimal timeframe, and there is also a host of template flows available for use right out of the gate.

Image: Dynamics 365 Common Data Service icon

Centralise and secure your data with the CDS

While Power Apps and Power Automate can connect to any data source, there is a reason why the Common Data Service is the data source of choice for many Power Platform Solution Makers.

Firstly, it’s important to realise that your data is an extremely valuable commodity. Digitisation means that we can start to make use of this commodity to improve the everyday running, productivity, and in some cases overall vision of our orgs. But before we get too carried away, we must ensure this data is kept safe and secure. Fortunately, Microsoft’s Common Data Service allows us to do just that, enabling us to easily control who can read, edit, or delete different entities and their records via Role Security. In fact, the security is so granular you can even control it down to the field level. Users can also apply this security to all data brought in to the CDS, utilising the CDS’ capacity for pulling data from other data sources into its central location with ease. The CDS can act as the centralised database for your organisation. This means that everyone in the org, regardless of their physical location or what solutions they are using or developing, can have access to a single set of standardised data. Why have 14 slightly different ways of storing a customer’s information when you can have one standard entity that can feed into all your apps?

Another huge benefit of the CDS is that it gives you access to creating Model-Driven Power Apps. Unlike the previously covered Canvas Apps, which put the focus on User Experience first, Model-Driven apps are driven by the data in your Common Data Service. Each entity, or collection of information, can be given its own Forms, Views, Business Rules, and Business Process Flows to provide building blocks that can then be utilised in any Model-Driven app.

This method of producing apps results in being able to very quickly generate tools that assist your employees/colleagues as your processes move along. By providing a defined path of action and business recommendations, these apps can significantly improve the consistency of an organisation’s practices. While Canvas Apps will always be unparalleled in empowering users to create beautiful and interactive user experiences, Model-Driven Apps will become your go-to tool for quickly and efficiently creating solutions to help manage the ‘behind-the-scenes’ nitty-gritty, or assist in any parts of a business process that have to be manually initiated.

Image: Microsoft 365 Services Power BI icon

Gain and share insights with Power BI

Power BI is the oldest member of the Power Platform, with its own history of transforming the way businesses approach data analytics. It’s difficult to gain overall insights from a sheaf of paper, but one of the many benefits of obtaining, safely storing, and utilising your data in a digital platform as opposed to using paper processes is that you can start to obtain an idea of the bigger picture. This is where Power BI comes in.

Very few people can take in and understand a data set just by looking at a spreadsheet-esque table. As human beings we thrive on visual cues: visualisations allow us to gain context and understand key information at-a-glance. To fuel this need, Power BI allows you to represent your data in the form of a myriad of different visualisations, from bar charts, to line graphs, to treemaps, KPIs, decomposition trees and more. It’s key to choose the right way to display your data, but once you have your visualisations in place, you can start to see patterns, gain insights and convey stories with your data.

Each visualisation on its own can bring value, but when combined into a report, the story truly begins to grow. Show comparisons, or contrast how an idea or product is performing amongst different demographics or in different regions. Importantly you can keep your reports up to date with scheduled refreshes of your data: like the other members of the Power family, Power BI can connect to a multitude of data sources and combine these different data sources to improve insights.

While a report will often be designed to tell a particular story, or give insights on a particular aspect of your processes, dashboards can be created to collect together all of the information you as an individual want to track, regardless of which report they come from.

This constantly updating, personally curated overview is something you never could have achieved with paper.

Please sir, can I have some more?

Yes, you certainly can!

While these four tools – Power Apps, Power Automate, Power BI, and the Common Data Service – are the cornerstones of the Power Platform, there are many more tools the Platform and the surrounding Microsoft 365 services provide that can help you to push automation even further, and leave paper processes behind for good.

Keep an eye out for the next part of this blog mini-series where we’ll be providing an overview of Microsoft Forms, AI Builder, Power Virtual Agents and Power Apps Portals!

How to get started

On the 7th and 20th of May, myself and my colleagues at Silversands are holding two free Power Platform webinars in which we will go through the process of using each one of these tools to digitise a paper process. If you want to find out more about the Power Platform and what implementations of these tools can look like, why not sign up for free today? Remember, if you can’t attend live, signing up will automatically get you a recording of the webinar, straight to your inbox, so you can catch up whenever suits you.

In the meantime, stay tuned for the next part of this blog mini-series, and if you’re inspired to get started with any of the tools outlined above, here is a list of links to our previous content that you may find helpful:

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