What is Microsoft Flow?
Microsoft Flow is one of those products that is greatly misunderstood. For some, Flow is an extension of SharePoint that allows easier access to the data stored there. For others, Flow is the go-to tool for automating workflows within Microsoft Dynamics. Thanks to the enhanced functionality from recent releases, it has become a real gem of a product that enables the creation of workflows to create supportable workarounds for everyday problems.
Traditionally these workarounds, workflows, or applications were classed as End User Computing, created by the business, supported by the business, to make a business process repeatable or easier to perform. A key feature of these developments was that they were outside the support and control of the IT department, which over time caused significant problems. Using Flow, such workflows can be created using standard components which make support so much easier. However, unlike traditional End User Computing, Flows can cover the end-to-end process, moving outside the boundaries of individual applications.
Flow Integration – Connectors and Templates
Part of the reason that Flow has improved greatly is the range of integrations, connectors and templates available. This means it is now easier and quicker to create Flows.
Flow connectors join different stages or applications together. A connector defines the data required by the integration, but more importantly what data will be returned. Think plumbing and connecting two pipes together. Loose connectors are not desirable and will cause leaks. There are over 200 connectors currently (August 2019) available and they fall into three groups:
- Standard out-of-the-box connectors – These connectors are available from the flow.microsoft.com website and can be used without incurring additional licensing or other fees. They will typically connect Microsoft products like Excel, SharePoint, Outlook etc plus other common applications.
- Premium connectors – These connectors require a license which may or not may be included in the Flow license. Again, they are available from the flow.microsoft.com website and are clearly identified as “Premium”.
- Build-your-own custom connectors – Flow comes with the ability to custom build connectors to enable specific applications or processes to be built into a Flow. These can be shared.
Templates of previously written and tested Flows can also help speed up the creation. On the flow.microsoft.com website, we can find some of the popular Flows. We can add our own data, credentials, file locations and names etc which means we can leverage the work done previously to create our own specific Flows.
Using connectors and templates means we can quickly create Flows that can simplify some of the processes which currently cause issues for our employees and customers. One of the benefits of using a Business Application like Microsoft Dynamics is to be able to use the standard, integrated reports that come with the product. However, the 6-12 months required to implement Dynamics creates a challenge of what to do in that intervening time. Often the perception is created that a lot of time and money is being spent, but there is very little to show for the investment. This is where Flow can help. Using Flow, we can create some quick wins by quickly creating workflows for manual or difficult processes. This will allow the generation of positive momentum and the users experience some shorter term benefits until Dynamics becomes available.
Whilst there are other workflow products, the principal benefit of Flow is that the licence cost is either included in the Dynamics 365 or Microsoft/Office365 license, which means the benefits can be unlocked reasonably quickly (compared to the overall Dynamics implementation). Like PowerBI is to Data Analytics, (yes there are dedicated Analytic platforms, however, PowerBI can address the majority of needs and is included in the current Microsoft investment), Flow can address enough of the workflow needs without further investment in a dedicated workflow tool. There are sufficient training materials and online support available to enable users or IT to start using Flow, making the approach low risk and very low cost.
Although online training material and support is available, the most effective way to start your Flow project is to engage with your Dynamics 365 partner. Create a short proof of concept for three or four high value flows, processes like expenses, time recording, or even new hire/JML Process – typically processes that happen often or affect most of your employees – so even a small saving will generate a significant benefit.
Using a Dynamics partner means you will get access to that partner’s kitbag of previously generated Flows plus an understanding of whether the process really requires a Flow, or whether an alternative approach like a PowerApp, PowerBI Report or Dashboard may be better suited. Two additional outcomes may also be considered, whether the functionality will be provided in Dynamics 365 and so there may be an avoidable cost and effort saving by waiting until Dynamics 365 has been deployed, or secondly, the workflow is more involved or complex than first thought and requires a dedicated workflow tool.
Shadow the consultant to pick up best practice and any style guides. Pick up any hints and tips and don’t be afraid to experiment. Ask the consultant for their opinion. This will develop the confidence to try building your own Flows as well as venturing into the online Flow community.
There is an unintended benefit from using Flow and that is IT gets closer to the business and is seen in a much more positive light, adding value rather than adding cost and delay. From an IT perspective, working closely with the business is much more interesting than the humdrum administration activities normally done by IT. These are the small changes that can start to create a large effect. However, like every journey, no matter how long or short, start with taking the first step and that first step should be with Flow.