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PHOTO: Ashley Batz

After the initial excitement of an Office 365 implementation subsides, organizations will typically spend some time looking at their existing business processes to identify ways that Office 365 can improve them. It's nearly impossible to move all processes at once, but identifying and improving the most highly utilized ones will certainly assist with organization-wide adoption of Office 365. 

Office 365 has a lot of tools and it can be challenging to narrow them down to get a full picture of the pros and cons that may affect a development process. So let's take a look at some of the questions that frequently arise when reviewing requirements for a business process and how the Office 365 suite of tools might answer them. While you read this, think of some processes in your organization that could use a reboot. We'll be focusing focus on no/low-code solutions, so if custom development is in your budget, there will obviously be a lot more to consider.

Selecting the Right Office 365 Tool

When our customers are looking to improve a business process in Office 365 with a no or low-code tool, we start with three options: Microsoft Forms, SharePoint Lists/Libraries and PowerApps. The first thing we review is the current state of the business process and its complexity. If the process begins with something like simple data entry into an Excel spreadsheet with minimal logic, then Microsoft Forms might be a fit. Microsoft Forms works well for people who are not very technical and need something simple and straightforward to manage the form. The biggest con of Microsoft Forms is it offers minimal field types and options for logic. 

If the field types are more complicated than what Microsoft Forms offers, the next step is a SharePoint list (or library). SharePoint lists offer numerous field types and have some built-in features like views and validation. They are also a great jumping off point to utilize other tools like PowerApps. Libraries should be considered if a document upload is what initiates the business process.

PowerApps come into play when the logic of the form goes above and beyond what SharePoint lists can do out of the box. Think things like cascading dropdowns, repeating tables and connecting to data outside of the current list. Also, with PowerApps you get the bonus of adding mobile apps. Typically, if an existing business process is a complex InfoPath form, PowerApps will be the right place to begin. Keep in mind there is a steep learning curve from InfoPath to PowerApps, so some training will probably be required.

One other consideration is the audience for the business process. If that audience contains unlicensed external users, you may need to stick with Microsoft Forms or SharePoint Lists or Libraries, as PowerApps isn’t currently available for external users.

Related Article: Office 365 Tools: Where to Begin

Finding Your Business Process's "Flow"

Once the business process has a home, the next step is to establish how the process needs to flow. Use Microsoft Visio, or a similar tool, to map out the exact process. Are there approval stages? How many? Does that data need to be moved elsewhere when the process is complete? These are all great questions to ask when mapping out the workflow. 

The main tool for workflows used to be SharePoint Designer. While that is still an option, a lot of people using Office 365 have turned to Flow to replace SharePoint Designer workflows. Like PowerApps, Flow comes with a learning curve. I do feel this learning curve is more severe for those who spent years working with Designer. If you are new to workflows, Flow is a much more user-friendly version of Designer. I will note from painful personal experience that infinite loops are a lot more common with Flow, but thankfully the improved logging helps in those situations.

Flow does have some pre-built templates that come in handy. One example is a template that automatically sends data submitted to Microsoft Forms to a SharePoint list. This is perfect if you like the user experience of Microsoft Forms but need the data in a SharePoint list for either reporting or to continue a more complex business process.

Another thing we are finding is you can build a lot of logic right into PowerApps without having to use Flow. For example, sending emails can be done from directly inside the app. This could cut down on the overhead of managing two tools. Certainly, something to consider if you are planning to utilize PowerApps.

Related Article: How to Keep Collaboration On Course in the Midst of Never-Ending Office 365 Updates

Visualizing the Process 

Once the business process has a home and the automation is up and running, the next thing to consider is how the user will interact with all of it. This can be most easily achieved by using modern pages in SharePoint to give each type of user their own experience. As much as I think it is a buzzword, people will typically refer to these as "dashboard pages." These pages can contain links to a form, views of lists or libraries, and embedded PowerApps. There is also an option to embed visualizations of data from Power BI. This does require some license considerations, but can be extremely helpful for those who need quick answers about the business process and how it is functioning. Microsoft also recently added connector web parts, which allow you to connect and display data outside of Office 365. Creating these robust experiences for users will help with overall adoption and ease the training burden.

Hopefully the considerations covered above will get you started on the right path with automating your own business solutions.

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