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Microsoft Flow brings process efficiency to operations

As companies try to gain a competitive edge, they need to automate common business processes and build greater integration between their tools. Enter Microsoft Flow.

As markets become more competitive, companies are attempting to keep up by building in new efficiencies and reducing...

costs. These kinds of changes enable organizations to stay agile in the face of innovation, tighter competition and an increasing pace of change.

Workflow automation -- initiating repetitive processes to avoid having to reinvent the wheel -- is the kind of efficiency that companies need to adopt to stay on top. Automation tools like Microsoft Flow enable greater agility with partners, help to centralize workflows and help to reduce delays and human error.

For example, consider a company that needs to be able to share content securely with its ad agency without granting the agency access to its firewall. The company needs an automated way to know when content has been sent and when it is ready for review to avoid having to check for it constantly – in addition to needing the ability to transfer backups to SharePoint Online as soon as content comes through. Microsoft has historically made its case to enterprise customers that its workflow and automation capabilities can deliver powerful functionalities to address such common business process challenges.

Organizations using SharePoint or Microsoft Dynamics CRM can build custom workflows that enable them to digitize and automate common business processes. Examples of processes that can be automated via workflow include document approval or sale activities triggered by changes in status. The idea of exploiting workflows comes from the need to perform specific actions based on certain triggers or time intervals. Some of the use cases in which workflows are being used include the following:

  • A workflow that contains logic to assist in moving an approval in a purchase, document or process along to different stakeholders.
  • Advanced workflows to process items through business logic down different branches based on varying circumstances.
  • A workflow that can interact with different systems, such as web services, websites and applications, to perform multiple business steps.

Despite the popularity of workflows within SharePoint, there are limitations, including a lack of integration with online applications, such as OneDrive, Dropbox, Salesforce and Twitter. A second limitation is the technical expertise required to build some of the more advanced workflows; developers and administrators are often the only ones with the expertise to make changes.

So, to address these limitations, the vendor released Microsoft Flow. This new, hosted workflow engine delivers integration and connectivity to modern software as a service-based apps and services. Flow aims to help business users automate and simplify some of their common business processes using the web-based app with a few simple steps. The tool supports task automation and execution throughout multiple applications and online services, including Salesforce, Trello, email, Wunderlist, Power BI, customer relationship management (CRM), Dynamics and many more. Early adopters of Flow suggest that the tool is intuitive and requires zero programing knowledge to use.

Flow can also tap into some of Microsoft's Cognitive Services APIs -- a move that highlights Microsoft's plan to engage customers with many of its service offerings. For example, a marketing employee may create a workflow that can read posts about the company made on Twitter or other social media sites. In order to identify the overall sentiment, the workflow can perform sentiment analysis using Microsoft cognitive APIs, then send feedback via email, or include that feedback in Excel or SharePoint documents or a database. As complex as this workflow may seem, a business user can create this in an hour or less.

From a pricing perspective, Flow is currently being offered in three different plans:

  • A free subscription, with up to 750 automations a month.
  • A $5 per user, per month plan for 4,500 runs. This plan also offers premium services, which include connectivity to Salesforce, MailChimp, Mandrill, JIRA and org-based databases.
  • A $15 per user, per month plan that delivers 15,000 runs per month, premium services and some additional security and policy features for enterprise clients.

While Flow can perform classic approval workflows and other SharePoint or CRM-related automation tasks present in the old workflow engine, the example above highlights the capabilities of the platform and what it can do out of the box. Microsoft plans to go beyond SharePoint and CRM -- as evidenced by its website, which shows Flow's integration with some of its other popular services, such as PowerApps, Power BI, SharePoint and Dynamics 365.

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