Recently, I attended a Microsoft Power Platform event in San Diego and let me tell you, the hype is well deserved.
The conference was all about discovering new features and tools, discussing ideas with business users and Microsoft MVPs.
Power Platform works in lockstep with Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Finance and Supply Chain and has the potential to make a significant impact on mid-market businesses.
Microsoft has invested heavily in the Power Platform and the concept has been developing rapidly over the last couple of years. The general overview is that it comprises of four parts: Power Apps, Power BI, Power Automate and Power Virtual Agents.
Power BI uses data-driven insights to fuel better-informed business decisions.
Power Apps allow the ‘everyman’ to build custom apps that solve business challenges.
Power Automate gives anyone the ability to automate organizational processes.
Power Virtual Agents enable easy-to-build chatbots that can engage your customers.
Where the real Microsoft magic happens is when you lay the Power Platform over your other technology investments. As Microsoft puts it, “The Microsoft Power Platform is more than the sum of its parts. Connect them together — Office 365, Dynamics 365, Azure, and hundreds of other apps — and build end-to-end business solutions.”
Power Apps and Manufacturing
One industry I see truly embracing these tools is manufacturing, specifically leveraging Power Apps to support manufacturing processing. I love seeing this trend because too many companies miss out on collecting valuable data from their operations.
There is some functionality overlap with Dynamics 365 Supply Chain Management including the often-overlooked ‘job card device app,’ and the features for raw material consumption available from the Advanced Warehouse Management module.
That said, manufacturing apps do add a lot of value if you’re running ERP solutions that are lacking this type of functionality. Even if you’re not pushing data back to your ERP to update production orders, it’s still valuable to store that data in CDS or somewhere else to use for Power BI visuals or analytics.
For more evolved manufacturing clients or process industry clients, we often see integrations to MES systems for more comprehensive data gathering and automation. Read more about MES here.
My favorite new Power Platform features
The most revolutionizing aspect of the Power Platform involves some of the newer features that Microsoft has being releasing. What comes to mind? AI Builder with the form processor functionality, geofence triggers, Power Virtual Agents and cognitive services tools — just to name a few.
The truth is none of these technologies are new as such, and we’re all interacting with them on a routine basis — whether we know it or not. However, combined with the Power App and Power Automate Framework, they are now ours — not just to consume, but to build, modify and plug into day-to-day operations. It completely innovates how we can do business.
Mid-market businesses are getting increasingly comfortable working with these technologies and these technologies are maturing multifold for common use. Very soon, we’ll start seeing it impact not only business processes, but business models too — just as we have seen with larger data-driven corporations. Companies that embrace these technologies — and learn how to incorporate them in their processes effectively — will dominate their industries.
Power Platform Use Cases
Let’s look at some use cases. The Form Processor feature in the AI Builder is an interesting and relevant place to start. The Form Reader will allow you to train a model to read data from any document or picture — it’s even supposed to be able to read handwriting (though I’m yet to test how good it is with my own handwriting).
The most common use is for AP invoices to automate AP processes. What sets the Power Platform apart is that it’s flexible and easy to use.
When you have your ‘trained’ model, you decide how and where to use it. Whether you want to create an app that allows you to take a picture of an invoice with your phone, and review the data before pushing it to Dynamics 365 for Finance via the standard connectors, or you want to set up a Power Automate flow that — via an Outlook Connector — picks up the invoice from an email and puts the data into your ERP. With Dynamics 365 for Finance, you can even plug in a Power App to the invoice window and open the app directly from the ERP.
Read more about the Form Processor here.
Power Virtual Agents
You know them from customer service interactions you’ve had with your airline, hotel or healthcare insurance company. I was initially apprehensive of them, but I’m starting to see the value of virtual agents both from my own customer experience perspective (realizing that they often save me time), and also because of the value they create for companies.
Effective virtual agents allow you to free up resources, taking on tasks that a real live human being would normally have to handle. They also make you consider structure and think through processes, thereby streamlining them. Furthermore, using a virtual agent facilitates capturing a lot of valuable data that is not normally formalized and stored, which can then be used for analytics (e.g. what topics people are asking questions about, where in the process are people getting confused, how many are concerned about certain areas, etc).
Most people think ‘customer service’ when talking about virtual agents. But imagine using virtual agents for onboarding, internal communication, vendor collaboration, etc.
Consider the quantum of time and the email count it would save your company if people could instantly get answers to questions like “How do I find our company handbook?,” “When is the next company event?,” “Who do I ask about new product development?,” “Who is in charge of employee expenses?,” and so on.
When we help clients implement ERP projects, time is of the essence. However, I often end up answering the same questions repeatedly, which ultimately takes up a lot of my time.
With Power Platform, in just 30 minutes, I was able to create a simple Power Virtual Agent that can help answer user questions around topics like posting invoices, or where to find key project documents, or test scripts. The virtual agent can provide simple answers, direct people to the Columbus SharePoint site (which already has a lot of the answers they’re looking for), or help them navigate to the Microsoft documents webpage. Ultimately, if users don’t find what they are looking for, I get an email.
Cognitive Services and Geofence triggers
Some of the other features that are available and compelling us to challenge our current ways of doing things are the cognitive services and geofence triggers.
Cognitive services allow us to start capturing data from emails, customer feedback or social media posts. Imagine if you could measure the market’s response to a new product release by measuring the positivity and/or negativity in people’s social media posts. How about your marketing director getting an email alert as soon as someone posts a negative post mentioning your company?
The geofence triggers for Power Automate are something that I’m excited to explore a bit more. The good news is that it’s just become available after having been in preview. I can see this being relevant with respect to our DynaRent Solution for Dynamics 365 for Finance and Supply Chain, or in a field service scenario.
Read more here:
Dynamics 365 for Finance and Supply Chain
One of the benefits of being on Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Finance and Supply Chain is that the Power Platform is tightly connected via the entity framework. This allows us to push data from apps or flows into the ERP with minimal effort.
It also enables us to use data from Dynamics 365 and make it available on the app to look up items, inventory, sales order, etc. But it doesn’t stop there. We can embed Power Apps directly into Dynamics 365 for Finance and Supply Chain and run it from the screen where the transaction will happen in the ERP.
Here are some screenshots of how I’ve done it with one of our apps for uploading personal information and profile pictures:
I hope I’ve inspired you, reader, to start using the Power Platform and digitally transform your business. Feel free to email me directly with any questions.