By Ross Smith, Solution Specialist, Data#3.
[Reading time: 3.30 mins]
Process automation is a hot topic. With the explosive growth of information across multiple disparate sources, and the expectation that we are all meant to be up-to-date 100 percent of the time, on all of our workload, there is no lack of vendors trying to fill the void between information and effective action across all platforms. There are so many players, from simple to amazingly complex, that even if I named all that I have seen in the last month, I would most likely omit some great products!
From the stalwarts like IFTTT, and Zapier at the simple workflow end (that I also currently use), to Hootsuite and Buffer at the more complex social end of the scale, there is something for everyone with more coming online almost weekly. Even while looking up the above to reference, I discovered Zoho Social – an automation tool for social media feeds to help engage more clients, with the most fantastic analytics that I have seen to date.
For a company that has a long history of process automation through platforms like CRM, SharePoint and SCCM Orchestrator, Microsoft has been surprisingly absent from this segment of the market. If you are a corporate customer with Office 365 Enterprise licensing and access to OneDrive and the other applications, there hasn’t been any easy way to link them all together.
With the introduction of Flow earlier this year, Microsoft are no longer absent – although in my opinion, I wouldn’t say it has made a splash or even a ripple in the market. Hard-core ‘Microsoftophiles’ would have seen it come out via various low key announcements, and maybe even started playing with it however, with the ‘preview’ stamp still firmly emblazoned in the corner, there may be some quirks behind the scenes to work out. That being said, it has been reliable in testing and offers some valuable Microsoft-centric automation that will only grow over time.
Whereas popular platform IFTTT uses the term ‘recipe’, Flow refers to their workflows as ‘Flows’ and has some pre-canned templates. No real surprises there, but the list of support applications is surprisingly brief, with only 41 on the list at the time of writing:
This number is sure to grow, however, it could be argued that keeping this platform focused is actually a better strategy. There is the option of ‘custom API’ after all, so any keen developer could jump in and start to plumb in all kinds of other services, on-premises and Cloud-based alike.
However, where other platforms go wide, Flow goes deep with some good integrations with existing Microsoft productivity tools and some social platforms. Notably absent are any ecommerce sites like eBay, Storenvy or Shopify, however, I believe this is deliberate as the audience targeted is not the run of the mill user, but someone who lives in the Microsoft ecosystem day in, day out. Most of the example flows (or templates) relate directly to Microsoft products as can be seen below, or follow this link for the full list.
I can see Yammer, SharePoint, OneDrive and Office 365 (Outlook) in the Microsoft world, but then linking these to their competitors is a stroke of genius. For example, linking OneDrive to Google Drive or Dropbox enables a simple backup mechanism that the innovative side of my brain loves, but this is where the security consultant in me is losing his mind!
This is not for the faint hearted at a corporate level, and the possibility of an accidental security breach goes up exponentially, however, by talking to a Data#3 security expert, this minefield can be safely navigated to balance a happy end user and a company security advisor who can sleep easy.
As with all new products, they need to be carefully assessed. Guidelines should be developed so that the technology works with the business outcomes and not against.
Looking at the governance side of this new product naturally leads us to Azure Rights Management and Data Loss Protection (DLP). The challenge of stray data is perhaps not solved, but at least mitigated, while enabling users to be more flexible and take control of their data. Flow has the capacity to automate a lot of mundane tasks, to enable a more productive and responsive employee, all while remaining within the Microsoft suite of products.
So, in short, even though this product/platform is still in preview, requires an Office 365 account and only has 41 integrated applications, there is still a lot to get excited about for a Microsoft shop. Check out the getting started guides here and go with the flow.