UPDATED 09:00 EDT / NOVEMBER 04 2019


Microsoft’s Power Platform gets new tools to automate business processes

Microsoft Corp. announced some important updates to its Power Platform that combines its application development and connectivity services with business intelligence tools.

The updates, announced today at Microsoft Ignite 2019 in Orlando, Florida, along with a large number of other new services, are all about making it easier for companies to automate manual business processes, so they can free up their workers to focus on more challenging tasks.

Announced in December 2018, Microsoft Power is essentially a collective term for three Microsoft products: Power BI, PowerApps and Flow. They provide the means to help people more easily manipulate, surface, automate and analyze data, and can be used with Office 365 and Dynamics 365 and other services. The Power Platform is enabled by a Common Data Service, which provides a unified and simplified data schema so that applications and services are interoperable.

Power BI is probably the most familiar of the three tools, enabling users to visualize data in a variety of charts and graphic representations. PowerApps, meanwhile, is an application development platform that people with limited coding skills can use to build business apps.

Finally there’s Flow, which is being renamed as “Power Automate” to align better with the Power Platform. Power Automate enables users to create automated workflows between applications and services so that data stored in one system can be used by another.

As of today, Power Automate is being infused with a new robotic process automation capability called UI flows that should make it easier for companies to scale and automate business processes. Robotic process automation or RPA, one of the hottest areas of software today, refers to automating processes by using software bots to emulate how humans do tasks.

“One of the biggest challenges organizations face is scaling and automating business processes, from digitizing pen and paper processes, to automating complex processes that span legacy and modern applications,” James Phillips, corporate vice president of business applications at Microsoft, wrote in a blog post. “RPA has rapidly become a key technology to address many of these scenarios but generally requires a patchwork of automation services that need integration and management before the real work can get done.”

UI Flows eliminates much of this hassle. It provides a simple “point-and-click”-style user interface that allows workers to record and play back human interactions with various software systems and then create bots that can automate those mundane tasks.

“For example, let’s say you work for an insurance claims processing company, where clients fill out digital forms, paper forms, or communicate through email,” Philips said. “The claim is processed on modern cloud services while staff also maintain cumbersome paper records and legacy applications. With Power Automate, this entire process can be automated. Digitized data from scanned paper forms is processed with AI that recognizes forms, and old legacy systems can be automated with RPA — one platform that brings both worlds together seamlessly.”

Wikibon analyst James Kobielus said Microsoft is taking a long-overdue step into RPA with Power Automate.

“In democratized application development, Microsoft is addressing the need for tools to enable non-IT personnel to build intelligent process applications,” Kobielus said. “These enable enterprise businesses to automate repetitive tasks and legacy applications to simplify workflows in a scalable, secure way.”

The arrival of RPA capabilities in Power Automate is complemented by the launch in public preview of Microsoft Power Virtual Agents, a new “low-code” platform for building software “robots” that can handle all manner of tasks relating to customer services, sales and marketing.

Microsoft Power Virtual Agents lets workers build robots for various tasks using a guided, no-code graphical interface, without the need for data scientists or developers. Just as important, those robots can take advantage of hundreds of prebuilt data connectors available in the Power Platform so they can talk to a company’s backend systems. Users can also write their own code if they need their robots to perform more complex tasks, thanks to integrations with Microsoft Cognitive Services and the Microsoft Bot Framework.

“Power Virtual Agents enables anyone to create and deploy intelligent virtual agents, which can be external- or internal-facing,” Kobielus said. “The solution includes AI-driven insights to help users create and improve conversational agents for personalized customer service.”

Photo: geralt/Pixabay

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