How to Transform your Processes in 2021 with Microsoft Technology

2021 Preview Post

During 2020, in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, organisations rapidly adapted processes to new ways of working. In some instances, this involved the accelerated rollout of planned digital transformation projects within just a few weeks. But in many other cases, changes were improvised and reliant on staff going the extra mile to work around processing blocks.

If that sounds familiar within your organisation, how scalable, resilient, and secure are these processes? Will these provide the agility to cope with whatever fresh challenges are presented in 2021?

In our blog posts we often share examples of how Microsoft Dynamics 365 drives business transformation, but this is just one of the many building blocks available to us. Across the Power Platform and the wider Microsoft technology stack there are many more tools at our disposal.

From Power Apps built on the secure Microsoft Cloud, to artificial intelligence and mixed reality, there is an amazing array of products which can be quickly deployed to increase the agility and robustness of processes.

Even better, many organisations already have access to these as part of their existing Microsoft subscriptions.

Connected Technology

Many systems and business processes continue to be entirely reactive. This is often problematic as they’re reliant on issues being reported by customers which can cause interruption, and potentially result in downtime.

But, what if this model could change to be proactive? Potential problems could be identified and resolved before they impact businesses. For example, early action could involve dispatching an engineer to prevent an equipment failure.

Business applications generate, store and analyse data at massive scale. Data is the lifeblood of businesses and should be the heart of any organisation. The data tells you everything about your customers and products, but a frequent problem occurs when data siloes exist.

As cloud computing has broken down barriers for how much data can be stored and analysed, it has never been easier to adapt business models and make these proactive. The result is more power placed into the hands of end users and crucially, it has also never been quicker to deploy these solutions.

That’s because Microsoft has added wrappers around many of its core services which do the heavy lifting. Solutions which previously took months of development can now be deployed within a matter of minutes.

For example, Azure IoT Central removes the need for cloud solution expertise, making it easy to connect, monitor and manage assets at scale. Azure IoT simplifies the initial set-up and reduces the overhead of a typical IoT (Internet of Things) Central project. Streaming analytics continuously tracks operating data which could include temperature, humidity, battery life and signal strength, and other key metrics. Potential issues are flagged or escalated in real-time, supported by business intelligence generated by these data flows.

With data as the driver, analytics can be streamed to monitor anything. This can include vehicles, machinery and equipment with automated response triggers built in.

Artificial Intelligence

Microsoft’s machine learning models are another example of how application development effort can be significantly reduced.

For example, by using a prebuilt model, a designer will only need to drag the appropriate boxes onto a form to rollout an object detection app. As a result, developers and end users don’t need to be data scientists or machine learning experts, to apply these templated models.

Artificial Intelligence is already pervasive in our personal lives. This includes online advertising, mobile assistants, predictive text as well as our personalised recommendations across Spotify, Netflix, Amazon and numerous other providers.

AI is also powering the next wave of digital transformation by allowing small and medium sized businesses to accelerate the shift from reactive to proactive.

Using Microsoft’s generic AI models provided through Azure Cognitive Services these can be easily built into applications because the data science and computations are already baked in. When data is supplied, the ‘brain’ in the targeted machine learning model will be trained to do a specific thing within a specific domain. The more data is fed in, the more accurate it will perform.

Depending on the type of machine learning model deployed, AI can augment processes to achieve diverse benefits such as:

  • Discovering action points and sentiment from key phrases in surveys and other text
  • Chat bots that enable customers to genuinely self-serve and quickly get answers
  • Predictive outcome insights from data patterns and historical data to support proactive, informed decision-making

Read more about how Preact can leverage AI in our solutions.

Mixed Reality

Leveraging Microsoft mixed reality technology in business applications is another example of how processes can be transformed. In our recent post, we featured an example of how mixed reality can support compliance checks. Using a Power App on a mobile the distance between workspaces is quickly measured and checked to ensure compliance with an organisation’s Covid-19 secure policy.

Similar examples could include using mixed reality capabilities within an app which enables measurements and annotations to be captured through a mobile device. Data collected is stored in the Power Platform enabling follow up processes to be immediately triggered in Dynamics 365, or another connected app, which could include issuing a quotation.

Microsoft Product Visualise offers even more extensive mixed reality capabilities by placing a customisable product in a customer’s real-world environment.

Robotic Processing Automation

Continued dependency on legacy systems is often a barrier to connecting processes and unifying business data. Desktop-based applications can present a formidable challenge to replace or integrate with other data sources. Duplication of processing effort is just one unwelcome outcome.

Through the advent of Robotic Processing Automation (RPA) a better compromise is now possible by streamlining these repetitive workflows.

By deploying RPA on a server, actions can be performed by triggering automation. For example, Microsoft’s workflow automation engine, Power Automate can look at an email order confirmation and initiate a macro that will automatically push an order into an otherwise disconnected data source.

RPA fosters a collaborative approach where end-users and developers work together to create automations. For instance, Power Automate tools can capture what users do to complete a specific process across applications. Based on a series of these recordings, Power Automate is then able to map out how the process works. Developers, who were not previously familiar with these processes, can use this insight as the basis for implementing an automated solution that reduces manual effort.

This is just one example of how Power Automate enables complex workflows to span multiple apps. Previously, an organisation may have had workflows individually contained with their CRM, SharePoint and ERP / accounts systems. Because Power Automate works across business applications to analyse interactions and streamline repetitive tasks, it liberates staff to do more interesting work and increase their value to the organisation.

Microsoft Graph

Data is the key to building business applications of the future. Without data, any app is just a shell. The best applications provide so much value to their users that they become indispensable. To make sure we can squeeze every last ounce of value out of or Apps, we look to harness the power of the Microsoft Graph.

This sits at the heart of all Microsoft cloud services and provides us with a common way to interact with all the individual services, from Outlook, through to Files, Teams and all of the other Microsoft Cloud services. This means we can use tools such as Power Automate, or native development, to build workflows that truly span your applications. Say you need a new Team to be created in MS Teams upon an Opportunity being won in Microsoft Dynamics Sales. We can use the Microsoft Graph to achieve this.

Microsoft Graph opens up a wealth of insightful information. Think about all the relationship data that’s captured implicitly in Microsoft Office. Who are you in meetings with most frequently? Who do you email most frequently… who haven’t you emailed for a while? What documents have you been collaborating on? How much time have you spent replying to emails late into the evening and at weekends?

We can now build apps that harness these data insights to provide real benefit in our Apps. Microsoft already does this across its Office suite. For example, have you ever noticed the “recommended” section on the Office homepage? This is using the Graph to look at who you collaborate with, what they have been working on, what you have been working on and, as long as you have appropriate permission, presenting documents that it thinks you might be looking for. Also, if you’ve ever received any “MyAnalytics” emails from Microsoft, the content of those emails is powered by information pulled from the Graph.

Why is the Microsoft Graph revolutionary?

The Microsoft Graph is nothing more than an API. It’s a way developers (and slightly techie power users), can talk to the various services in the cloud. It doesn’t sound like much, but the Graph provides a single-entry point into all the Microsoft Cloud services. A few years ago, this was unheard of! Each application had its own, unique API and you needed to be a skilled developer to interact with it. Now, with the Graph API, anyone who is comfortable with Power Apps or Power Automate can interact and build applications that unlock this data.

Data Security

It’s worth mentioning here that, as ever, security must be at the forefront of everything we do. Whilst we’ve talked about how we could use the data provided by the Graph and other products for good – imagine if that data got into the wrong hands? There is so much sensitive data held within your Office 365 environment that access to it must be controlled. A major benefit of the Microsoft Graph is that it harmonises access to the different applications into one, single interface. This means that security and access to it is controlled centrally and backed up by Microsoft Azure Active Directory. This reduces the risk of “overlooking” access to a system, all access is secure and must be approved by administrators.

Other data security considerations include device security. Microsoft’s cloud security covers multiple layers of protection across its data centres, infrastructure and operations in Azure. But as working practices have changed during the past 12 months with increasingly dispersed teams, security policies have needed to adapt. For example, Microsoft Intune securely manages iOS, Android, Windows and macOS devices with a single endpoint solution that enables corporate data to be wiped in event of device loss.

Through our partner network, Preact can introduce you to organisations who will ensure you have the right security hardware and software in place and that systems are maintained, updated and properly configured.

Next Steps

If some of your organisation’s processes feel like they are held together by the equivalent of duct tape, we are here to help. Discover how these can be transformed by using some of the Microsoft products mentioned in this post. Contact us today for an initial chat to understand how Preact will support you on your transformation journey.

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