Looking to boost capacity in your business while improving your staff and customer experience? Microsoft’s Power Automate could be the answer.
Almost overnight, AI has ascended into the mainstream, dominating the tech conversation, and forcing entire industries (venture capital, finance, media, consumer tech, etc.) to quickly adapt for fear of being left behind.
Organisations are pushing hard to automate as many business processes as possible, to extend the speed, efficiency, and agility of their businesses. Workflow orchestration and automation technologies – particularly using Generative AI – are more in demand than ever before.
The businesses that understand the significance of this change — and act on it first — will be at a considerable advantage.
And it’s not at all hard to get started. By implementing a series of small automation projects, such as accounts payable automation, organisations immediately become more responsive, accurate, productive, efficient, and secure.
In 2023, the established players in the process automation space such as UiPath, Blue Prism and Automation Anywhere, have a new (old?) competitor nipping at their heels. Microsoft has seemingly come out of nowhere with a feature-rich, highly capable automation platform, the guts of which you probably already have with your Windows desktop or Office365 subscription, and it offers some very compelling advantages.
Power Automate, a key component of Microsoft’s Power Platform, is a mature automation capability that works on multiple levels and includes a bevy of acronyms for your reading pleasure.
It provides a comprehensive solution for modern API-based automation, Robotic Process Automation (or RPA – which works with an application’s user interface), and Intelligent Automation (or IA, which is RPA plus a variety of technologies built on Machine Learning).
Further, Microsoft AI Builder’s native integration with Azure’s OpenAI allows you to build next generation Microsoft Power Apps and Automation leveraging the latest ChatGPT-based generative AI innovations – right now.
Its Natural Language Processing (NLP) skills enable you to build scenarios such as summarisation, information extraction, autogenerate responses, classification, translation, and more.
And where you might need actual people to make decisions or provide input in the middle of an otherwise automated process, Power Automates’ user-friendly “human-in-the-loop” integration with Microsoft Teams puts it head and shoulders above the rest.
Read on for 10 very good reasons why you should look closely at adopting Power Automate as a central pillar of your automation program.
Quick automation primer:
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is a way of connecting and automating your applications via the user interface, which is ideal when an API isn’t available, or a complex, time-consuming system integration project is out of the question.
Intelligent Automation (IA) refers to a collection of new and emerging technologies that enhance the capabilities of RPA with technologies such as machine learning (ML), natural language processing (NLP) and intelligent document processing (IDP).
Microsoft has been quietly building and strengthening its Automation platform over the last few years and it has now really come together.
Power Automate is at the heart of Microsoft’s Power Platform, a suite of low-code / no-code tools that can make your operations faster, smarter and more efficient.
If you are using a Windows 10/11 desktop computer, you can create and run personal, attended desktop (i.e., non-cloud triggered) automation called “flows” in Power Automate Desktop, as it comes bundled in at no charge. And in what could be described as a bit of a sneak attack on the competition, you might also be surprised to learn that if you have an active Office365 subscription, you also have access to the cloud version of Power Automate so you can run Cloud flows too.
A standard Office 365 subscription gives you access to many features of the Power Platform, making it easy to build web applications, automate processes, analyse data and even create virtual agents – all designed to help you meet today’s business challenges. Power Platform is comprised of the following services:
- Power Automate – a tool to boost productivity by connecting apps and applying business rules to automate tasks, workflows and end-to-end business processes.
- AI Builder – an Artificial Intelligence (AI) toolkit that provides machine learning and intelligent document processing capabilities. Its models can be trained to process structured, semi-structured and even unstructured documents.
- Dataverse – Microsoft’s cloud database technology is an easy-to-use, easy-to-manage, compliant, secure, scalable, and globally available data service built on top of Azure SQL. Dataverse protects your data assets by applying company-wide policies to permissions, retention and storage.
- Power BI – Microsoft’s venerable suite of data analytics, business intelligence (BI), dashboards, reporting, and data visualization tools.
- Power Apps – an application creator that enables users to build mobile and web-based forms and apps with low or no code. The apps it enables can interact with data sources and services within the Microsoft 365 ecosystem.
- Power Pages – Website development. A low-code platform for creating, hosting, and administrating business websites and web apps.
- Power Virtual Agents – a no-code solution to build intelligent chatbots easily and quickly, to improve self-service capabilities and reduce workload for employees and customers.
The standard, Office365 version of Power Automate allows you to build and execute automated cloud flows (so long as daily API limits aren’t exceeded) that leverage free of charge ‘Standard’ Connectors.
There is quite a large range of free to use, Standard Connectors for Office 365 and a variety of 3rd party apps – ideal to automate many of those repetitive tasks that suck the joy out of your working day.
However, you’ll soon want to start spreading your wings, building bigger, more capable automation that connect to a wider range of applications and services. It is here that the ‘Premium’ Connectors come into play.
See section #5 for more information on Premium Connectors.
Power Automates accessibility and user friendliness can, unfortunately, also translate into security concerns if not managed carefully. At Customer Science, one of the first things we do when working with a client is to perform a quick audit of the existing Power Platform environments. Without exception, every client with an Office 365 subscription has been surprised to learn that they have multiple, active Power Platform environments (in some cases numbering into the hundreds or even thousands!) and are running live automation built by enterprising staff that they simply didn’t know about.
This is because Power Automate is enabled by default for all Office 365 users. Every user can create their own flows, and if you’ve not configured appropriate Power Platform security & data loss prevention policies, you may well have active flows doing things that your security team probably won’t like.
If this is you, reach out as we can help you establish the necessary guardrails to govern your Power Platform environments!
The good news is that the security capabilities of the Power Platform are first class, and you’ll find that as soon as you give it the requisite attention, asserting control over the platform while supporting and enabling your citizen developers is a relatively trivial matter.
See section #9 for security considerations around your Power Automate/Power Platform environments.
Power Automates bottom-up approach isn’t all bad, as it helps to democratise automation within an organisation and gets your interested employees supportive and involved – which is often one of the trickiest parts of an automation initiative. All you need to do is harness that enthusiasm and start to wrap some governance and operational support around it to start scaling the benefits across your organisation.
Power Automate is a low-code automation solution that offers both API-based and UI-based automation in one tool. It is equally capable for new, “citizen” developers looking to solve tactical, day-to day tasks to make their lives easier, as it is for professional RPA developers operating within a strategic enterprise program to automate end-to-end business processes.
For the citizen developers among us, you can even simply “press record” and Power Automate will record the steps of your task as you go about completing it, auto generating the code (or actions) along the way. It comes with ready-to-use templates and recommendations on linking some of the more popular applications. The navigation is very intuitive and can be managed by people without programming skills.
Power Automates’ super-power is that it leverages the extensive suite of Microsoft products and services, including SharePoint, Teams, Office 365, Dynamics 365, Azure and more. If your business process automation initiative touches these applications, you won’t find a more tightly integrated and capable solution out there.
Additionally, as Power Platform environments are hosted in Azure, it is easy (and very inexpensive) to follow best-practice Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) principles. For example, in addition to your Production environment, you might want to run separate Dev, Test, and UAT environments. Note that, at a minimum, any healthy ALM practice should include the use of a Test environment prior to deploying anything to production. This ensures that you have a place to test your flow or app, but also ensures that the deployment process itself can be tested.
And because the environments are in the cloud, they do not require dedicated infrastructure or virtual machines (VMs) to exist. The VMs used for development can also access the necessary testing or pre-production environments while your automation is under active development – resulting in a very significant saving on infrastructure costs when compared to the competition. Notably, there are no additional costs when creating a new environment. You just need to have at least 1GB of “Dataverse” database capacity available, and if needed, purchasing additional capacity is cheap and easy.
Keep in mind that the moment you want to take advantage of Power Automates’ more advanced features, you’ll need to work your way through Microsoft’s licensing maze. The good news is that once you do, the licensing and cloud infrastructure costs are almost certainly a fraction of what you’d pay one of the automation competitors.
See #10 for more information about licensing costs.
Power Automate allows everyone in your organisation to automate workflows using either on-premises applications or cloud-based apps and services. As such, it comes in a couple of different flavours to suit your needs.
The first consideration is whether you want to interact with applications “in the cloud” or those installed on your windows computer/server – or both.
Power Automate (previously known as Microsoft Flow) essentially allows you to create your own business rules/logic that can interface with various cloud applications and services via APIs. Should you want to automate locally installed applications, you’ll need to use Power Automate Desktop (previously known as WinAutomation). This allows your business logic to interface with applications installed on your Windows desktop or server via the user interface. And it doesn’t have to be one or the other – a single license allows you to build automation that interfaces with both cloud and desktop applications.
If you’re intending to automate locally installed applications with Power Automate Desktop, the next consideration is whether the automation needs to run in either “attended” or “unattended” RPA mode.
Attended RPA allows you to set off an automated desktop flow and interact with the automation (such as responding to prompts where a decision might be needed) from a desktop Windows computer.
Unattended RPA allows you to run these automated desktop flows without human interaction, typically running in the background in a VM somewhere with the automation triggered by specific events – such as the receipt of an email or on a schedule you have defined.
There are different licences available to support these different use cases. See section #10 for more information about licensing.
Power Automate can complement the established process automation software vendors nicely due to its integration with the Microsoft ecosystem, API connectors, ease of deployment and low cost. Using Power Automate in conjunction with automation built using any one of the major players helps to overcome limitations and opens up numerous opportunities to automate processes that may not have been viable otherwise. Common use cases include:
- Run a UiPath/Blue Prism automation when a file is added or modified in SharePoint, Google Drive, or OneDrive.
- Run a UiPath/Blue Prism automation when emails are received (e.g., invoices, reports)
- Process invoices/receipts using trained models in Microsoft’s AI builder before executing automation in UiPath/Blue Prism with the extracted data.
- Get notified through MS Teams, Slack, SMS, or mobile push notifications about UiPath/Blue Prism events (job completion, failure, etc.).
- Create and process surveys that feedback into a UiPath/Blue Prism automation.
- Set up approval flows leveraging Microsoft Teams before handing them back to UiPath/Blue Prism.
- Provide live Management Information (MI) reporting of the UiPath/Blue Prism robot’s activities using a SharePoint list and PowerBI dashboard
At Customer Science, we have many clients using Microsoft Power Automates’ capabilities to complement other automation platforms, reach out if you’d like to know more.
As already mentioned, the Power Platform (and Power Automate) is built from the ground up for seamless integration with the Microsoft ecosystem. Office 365, SharePoint, Teams, Dynamics 365, Azure – just about all Microsoft applications and services play nicely and enable possibilities that don’t exist with competitive automation platforms.
Power Automate is built on the concept of “Connectors” which simplify integration with other software. Standard (free of charge) Connectors typically limit you to automating process flows and data within MS Office 365 and other 3rd party apps, while ‘Premium’ Connectors open all sorts of possibilities so you can start building some amazing things.
If your automation needs a connection that requests an API or calls to a 3rd party application, web service, SQL connector, MS Dynamics or Azure, chances are you’ll need to use a Premium Connector – and it will be time to start stumping up some cash!
At last count, there are more than 750 connectors available to simplify API integration so you can automate your favourite apps quickly and easily – https://powerautomate.microsoft.com/en-us/connectors/
But what if a connector isn’t available for the application you want to automate? If it has an API, you can build a custom connector to get things going. If, however, you don’t have a suitably capable API to work with, it is a simple matter to employ Power Automates’ UI automation capabilities using RPA and Desktop flows.
Power Automate is a very capable tool that can likely solve just about any Windows-based automation challenge.
When automating a process, there are often situations where business rules reach their limits and you want a human decision to be made, an approval given, or some other form of human oversight is required. A person might be needed to validate information before the rest of the automated process can proceed, such as in the case of an automated accounts payable process where you want an authorised person to confirm receipt of goods/services so that an invoice can be paid.
This is known as “human in the loop” and when you combine Power Automate with Microsoft Teams, you have a simple, elegant, and powerful solution to bring human decision making into an automated process.
Getting approvals in a timely fashion is important at all levels of a business, and Power Automate has a brilliant solution to make approvals fast, easy and auditable to help you get things done quickly.
It is as simple as creating a flow in Power Automate that uses Microsoft’s Approvals connector. The robot will pause while it waits for the appropriate person/people to approve or reject a request using where they work in either Outlook or Teams. You can even select whether the robot should continue once it receives a single approval or wait for responses from every member of a Team or group.
You can see and manage all your approvals from one place. Each request is displayed along with key details such as the status, attachment, source, requestor, and approvers. You can also select a specific approval to see more information and track progress. Your existing licensing may already allow you to do all this – an Office 365 Teams license that includes the approval app should do it.
See section #10 for more information around licensing considerations.
Without a strong pipeline of processes to automate, you don’t have much of an automation program.
There are several strategies that can be used to identify which business processes are both suitable for automation and will provide the greatest return on investment.
Most organisations begin first by crowdsourcing, where suitable processes are identified by employees. This is often followed by running an ‘Operational Diagnostic’ where a top-down review of the organisation’s operations generates an exhaustive list of processes to be considered for automation based on value and ease of automation.
More recently, organisations are also increasingly applying ‘Process Intelligence’ to the problem. This is an approach designed to unearth automation opportunities using desktop task capture and process mining software. Both methods share the goal of rapidly identifying and improving process efficiency, the main difference is their area of focus.
Desktop Task Capture is designed to discover tasks happening on the desktop. You can understand how your organisation performs its processes by recording user actions and collecting data from these actions. Insights gained from this will help to identify common mistakes while performing tasks, and which tasks can – and should – be automated.
Power Automate has a built-in tool called Microsoft Process Advisor which captures and analyses a user’s desktop activity to map out the steps performed to complete a task. By figuring out how humans perform a particular task (through observation of mouse clicks and keystrokes), the identification of tasks suitable for automation is made far easier.
Microsoft’s AI Builder is an exciting and rapidly improving capability that is part of the Power Platform family. It provides AI models that are designed to enhance your existing business processes while also introducing a few new handy capabilities.
You can build even more powerful automations and Power Virtual Agents using advanced AI models, including GPT, with native integration of the Azure OpenAI Service. For example, A Power Automate flow can summarize, classify, route – and even respond – to customer queries, complaints or feedback making the lives of your customer service agents far more efficient and productive.
You don’t need coding or data science skills, AI Builder lets you build custom models or choose a prebuilt model that is ready to use for many common business scenarios, so you can infuse a little Artificial Intelligence into your applications and process flows!
AI Builder makes it easy to leverage complex AI models for use in Power Apps and Power Automate and includes models for category classification, object detection, prediction, sentiment analysis, and many more. The addition of Azure’s OpenAI Service model unlocks new ways to embed intelligent text generation features into Power Automate and Power Apps solutions rapidly.
While not strictly a dedicated Intelligent Document Processing (IDP) solution, IDP is one of AI Builder’s core capabilities and a commonly used feature for many automated business processes.
AI Builder, when used with Power Automate, enables end-to-end workflows that automatically extract and process content from structured (for example, surveys and questionnaires) and semi-structured documents (for example, invoices and purchase orders). And with new features released in 2022, AI Builder now also supports the ability to train a custom Document Processing AI model that can extract content from unstructured documents such as contracts or letters. It can even perform handwriting recognition!
What can you do with AI Builder?
- Text Recognition & Translation – Automatically process text from images using advanced optical character recognition (OCR) to find and read text within photographs or scanned documents, and intelligent document processing (IDP) converts and processes structured, semi-structured and unstructured data using trainable models.
- Object/Image Recognition – This feature allows you to train an AI to recognise specific images, objects or types of objects. An example of where this could be used is inventory management or detecting a piece of equipment that is difficult to identify by sight
- Prediction – Prediction analyses large quantities of data, identifies patterns and then uses that knowledge to predict the future. It can answer questions about your data with binary options, for example, yes/no, true/false or pass/fail.
- Form Processing – Quickly import data from paper or PDF documents into useable tables. Unlike other AI technology which require a lot of training, AI Builder form processing only needs five example forms to create a functioning application
- Category Classification – recognises the patterns within language, tagging and classifying the contents. Example applications include sentiment analysis, spam detection and correctly routing customer requests
Licensing for AI Builder isn’t straightforward due it its many potential use cases – see reason #10 for more information about licensing considerations.
Security via Azure
Built from the ground up on the Microsoft Azure cloud, Microsoft Power Platform offers multiple layers of security and spans tenant, environment, and data level capabilities, taking advantage of the deep expertise Microsoft has accumulated in Compliance, Identity Management, and Data Access Security to keep your data safe.
The platform offers advanced encryption and tenant-level access controls where everything is identity-based and has deep integration with Azure Active Directory.
You have fine-grained access controls, with encrypted data stored in Microsoft Dataverse, as well as an unprecedented degree of control for access to the 750+ connectors available for the platform.
Dataverse uses enterprise-grade Azure Active Directory (AAD) identity and access management controls to protect your data assets by applying company-wide policies to permissions, retention and storage. With security built-in at the platform level, administrators can define security permissions once, which will apply to an authenticated user regardless of which app or service they use to access Dataverse.
The common data model offers a rich, built-in security model which allows you to easily define access permissions and govern data access in a scalable manner.
Data Loss Prevention Policies
When it comes to external data sources, Microsoft provide deep control using Data Loss Prevention (DLP) policies. You can create data loss prevention (DLP) policies that act as guardrails to help prevent users from unintentionally exposing organizational data, or as the result of an attack.
DLP policies enforce rules for which Connectors can be used together by classifying them as Business, Non-Business or Blocked. Admins can lock down or fully block connectors as needed for your various test, pre-prod and prod environments to allow for even greater control.
100% in the (Azure) cloud
For those of you wondering if you can stand up Power Automate environments in your own data centre, private cloud or somewhere else, the answer is a hard no. While you can stand up VMs for development and the production deployment of your Desktop flows wherever you like, the Power Platform itself is built upon and cannot be decoupled from Office 365 and Azure.
Do you need help making sense of Power Automate pricing? As previously mentioned, while an Office365 subscription includes access to Power Apps and Power Automate using standard connectors, use of more advanced features will require you to make sense of the licensing options.
Licensing for Microsoft services is often confusing, and in the case of the various Power Platform components is almost incomprehensible.
It is worth bearing in mind that despite the complexity, in what is a first in the Enterprise Automation space, Power Automate’s consumption-based pricing model delivers greater value and is far more aligned to your success than the competition who continue to charge large, up-front recurring annual licensing purchases. You can start small and scale your automation program up (or down!) as your business needs dictate – you’re only paying for the services as you use them.
In an attempt to keep it simple, the following is a high-level summary of key Power Automate licensing considerations; if you’re up for it then Microsoft’s 29 page guide to Power Platform licensing (from where the following table images have been snipped), will give you far more detail – https://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?linkid=2085130
There are two main ways of acquiring Power Automate licenses, on a monthly “per user or per flow” subscription, or, if you subscribe to Azure, on a “pay-as-you-go” plan where you pay each time a flow is run.
- Per user / per flow monthly subscription
There are three core license plans for Power Automate (Per User, Per User with Attended RPA and Per Flow) to consider should you want to deploy the tool in an enterprise sense and make use of its advanced features:
Power Automate – Per User license plan
Users who have been assigned this license may build and consume an unlimited number of cloud flows (API-based automation) and make use of premium features. This license cannot be used for Desktop (RPA) flows.
This costs AUD$20.60 per month, per user.
Power Automate – Per User with Attended RPA license plan
Users who have been assigned this license may build and consume API-based cloud flows that make use of premium features and can use cloud flows to control and trigger automation of legacy desktop/server applications using Power Automate Desktop for UI-based desktop flows.
(Note, manually running desktop flows from the Power Automate Desktop console does not require a license).
This costs AUD$54.90 per month, per user.
(Note, if you want to run concurrent instances of a single process, you’ll need an additional unattended bot for each instance.)
Power Automate – Per Flow license plan
A cloud flow that has been assigned a premium license may be used by any user regardless of whether that user has a premium license or not. There is a minimum of 5 flow purchases.
This costs AUD$137.30 per month, per flow, per environment.
That last part – per environment – is important. Per Flow licenses are bound to a single environment and not transferrable across them. So, if you have a flow that requires premium licensing and that is developed in one environment, tested in another environment, and used in a third environment, you need a Per Flow license for each environment.
This license can also be paired with the “unattended RPA add-on” which allows you to run Power Automate Desktop RPA flows in unattended mode, if required.
Power Automate – Unattended RPA Add-On
This add-on only applies to either the Per User with Attended RPA license or Per Flow license and allows you to run Power Automate Desktop RPA flows in an unattended fashion, i.e., on a dedicated VM or server.
This is ideal for automating legacy applications via the UI where you don’t require human interaction in the process.
The unattended add-on costs AUD$206 per month, per bot.
(Note: This license can run more than one process, but it must be run sequentially. Running concurrent instances of a process requires additional unattended bots and add-ons.)
Power Automate – Hosted RPA Add-On
Just like the Unattended RPA add-on mentioned above, this allows you to run Power Automate Desktop RPA flows in an unattended fashion, but this time it also includes a hosted VM or server in Azure.
The Hosted RPA add-on costs AUD$295.20 per month, per bot.
(Note: This license can run more than one process, but it must be run sequentially. Running concurrent instances of a process requires additional unattended bots and add-ons.)
- Pay-as-you-go plans (requires an Azure Subscription)
Pay-as-you-go plans allow you to get granular with consumption pricing, as you will only get charged when your cloud or desktop flows run. This option is more suited for automation that run infrequently or in low volumes. Pricing shown is in $AUD:
Dataverse Storage Capacity and API Request Limits
Dataverse is commonly used when building automation and establishing multiple testing or pre-production environments for Power Automate.
It is not licensed independently but comes bundled with PowerApps, Power Automate, or Power Virtual Agent with default capacity based on the plan selected. Microsoft 365 licenses come with limited Dataverse functionality to support Microsoft 365 applications.
Each Office 365 tenant has limits on the amount of storage Dataverse may use for databases, files, and logs. By default, Office 365 tenants are granted 1 GB of database capacity. Each per user or per flow license you purchase increases the available capacity for one or more of the three storage types:
In addition, you may purchase an additional 1GB database capacity, file capacity, or log capacity add-on. The costs are $40 USD per month, $2 USD per month, and $10 USD per month respectively.
If your process can benefit from advanced AI models – including OpenAI’s GPT or has Intelligent Document Processing (IDP) needs, you will likely turn to AI Builder.
AI Builder capacity is expressed as “service credits” due to the flexibility and many possible use cases of the tool. You purchase credits in the form of AI Builder Add-On units, which include 1 million service credits.
Trying to work out how much it costs will send you loopy, until you locate the following calculator which helps to make sense of things – https://powerapps.microsoft.com/en-us/ai-builder-calculator/
Essentially, 5000 monthly service credits (which come with the Power Automate Desktop per user licence) equals the processing of approximately 10 single page invoices. Should you want to get serious with AI Builder, 1 million service credits will cover the processing of around 2000 invoices (or pages) at a cost of around AUD$686.50/month.
While Microsoft’s licensing construct itself is a little opaque, what is clear is that Power Automate has come a very long way in a short amount of time and its consumption-based pricing model delivers far superior value than the “pay up-front for 1-3 years and hope that you use all of it” enterprise pricing model of old. There is almost no risk of shelfware here!
Power Automate is a great way for your organisation to get started with process automation or bring new capabilities to an existing automation program rapidly, at low risk and for very little cost. It is technically very capable, and commercially innovative and is part of a rapidly expanding ecosystem of powerful, cutting-edge tools, apps and services that will continue to deliver improved capabilities and operational efficiencies to your organisation.
All things considered, the Power Platform is disruptive on several levels and can genuinely be used to build solutions that will make your people and organisation more successful.
Customer Science has clients who have reduced the ongoing costs of their automation programs by more than 70% after migrating their processes to Power Automate, thanks to the significant savings that can be made across licensing, infrastructure, and management costs.
If you have any questions on Microsoft Power Automate, how licensing works or how it can be used to can help start, augment, or expand your automation program, feel free to contact us – we’d love to help.
Written by Bart Thomas