CollabTalk thoughts: "The Era of the Power Platform"

CollabTalk is a popular "Tweetjam" hosted by Christian Buckley, and today's topic, "The Era of the Power Platform" could be easily expanded to several sessions. While the group conversation is preserved, there is simply more information to consider than one can reasonably absorb in an hour of the #CollabTalk firehose. A lot has happened with the platform this year, and it's worth catching up as we take stock of where we are, and survey the road ahead.

Q1: "How does the Power Platform fit into Microsoft’s future strategies?"

A1: So let's look at how we got to today - first there was Power BI, which disrupted reporting and analysis in a good way, by democratizing what was once pwned by Cognos and SQL Reporting & Analysis gatekeepers. That was followed by Power Apps, and then Flow became Power Automate. Now we've had the big reveal that the Common Data Service (the data foundation of the Microsoft Dynamics stack) lives behind the Power Platform front-ends, and we finally have all the elements of a complete business stack in place, sealed with the rebranding of CDS as "Dataflex":

  • Data (CDS/Dataflex, M365, DBs, and other SaaS via connectors)
  • Reporting and analytics (Power BI)
  • App platforms (Power Apps, Teams, SPO, and more via APIs)
  • Business process orchestration (Power Apps, Logic Apps, and 3rd party)
  • A connector model that brings these services together by moving signals and information across traditional data boundaries.

This is powerful stuff. But like any data, you need to plan for potential to realize potential. The trick for customers once again is to understand and consider how Microsoft's strategy can be used to further your own competitive advantage.

Q2: How much of your focus/business has shifted toward the Power Platform, and what has driven that change?

A2: Two realities are driving customers to Power Platform:

  1. The imminent end-of-life for SharePoint 2010 and 2013 Workflows. We were warned in July that starting in November, the capability will disappear from M365 tenants. This will come as a surprise to some, but customers who got started early on are already realizing the benefits of a simpler workflow model.

  2. This ability to orchestrate processes across platforms, especially Dynamics and what we used to call O365 (Teams, SharePoint, OneDrive, Planner, etc.). This started with some customers what feels like several years ago, as soon as there was a connector for Salesforce. The change has been to uncover the use of Dynamics at many customers where we didn't even know there was an instance.

Suddenly all that potential is being unlocked with apps, with automation, with reporting. And in many cases, without the need for a Data mart or warehouse! We can keep information in the system where it belongs rather than maintaining endless ETL processes, or to set up those transformations once to onramp them to Power BI or CDS or wherever the logic lives.

And we're already adding AI and other services to the pipeline, that will only get easier as these services mature and become first-class citizens in the model.

Q3: What are some of the common solutions / business accelerators being built with the Power Platform?

A3: Common requests are apps that work across mobile and browser. Room and resource booking is popular. Right now it's a Recurring reminder system for a regulated institution because Outlook doesn't understand month-ends. Next in the pipeline is a tablet app for Reception check-in. The list is endless, and there are a few simple principles to help prevent this budding garden from being overgrown. My advice is to bring in an expert to help with the initial planning and training, figure out how you're going to manage and support it, and figure out where those resources will come from. Power Platform is less complicated than the options we've had to-date, it's a net benefit to invest in it, as always the trick is starting off on the right foot.

Q4: What is (or should be) the role of the Citizen Developer, and where does the Power Platform fit?

A4: Let's remember that "Citizen Developer" is a new name for the same Power User constituency we've always had. The idea is that people who aren't paid to be developers can do things that developers do, and Microsoft Access, or perhaps Excel, will forever be our benchmark for what these people are capable of. When we have a new tool that makes forms and data "as easy as Excel," whomever owns that platform will have a hit on their hands.

My latest trick is calling Excel functions inside Power Automate flows - it's amazing how fast you can bring someone up to speed when you speak a common language like Excel. And it need not feel dirty to use Excel as a logic engine, the big difference remains that the data is no longer locked inside spreadsheets - it can reside in managed systems. But you unlock this massive set of functions to manipulate information. Where better to get "end of month" or "weekday" functions with 16 overloads to fit any scenario, for free?

And then with every dev platform, there is always a place for professional developers and proper ALM. So we've always planned for end users, power users, support and IT, Power Platform should be no different. Enable people to build "local" Apps and Lists in Teams and Sites, and the popular ones get "Solutionized" for wider use. The new advantages are secure portability of data across those boundaries, and Power Users should now be unblocked to configure or tweak a solution over its lifetime.

Q5: "What 3 things do you wish you had known before getting started with the Power Platform?"

A5: Thing #1: I think every panelist cited licensing, licensing, licensing. During the Preview, if we knew we were going to be charged extra to release standalone Power Apps, fewer would have been written. If we knew we would be charged extra to make HTTP/HTTPS calls - including to use our own services - fewer would have been written. This is now why it is imperative for a company starting out with the Power Platform to understand the model, establish a few policies, or at minimum know "this is when Power Platform is the best option."

Thing #2: Generally it helps to understand the limits of the Power Platform. Power Apps are not perfect, there are constraints when building forms on SharePoint lists, on secondary data sources and more. More than once I've thought, "we can build a Power App for that" only to run into a blocker that called for a compromise or a workaround.

Thing #3: Rather than keep on listing these, the best advice I can offer is to develop or buy expertise early, work out a purpose and a plan for the Power Platform, and proceed from there. You likely don't need outside expertise for the long run, but it will save time and frustration in the long run.

Q6: "What does Microsoft need to change (if anything) about their Power Platform strategy?"

A6: The strategy is good, I'd like to see Microsoft stabilize a while and wrap loose ends before jumping into the next thing. Pick a license model and stick with it. Make calls to Cognitive services even easier. Make Actionable Messages easier to compose and deploy with a flow, and bring parity in that regard to Logic Apps. Figure out how to solve the UX difficulties people have with Power Apps, without breaking the forms model over and over again. Generally, we have the makings of a great platform if Microsoft has the discipline to stabilize what's there before growing full speed ahead.

Q7: "For businesses and individuals who want to get started with the Power Platform, where should they begin?"

A7: For a company getting started with the Power Platform, assign someone to own it and understand the model first. Figure out how all this works in the context of your corporate stack, and not just M365. Think about how your data and content maps from entity to entity, from platform to platform. Think about how to unlock the ability to work with that data in aggregate without necessarily moving it into a mart.

Bring in an expert if you can. I know the value we add for policy, processes and consistency, because me and my colleagues see it every day. There may be groundwork to be done, but it will pay dividends. Solutions are built better or faster, security is considered, and solutions are easier to manage, maintain and even to replace. You want to encourage good practices and grow the garden while keeping weeds under control.

For individuals, just start building against SharePoint Lists with Power Apps and Power Automate. It's that simple. From tracking paperwork to automating reminders, give it a try, let people know what you're doing, and share your successes.

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