To digitally transform, exploit an app

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Forward-thinking organisations understand that to compete and grow in today’s digital world – they require technology that enables them to more intelligently engage customers, innovate products and services – while improving the way their people work. What’s less clear is that to achieve ‘digital transformation,’ organisations must first make sense of all the disparate data that’s generated from customers, products and people - and then gain the necessary intelligence to drive transformed experiences.

So, for organisations to take advantage of and utilise all this available data, they need the correct technology. For the majority who use Microsoft technologies, there are many options available – especially with Dynamics 365 that provides a suite of intelligent business applications. So far so good, but there’s a big challenge to overcome, which is to bridge the gaps between people, business processes and the technology available - using bespoke, connected, applications.  But, when it comes to building these business ‘customised’ applications – there are further challenges.

With limited budgets and resources, the traditional route of building a custom application from scratch can cost £40k upwards. It also takes time and internal resource when going down a traditional development approach of scoping out requirements, developing, testing and deployment. Having the capability to easily create apps - in-house, is also an issue too as there are declining numbers of people with coding skills across the industry.

An app for the gap

Thankfully, Microsoft PowerApps provides a single, connected platform that can enable almost anyone to innovate- and it’s included with most Office 365 licenses. PowerApps at its core is a Platform as a Service. It allows the creation of mobile and browser-based apps that run on Android, iOS, Windows (Modern Apps) – and with almost any Internet browser.

What’s surprising is that there’s a lack of general awareness about PowerApps and what it can actually achieve. In fact, the potential of PowerApps is staggering and the types of applications and their potential uses are almost limitless too. Here’s two scenarios where PowerApps could be applied:

To enhance daily productivity, a meeting PowerApp could be taken to client meetings, where a sales person could use the app to log attendees, capture actions and notes. Once the meeting is complete - at a click of a button, the meeting is captured in a CRM system, against the relevant account and attendees. The actions for internal members of staff are scheduled into attendees’ diaries. And finally, a meeting summary is emailed to all attendees; summarising notes, attendees and actions.

PowerApps could also be used by police officers on the streets, to gather feedback on their services for specific events and, using a phone or tablet, log cases of non-emergency issues back into a CRM system. The app could leverage the hardware of the mobile device. For example, the camera could take photos and videos of evidence – at a click of a button, this could then could add a case, or append the information to an existing one - in a case management system.

How it works

PowerApps and PowerBI are the two big elements. PowerApps is about rapid application development – quickly creating tailored experiences for specific line of business requirements by extending the processes already embedded in core business applications. PowerBI is all about creating insights and intelligence on top of the data that’s at the heart of a business.

These two elements integrate with other core capabilities. Common Data Service for Apps underpins PowerApps and is where all of system of record data is stored. Microsoft Flow makes it easy to do business process flow automation on top of that data. PowerBI also has a Common Data Service for analytics – it enables users to quickly build insights and optics into the data already collected from applications.

Together, these two elements create the business application platform, which both share a common data model – a well-defined and consistent schema to describe business data and business objects. In addition to this, there are over 200 data connectors and integrations which allow users to reach data that may not be within the common data service, but within third party applications. The PowerApps platform also provides a high grade of security and governance, with consolidated insights on usage, management and monitoring of apps, and data loss prevention policies for connectors.  Everything is hosted on the global, secure, and compliant Azure platform.

Limitations

PowerApps was designed for internal business use only- not for consumer consumption, mostly due to the licensing model, as well as technical limitations with sharing with external users. Also, all of the functionality in PowerApps is “no-code” - so in-house developers won’t be able to add any custom, such as HTML or JavaScript, to the underlying device.

This limitation is a good thing, as restricting rogue code from PowerApps allows the platform to maintain long-term stability and ease-of-use. However, if custom business logic is required that PowerApps cannot provide, it can connect to any custom REST API with PowerApps to get the best of both worlds.

Getting started

By providing a platform to build codeless apps for web and mobile - anyone familiar with Microsoft Office can start building them to improve the way they work. In fact, as apps can be created in hours – and importantly without having to rely on the IT department to help. Ultimately, this will enable organisations to become more agile - significantly accelerating real digital transformation and innovation.

PowerApps provides a drag-and-drop user interface to allow users to add different controls such as text field, choice field, images, video, camera controls for a phone, forms, and screens to construct a mobile app. It also allows users to connect to external data sources or store data directly inside the app. Hundreds of data sources are collected out of the box, and it even connects to on-premises data too. Once the app is created, users just have to publish it and share it with their organisation.

To ensure the app creation process is successful, organisations should initially seek companies that provide consultancy and training for PowerApps, so users can build web and mobile - canvas or role-based apps in hours - rather than months. Although users don’t require any programming skills, for more complex app builds, companies can help provide user interface design. Crucially, apps are safe to build and present no ‘shadow IT’ risk to an organisation’s existing infrastructure - due to in-built, enterprise-ready security and governance. Expect to see tens of thousands of app use cases over the coming year.

Eddie Harford, founder and managing director, SeeLogic
Image source: Shutterstock/Wichy