One of the great challenges with optimizing time is finding ways to reduce how time one spends on repetitive routine tasks involving business software such as emails, document stores, customer contacts, or approvals. Some examples are a project manager who receives certain documents from a client needs to add them a SharePoint folder, a sales manager who needs to log the time spent at the office and client location, or an employee who needs to add contacts to CRM.
Since many of these are given tasks are short, little consideration is given on improving them. One might be thinking “It only takes me ten seconds to do this…I don’t see any it can be faster” or “It’ll take far more time automating this than just doing it manually”, but has it been considered how many times its done in a day, week, a month? All excess time spent on repetitive tasks that could be performed faster being automated will eventually exceed to time it takes a workflow to automate it.
You’ve may have heard of the term workflow before. There are numerous definitions for it. In simplest form, a workflow is a repeatable defined sequence of work process actions. For those familiar with the term, the first throughs might be how much will the software cost? Will it be so complex that I need a software developer to create them?
Microsoft has recently released a new addition to the Microsoft Office 365 online application suite call “Flow” that addresses these concerns head on. It’s not only very inexpensive, but even used for free on limited base. If you have an Office 365 subscription, then chances are you have a plan that includes a level of Flow use at no extra cost. Being cloud based, Flow has little to no administrative overhead. Best of all, Flow provides an easy to use design interface that allows end users to create their own workflow actions and can interface with many software applications and social media platforms.
How complicated is it? If you’re comfortable with making formulas in Excel then you should have no problem grasping the most complex parts of Flow. To demonstrate, I’ll walk through a very simple example of a manually triggered flow that emails you reminder in 10 minutes. To get started simply go to http://flow.microsoft.com/ and sign in. Once this is done you should see the Office 365 navigation bar at the top of the browser screen. Click “My Flows”, then “Create from blank”.
You’ll then be presented with a list of popular workflow triggers. Since this is a manually triggered flow, click search connectors and triggers button and you’ll be presented with a searchable list. Enter “Manual” into the search box and you should see options for “Flow button for mobile” like this:
The “Flow button for mobile” is a basic trigger that can be used on mobile phones and on the PC through the browser.
However before going further, it’s imported to explain what is being shown here first. Notice that the search presents two sets of search results, one labeled “Connectors” and another with “Triggers” and “Actions”. All workflow objects have some sort of connection, usually to an application or social media platform. This connection object includes triggers and actions. Triggers are events that occur to start workflow, often when various set conditions are met. Every Workflow much start with a trigger to kick it off. Actions are things that changes or do something on the connected application, such as sending an email, making a Twitter post, etc.
Since we are adding a trigger to start the workflow, click on the “Flow button for mobile – Manually trigger a flow” options on the bottom. You should now see the Workflow designer with the added trigger like below:
Each step of a Workflow appears as a box like the one shown. On the top right corner is a “…” indicator which, when clicked, displays options such as delete or rename. The lower section of the box will present options specific to the object. In this case the “Add an input” option allows for adding inputs, such as text, an email, or a file.
Now we can an action by clicking “+ New step”. A blue box will appear like below with additional options:
Here you can choose to add an action or a logic condition, or even a scope of multiple actions and conditions. In this case we want an action now, so click “Add an action” and the search popup of connectors and actions will appear. Now we need to add a delay since the notification should happen 10 minutes later, so enter “Delay” in the search box like below:
Click the “Schedule – Delay” action. You should now see a couple of inputs for “Count” and “Unit” like this:
In this case want we use a count of 10 and unit of minutes. Before continuing though, I need to point out a couple of important things. First is the orange star next to the options, this indicates it is required and must be set before continuing. Second, is the “Add dynamic content” button. Clicking this bring up a popup to set the action options using Excel like formulas. Remember the option to add inputs on the trigger? The content of those inputs becomes available to use through this dynamic content popup.
It’s very powerful and worth exploring the next time you try creating a workflow.
Now let’s wrap up by adding the final step of sending the notification. Click “+ New step” and then “Add an action” and search for “Notification” and click “Notifications – Send me an email notification”. Here you can enter a subject and body of the email notification:
There is one step bit of configuration necessary that may need to be done. This connector must be told how it is connecting to the email system to send this notification. If you have an Office 365 email account then this should happen automatically. If not then you will be prompted to add a connection. This can be done by click the “…” option and click “+ Add new connection” and enter the information needed to connect to an email account.
If you don’t know the exact settings for your email account, you can switch to sending a text notification to finish this example. Click the “…”, click delete, then click “+ New step” and this time choose “Send me a mobile notification” instead.
Once everything is entered, click “Save flow” to save your new workflow. Click “My flows” on top navigation bar and you should now see your new workflow. To start it, click “…” and then “Run now” and it’ll begin and in 10 minutes you should get a notification. If you click on the workflow icon, you’ll be taken to screen displaying the work flow history and status. Here can share this workflow with other users, and track if a workflow is running, has success, or has failed and why:
While you wait for the notification, take some time to browse the Templates by click “Templates” on the navigation bar. Here you can search and browse thousands of pre-made workflows uploads by users. It’s a great to get an idea of what kinds of workflows can be can, and how.
For mobile use, Flow has a mobile application available for Android, iOS, and Windows phones. Information on the mobile application and download links are available at https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/flow/mobile-create-flow.
There is one more topic of configuration that is important to mention. To create workflows that modify files on your PC, such as Excel documents, you must have the gateway connector installed. The process for this is described here: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/flow/gateway-reference. This creates a secure connector between the Flow and a target machine. Installing this will require administrative rights on the machine and it is recommended that this is setup by your system administrator to ensure it is done securely and properly. This connector is also required for SQL based workflow triggers and actions. Gateways only need to be setup once, and when done, user can create workflows without needing any special administrative rights.
I hope this introduction to Flow demonstrated how easy it can be to make your own workflows and see the many possibilities that are available through this service to automate and improve your daily work functions.