Microsoft's Power Platform gives IT more control and more Teams integration

Power BI continues to become the new Excel and Teams continues to bring business information and tools together so you can talk about them. Here are the new features announced at Ignite to help with that.

Microsoft Ignite 2019 in review: Azure Arc, HoloLens 2, Edge, Quantum, and Teams With roughly 26,000 people in attendance at Microsoft Ignite 2019 in Orlando, the company has announced dozens of new features, products, and updates.

Although it's usually seen as a competitor to Slack, Teams isn't really a chat client. You can use it for chat and video meetings, but in many ways it's really a much better interface to working with SharePoint. The new Files view in Teams includes the same file previews as in OneDrive, so you can see a PDF or a 360-degree video without needing to open the file. There's also a new Tasks view coming from Teams that will show tasks you create in Teams, Planner and Microsoft To Do, all in the same place.

But Teams is also a handy interface for some of the other Office 365 services that don't fit into the familiar desktop Office apps, like Power BI.

SEE: Cheat sheet: Microsoft Power BI (free PDF)

From the launch of Teams, you've been able to pin Power BI dashboards as tabs, making this a handy way of accessing one of the tools you need. That might be because someone asks you something in chat and you need to look it up, or because you just need to look it up and if you're going to have it open anyway, Teams is a handier place to pin it than the Start menu or taskbar. That's because it can sit next to the documents library for your team, and your OneDrive folders and relevant line-of-business apps.

Today, you have to know the URL for a Power BI dashboard you want to add as a tab in Teams. But soon, when you add a new Power BI tab to Teams, you'll see a list of all the Power BI dashboards used in your team or shared with you by other people.

You will also be able to add more of the Power Platform tools to Teams. If you've created a Power Apps app, that can show up in Teams alongside apps like Planner and Trello that have official integrations. To avoid that becoming overwhelming, the IT department can create a Teams app library and employees who create Power Apps can publish them from the Power portal directly to the app library, where IT can approve them, and other employees can find and use them.

Most IT teams don't have the time or resources to create all the custom apps that business teams need, and Power Apps is a simple enough 'low code' service that the employee who's the expert in a process can create their own app instead of waiting for IT to get around to it. But IT teams are also uncomfortable with the idea of 'shadow IT' that they don't know about, but may still end up having to support if the business comes to depend on it -- Excel spreadsheets created by long-departed employees that many departments still run on, for example. This way, they can see what's in the app library and if something is getting a lot of usage, they can spot that it's becoming an important tool they need to pay attention to.

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Microsoft sees Teams as a hub for an array of business processes, apps, tasks and communication channels.

Images: Microsoft

"The world where anyone can just publish any app in a company, environment -- that's not a sustainable one," Karan Nigam, group product marketing manager for Teams, points out. "So we have to figure out how to create easy, simple streamlined tools for IT to be able to have this ability and provide permission. And we will also provide developers with the opportunity to supply details about the application and what kind of information they're using in those applications proactively to IT admins, so they have visibility and can feel confident [they know what it does]."

In a similar vein, sensitive data in Power BI can now be labelled using the same Microsoft Information Protection tools that enforce governance on emails and Office documents: the labels stay on the data if it's used in a PowerPoint or Excel chart, or even a PDF, so organisations can be confident that they're staying in compliance. And if you use Microsoft Advanced Threat Protection, it now checks links in Teams for malware.

Assuming an IT department isn't too draconian about app approval, that should mean companies get more apps that work inside Teams, and Teams users have more apps that they want to use. To make it easier to access those apps, by the end of 2019 you'll be able to pin up to eleven apps to the 'rail' of tools on the left of the Teams window.

Yammer remains a separate tool from Teams because it's for company-wide conversations rather than team ones, but it gets a new Fluent interface and you can now pin Yammer to the left rail in Teams too.

And because email is never going to go away, there's a new Teams button in Outlook that you can click to jump from an email conversation where you're going round in circles into a chat window where you can sort something out quickly.

Go with the flow

Microsoft Flow is being renamed to Power Automate, to show that it's part of the Power platform and to make it clear that you can build not just simple workflows but entire processes. These now include the robotic process automation of UI Flows, which screen-scrape older applications that don't have an API to program against by copying the actions that a human takes (in much the same way that you can create Excel macros with the Macro Recorder as well as by writing code).

Power BI is increasingly the next-generation cloud version of Excel, and adding macro recording to it is an important part of helping it take over from those Excel tasks. But Excel is getting one of the big Power BI features: you can ask the same kind of natural language questions about a spreadsheet that you can in a Power BI dashboard, instead of writing formulas (this uses the Excel Ideas technology). And if you still need to use Excel, you can use the new scripting feature in Excel to record your actions and save them as a script that you can run as part of a Power Automate flow. This is a much more secure way of handling automation than enabling macros in Excel and opening your system up to malware distributed in phishing emails.

You could already create Power Automate workflows that included Teams -- like creating reminders in To Do every time your boss mentions your name in Teams or posting a message into Teams chat when someone uploads a new document to a specific document library. There are new triggers and actions for Power Automate for Teams tasks, like automating document approvals, and some pre-built templates for common business processes like requesting support or sending a Teams message to new employees with the information they need about the company.

SEE: Microsoft Power BI: Data analytics goes mainstream (Tech Pro Research)

"Say I'm working on my PC, and my PC breaks down, or I need some sort of IT help. IT can create a custom 'Create Ticket' flow using Power Automate and then as an IT admin, I can embed that within Teams so any time any of the employees have any issues with their devices or applications, they can simply just tap on More options and they have that custom Create Ticket flow to get support," Nigam explains. 

"Another scenario could be, we have a new employee who's just joined our team. Right now the way it works is, I create this manual message to welcome them to the team and provide them all of these resources. Using Power Automate, just with a few clicks, I can create a create a custom message so anytime a new employee joins there's a custom message that goes out to them, which contains all the resources like information about cafés and all the documentation they might need, so I don't have to do this activity manually every time someone moves on or someone comes to the team -- everything is just automated."

And next year you'll be able to create interactive cards in a Power BI dashboard that will show up in Teams. That doesn't let you pick a subset of a dashboard, but it makes it easier to ensure that everyone can see the visualisation you're discussing, the same way you would if you were projecting it in a meeting room or drawing the chart on a whiteboard. 

Teams isn't there just so people can have another way to talk to each other at work: it's designed to make it easier to access the information you need to have a work discussion about.

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