Solving automation challenge at Microsoft with citizen development, Microsoft Power Platform

Oct 14, 2020   |  

It’s easy to assume that a project designed to automate an old, manual process—one which saved Microsoft 4,000 emails and 500 hours of meetings a year and came in both on-time and under budget—was led by a seasoned software engineer.

It wasn’t.

It was led by a citizen developer.

In 2019, Microsoft employees submitted hundreds of requests to onboard new suppliers in support of the company’s worldwide professional services organization. Each supplier’s approval was made using a thorough assessment against business and compliance criteria. Until recently, these requests were submitted through a Microsoft InfoPath form hosted on Microsoft SharePoint.

“It wasn’t a pleasant experience,” says Jeff Cluff, the Microsoft Services business program manager who spearheaded the project. “It wasn’t very intuitive—there was a lot of duplicative information. The form was dull, grey, and boxy, and there was no way to tell how far along in the process you were.”

Worse, there was no visibility into the process even after submitting the form.

“That information went into one of eight different apps, and it was hard to track a particular piece of information down after the fact,” Cluff says. “There was no indication as to what the requestor was supposed to do, or what the status of the request was. You just had to wait until someone reached out and that could take weeks.”

Cluff saw an opportunity to automate the process, so he reached out to Microsoft Digital for help, and he enlisted a vendor firm to do some of the in the trenches work.

“My team and I built the platform that provides supplier management-related enterprise capabilities for Jeff’s team, among others,” says Ankita Sanghvi, a Microsoft senior software engineering manager. “We made the data Jeff and his team would need access to for this project available to them.”

While Cluff and his team—which included both citizen-developer employees and vendors from Slalom Consulting—were focused on the immediate impact, Sanghvi’s team kept the long game in mind.

While not necessarily tasked with developing or supporting custom automated solutions as part of their standard roles, the Microsoft Digital team was ready and willing to provide the support necessary to get the project access to the required data. “We worked to ensure that the project lined up with our future state, which is designed around a core principle of making connected, trusted supplier data available to all Microsoft businesses, partners, and stakeholders,” Sanghvi says.

It was all about automation and speed.

The vision was to automate the process to speed it up, give the requestors complete transparency into the process, and make it a better experience.

-Jeff Cluff, program manager, Microsoft Services

“The vision was to automate the process to speed it up, give the requestors complete transparency into the process, and make it a better experience,” Cluff says.

[Learn how Microsoft is modernizing its internal network with automation.]

Expanding project scope with the Microsoft Power Platform

Initially, Cluff simply wanted to automate as much of the process as possible.

“The idea was just to add raw horsepower,” he says.

Ashvini Sharma poses for a corporate photo. He looks straight ahead and smiles at the camera.
Microsoft employees have found impressive and creative ways to use the Microsoft Power Platform, says Ashvini Sharma, a group program manager on the Microsoft Power Automate team.

Microsoft Power Automate was the obvious place to start, so Cluff reached out to Ashvini Sharma, a group program manager on the Microsoft Power Automate team.

“Jeff came to us with diagrams of the data flows they were trying to automate,” Sharma says. Automating wouldn’t necessarily involve replacing the old InfoPath platform, so it wasn’t in the initial plans.

But Sharma had seen this scenario play out before.

“It’s a pattern I’ve seen with other customers, where you come in with the intention of doing simple automation,” Sharma says. “Then when you look at it through the lens of the overall Power Platform, a lot of possibilities open up.”

“Ashvini’s insights shaped how we addressed the problem,” Cluff says. “Instead of just adding horsepower, we realized the potential value in looking at it more holistically.”

Why was a bigger, more expansive project not on the docket in the beginning? Resources.

“We were thinking in black and white,” Cluff says. “Either we go huge and use a ton of resources, or we just speed it up with what we had available to us.”

After Sharma demonstrated how building a completely new solution would consume minimal resources and time, Cluff was sold. The Services Supplier Onboarding Portal was born and the team built the app framework with Microsoft Power Apps, using Microsoft Power Automate for data connections, automation, and communications.

“The team built this in three months,” Cluff says. “We couldn’t have done it any other way and still come in at the pace and budget we did.”

Microsoft Power Automate automates onboarding Microsoft suppliers in two ways, it funnels them to Microsoft SharePoint lists, to Microsoft Power BI, dashboards, and it also sends automated responses to email, Dynamics CRM, Digital Contract Execution, Identity Validation, Third Party Compliance Management, Direct Spend Sourcing, and Enterprise Resource Management.
Figure 1: How Microsoft automated its supplier onboarding process with Microsoft Power Automate.

Automation’s impact on compliance and user experience

The new Services Supplier Onboarding Portal is more user-friendly.

“Power Apps allowed us to create a single, central place to gather information and uncover that information at the right time for requestors,” Cluff says.

Requestors now see progress updates in real-time while filling out the form.

“They know exactly where they are in the process, how much time it’s going to take, and how many steps there are left,” Cluff says.

Once the request is submitted, requestors can come back to the platform to see the status of their request, and they’re automatically notified via email of any updates.

One requestor noted that the new platform is a “Huge improvement over the current manual process.” Another simply stated, “This is awesome!”

Mary Rehus, a partner manager in Business Program Management Services, agrees.

“Before this project started, this was all done in a black box,” Rehus says. “A requestor would put in a request and it would come out at the end weeks later, either approved or not approved. There was no visibility.”

This is no longer the case.

“The new process is very simple,” Rehus says. “When a request gets submitted, I get the link and I can see exactly what step the process is in, down to how many days the request was in each step of the process and who I need to ping if something’s taking too long.”

With the entire process automated, compliance also improved.

“We’re tracking every single step,” Cluff says, noting that the platform logs more than 200 data points for each record.

Even review requests are now automated. They used to take time to set up, but now an alert is automatically sent to the appropriate person.

“If we need further review, we just type a person’s name in,” Rehus says.

Cluff estimates that that efficiency will reduce meetings by about 500 hours per year.

That’s by design, of course.

“Our team’s mission is to facilitate optimal, efficient, compliant engagements with several thousand enterprise suppliers,” Sanghvi says. “This project showcases how that trusted source of data we built can be leveraged by a specific line of business solution, like Jeff’s. His team then extends the platform that we built to their specific needs.”

More freedom equals greater impact

Cluff estimates that it would take about 4,000 emails and many unnecessary meetings to accomplish the amount of work they automated. The Services Supplier Onboarding Portal—built largely in part by a citizen developer and his team—is responsible for saving Microsoft employees a ton of repetitive, manual work.

“That’s not uncommon,” Sharma says, as someone heavily involved in Microsoft’s efforts at Robotic Process Automation (RPA) which automates manual user interface flows.

Through automation, you have this throughput coming from all these employees bringing their best selves to work. If you can activate the potential within all of them by taking away all the overhead they have to deal with day-to-day, there’s an amplification effect. That’s the transformation we’re going through at Microsoft.

-Ashvini Sharma, a group program manager on the Microsoft Power Automate team.

“These people have very high value,” Sharma says. “That’s value that they could be adding to the organization by spending time doing the things they do best: making strategic decisions, making emotional connections, doing creative things. The things that humans do best, in other words.”

That’s a cumulative effect of automation culture.

“Through automation, you have this throughput coming from all these employees bringing their best selves to work,” Sharma says. “If you can activate the potential within all of them by taking away all the overhead they have to deal with day-to-day, there’s an amplification effect. That’s the transformation we’re going through at Microsoft.”

Learn how Microsoft is modernizing its internal network with automation.

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