Harnessing Microsoft’s Business Application Platform

The Power Platform (now dubbed: Business Application Platform) started life as a collection of three products introduced into the Office 365 portfolio: [Power]Apps for lightweight business applications, [Power]Automate for business process automation, and [Power]BI for reporting & insights. It now has a fourth constituent dubbed [Power]Virtual Agents; a ‘low code’ solution to develop bots (for use in your forefront collaboration solutions like Microsoft Teams).

The platform rolls with a framework for the management of data and information that is shared by Microsoft’s Dynamics 365 service, called the Common Data Service and Common Data Model, respectively. Here’s where you can capture and interact with your data model if you’re not building solutions with a high synergy with SharePoint Online.

The Business Application Platform is a hot property right now, and organisations are looking for opportunities to evaluate and pilot it’s capabilities. I’ve seen a surge in requests for partner support to deliver business solutions powered by the platform.

So why, subject to a case by case evaluation, do I find myself concluding that in some scenarios, the Business Application Platform is not the right solution?

OK. Put the pitchforks down, and hear me out. I’m not a blind evangelist. I think the platform is great but that doesn’t mean it’s right for every scenario.

In this article, I’ll be examining what’s required to make the Business Application Platform a viable option for your organisation, and evaluating it against other comparative enabling technologies.

As a Service

The clue is in the name: Business Application Platform. It’s a platform capability. Is it a good idea to develop solutions for a platform that has not been properly embedded within your organisation?

I’ve seen organizations take the following approaches:

  • They ban/block usage of the Business Application Platform due to security concerns, predominantly around access to and usage of business data. (I realise this is less about the platform, and more a concern that existing security vulnerabilities might be exposed or exploited).
  • They enable the Business Application Platform, but restrict it to usage within a qualified group. This is a temporary situation, mitigating to concerns around who gets to deliver solutions on it, and more importantly, who supports those solutions.
  • They launch the Business Application Platform, perhaps with injected Change Management. Solutions start appearing and there is an implicit expectation around IT support, IT get nervous that they’re not fully across what’s happening out there.

Landfall: The legacy of Excel

The concern over who owns and supports what is nothing new. It was happening 20 years ago with Excel. Consider this scenario:

  • Excel is used in the Accounting team for bookkeeping
  • Alex, from Accounting takes a course in Visual Basic for Applications.
  • They decide to play with Excel and modify the bookkeeping workbook to automate some things.
  • It’s super effective! The rest of the team think it’s awesome. Alex makes more modifications and starts teaching the rest of the group.
  • Fast forward 6 months: what was a basic workbook is now a fully fledged business (critical) application.
  • Morgan, the head of Accounting, is getting nervous. What if Alex moves on? What if there’s a problem with solution and the team can’t fix it?
  • Morgan approaches Jules in IT support, with an expectation that they can support the solution and have the skills to do it….

The keyword here is expectation. And its established as part of a service governance plan:

Rule Number 1: Set expectations with the consumers of your service so they understand roles, responsibilities and accountability. Do this before you deploy the Business Application Platform.

This brings me to landfall. It’s the term I use to describe the process for transitioning technical ownership of a solution from a citizen developer (or business unit) to a formal IT support function. The Business Application platform is targeted at everyone, including business users, and trust me, you want to put it into their hands because you’re giving them tools to solve problems and be productive. In short: you need to define and communicate a process that transitions a solution from the business into IT support as part of your governance plan.

Rule Number 2: Define and communicate a process for landfall in your governance plan

You can design a foundation for the Business Application Platform that meets your requirements for delegation of administration, and in anticipation of transfer of ownership. For example: the creation of additional (logical) environment for IT owned and managed solutions that sits alongside the default sandbox environment that’s created with your tenancy.

Evaluating Solutions for the Business Application Platform

I work with customers to review business requirements and evaluate enabling technology. Often I see solutions masquerading as requirements driven by funding incentives, a need to innovate and adopt new technology and generate a case study. I get it.

There are some gotchas: considerations beyond whether the technology can deliver a solution. There are comparative enabling technologies and key differentiators, even within the Microsoft stack. For example:

Alternatives to PowerApps for presentation and data collection include Microsoft Forms, the SharePoint Framework, Single Page Applications or fully fledged web applications.

Alternatives for Power Automate include Azure Logic Apps (it shares the same foundation as Power Automate) and Azure Functions . You’ve also got commercial off the shelf workflow automation platforms such at Nintex and K2. Consider ongoing use of SharePoint 2010 or 2013 workflow in SharePoint Online a burning platform.

Power Virtual Assistants are an alternative to going bespoke with the Microsoft Bot Framework.

Rule Number 3: Evaluate requirements against comparative technologies with an understanding of key differentiators, dependencies and constraints.

So what are some of the key considerations?

Cost

The licensing model for the Business Application Platform is multi-tiered, so your license determines what’s in your toolbox. It might restrict use of specific connectors to line of business applications, the ability to make a simple HTTP request to a web service, or how a dashboard might be published and shared. Don’t commit to a Business Application Platform solution only to be stung with P2 licensing costs down the line.

Size and Complexity

Business Application Platform solutions are supposed to be lightweight. Like doing the COVID-19 check-in via Teams. Just look at the way you port solutions between environments. Look at the way they are built. Look at the way the platform is accessible from Office 365 applications and services. Large and complex solutions built for the Business Application Platform are arguably as hard to support and maintain as their ‘as code’ counterparts.

Synergy with Development Operations Cadence:

Let’s assume your organisation has an established Development Operations (DevOps) capability, and there’s a process in place for building, testing, and delivering business solutions, and tracking technical change. It may, for example advocate Continuous Integration and Delivery.

Along comes the Business Applications Platform, and a different method to build, deploy and port solutions built on the platform. It’s immediately at odds with your cadence. Good luck with the automation.

Technologies such as Logic Apps may be more suitable, given that solutions are built and deployed as code.

Synergy with Office 365

It’s not a hard constraint, but Business Application Platform solutions are a better fit if there is a high synergy with Office 365 applications and services. The current experience enables business users to build solutions from within the Office 365 ecosystem, and with an pre-defined context (e.g. a SharePoint Document Library).

Solutions that require integration with a broader set of systems may warrant the use of alternative enabling technologies, especially if additional plumbing is required to facilitate that connectivity. Do you break your principals around ‘low code’ solutions if there’s now a suite of Azure Functions on which your Flow is dependent run your business logic?

Ownership

Business users have an appreciation for a solution delivery lifecycle, but they’re not developers. The Business Application Platform is designed to empower them and is comes with tools required to design, build, test and publish solutions. Your decision to use the Business Application Platform informed by a strategy to have business users own and maintain their solutions. You get the foundations right in terms of security and governance, they’re not breaking the rules.

Maturity

Is the Business Application Platform an established service in your enterprise? If you’re leaning on partner support to crank out those solutions for you, are you ready to support and maintain them?

Low Code?

I see the term ‘no code’ or ‘low code’ everywhere. You don’t need developers! Anyone can do it! It’s cheaper.

Here’s a fact: It’s possible to build a monstrosity of a ‘low code’ solution and it’s possible to take a lot of time do to it. Try building a complex UI in PowerApps. Go on, try.

I prefer the term no-hassle instead. The Business Applications Platform is ready to use and all the technical bits are there. All you need is the license, and the skills. Keep it small and simple.

You want the ‘no hassle’ benefit to apply to service owners, administrators and consumers alike. There’s a balance here and decisions impacting one group may be to the detriment of the others.

Rule Number 4: Reach a consensus on the definition for ‘Low Code’ and what needs to be in place to realise the benefits


In summary, the Business Application Platform is a game changer but it needs to be delivered as a platform capability. The solution that’s going to net your your case study is the first of many that will follow, but not all solutions are right for the platform. Hopefully this article provides you with some pointers around how you evaluate the platform as a potential enabling technology; it’s a culmination of what I’ve learned.

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