This book will help you to develop an understanding of what digital transformation is and why it is important to each one of us. It will also introduce you to a low-code/no-code platform built into Microsoft Teams, and help you develop proficiency in solving challenges faced by your organizations in their journey to achieve digital transformation. This book is intended to be used by anyone who wishes to build apps, bots, and workflows, and who wants to help automate a lot of manual processes within their organization, whether they're a student, a teacher, an entrepreneur, a doctor, or even a volunteer at a non-profit organization. As you progress through the first couple of chapters in this book, you will realize that with very basic skills, such as creating formulas, and a basic understanding of how you want your screens to look, you will be building very effective digital solutions for your organization.
In this chapter, we will take a quick look at the new trends that are impacting our personal and work lives (that is, the consumer world and business environments) and how every one of us needs to be prepared to use these changes in technology to our advantage, especially in our professional careers.
This chapter also begins to introduce you to Power Platform and Microsoft Dataverse for Teams, which not only helps you to build apps, bots, and flows with minimum training, but also accelerates the pace of digital transformation within your organization. Microsoft Dataverse for Teams provides rich data storage for all types of data, along with enterprise-grade governance and security. You will be able to acquire apps and install them with one-click deployment, almost like downloading an app to your personal smartphone from an app store.
In this chapter, we will cover the following topics:
- Understanding Digital Evolution
- Digital Evolution in Organizations
- Digital Transformation
- Introducing Microsoft Power Platform
Understanding Digital Evolution
The twentieth century belonged to organizations that adopted rapid mechanization and industrialization, riding on the wave of the third industrial revolution. The World Wars accelerated the need for countries and organizations to benefit from this wave of industrialization. There were a few other waves that followed and defined the progress of digital and automation experiences, such as the evolution of personal computing, the increased reach of the internet and the dot.com wave, and the advent of smartphones. All these innovations helped organizations and individuals to redefine the boundaries of what can be achieved and how much can be achieved in a short space of time. While it may have addressed some of the short-term goals of digital reach and automation, the desire for a total transformation of business process and productivity continues to grow like never before.
Here is a chronology of some significant milestones in the evolution of digital technology and how these advances have improved automation levels in various aspects of our lives:
On the consumer digital experience front, the last decade has seen a significant rise in mobile computing and hardware reducing in size to become personal wearables. The best evidence of this is the rising market for mobile computing devices. Even though the sale of such devices might have been impacted by the worldwide contraction of the economy owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, mobile phones still constitute more than 80% of the total devices market for 2020.
The consumer digital evolution is waiting to explode further with the wearables market, where personal healthcare data from millions of consumers will be monetized over the coming years. We have already seen the smartwatch industry boom, with Apple taking a large share of the market. Amazon has also announced its Halo Band, which claims to help customers to improve their health and wellness.
While there is much to study and analyze in the consumer digital evolution space, for the purpose of this book, we will focus on the digital evolution and transformation that is happening in enterprises and organizations.
Digital Evolution in Organizations
Organizations have realized the power of data – it is the new oil. Data is flowing in terabytes and petabytes per second, through social media and through Internet of Things (IoT) devices that are being wired to all living and non-living things on the planet. To give some examples, here are some of the top scenarios where organizations are using social media:
- Monitoring Twitter feeds for mentions and sentiment analysis, such as reactions based on negative tweets, and offering to resolve personal complaints
- Offering discounts and coupons to customers who "like" and promote the organization's brand
- Identifying and targeting a social group of customers for special campaigns based on location, age, social status, likes, search history, and so on
- Using professional networking sites such as LinkedIn feeds or Twitter ads to influence senior IT leaders and decision makers and generate leads for your business software or professional services that your organization offers
This demonstrates the evolution of marketing and customer service processes with the advent of social media, which helps organizations to improve their branding as well as improve their customer reach.
While this digital evolution continues, organizations need to be ready to harness the power of digital evolution to their advantage. Technology is not stagnant and keeps evolving as a byproduct of digital evolution. Who would have thought that one of the oldest industries, which delivers your daily pack or bottle of milk, would use 5G connected cows (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-telecoms-5g-cows/5g-connected-cows-test-milking-parlor-of-the-future-idUSKCN1RN1IY) to increase their output of premium quality milk? As you can see in this example, an industry where you wouldn't expect technology to make inroads is pioneering the latest technology to make operations more efficient, make products more desirable, and exceed customer expectations.
At this juncture, it is important to understand the digital transformation process in detail, which we will cover in the next section, along with why it is important for all organizations to not just survive but make large strides to thrive in the ever-emerging world of technology.
- Empower employees
- Transform products and services
- Streamline Operations
- Exceed customer expectations:
There are several definitions available on the internet, but the one that I mentioned here has the essence of what most organizations desire to do through their digital transformation endeavors.
Each of the pillars that form the bedrock of any digital transformation has significance, and one cannot be deemed more important than the other. However, depending on the maturity of the organization and market conditions, one of the pillars might need to be prioritized over the other by the organization's leaders.
One of the most challenging and crucial portions of this digital transformation is to energize and empower your workforce to not only participate but also lead and accelerate this transformation at grassroots level. Let's take a closer look at how employees can be empowered on this mission.
How do you empower employees of an organization to lead and accelerate the digital transformation journey? This empowerment comes from making employees contribute directly to the digital transformation and making them equal partners in celebrating the wins and dissecting the losses.
About 10-15 years ago, a frontline worker or information worker would at best be providing a set of requirements to the business analyst, who would then draft hundreds of pages of Business Requirements Documents (BRDs). These BRDs would then get passed on to the Information Technology (IT) department to build the next set or a new version of a Line of Business (LOB) application. LOB apps are built or procured from third-party vendors and their purpose is to solve typical business problems within an organization or within an industry. Examples include a talent management app for HR, invoice approval or tax calculation apps for finance, and an expense reporting app for all employees. During the building process, there will be various sub-phases of planning, design, development, and testing, before the application is ready for consumption. By the time the application is ready for production use, it is already too late, because the next version, and most of the ground assumptions and principles, would have changed or evolved, such as the number of users, scenarios, stakeholders, and business goals. There is a heavy price to be paid for this failure and, evidently, the pace of transformation suffers a great deal.
Another point worth noting is that millennials are a significant portion of the workforce today, and that percentage is going to increase in the upcoming years. What does this mean? This population is much more ambitious and technically literate, and they are going to be using technology both at work and in their personal lives. As part of engaging with this young and growing workforce every day, we realize that a majority of this new workforce is motivated to spend less time doing manual, labor-intensive, repetitive work and wants to focus more on adding value to the organization in much more meaningful ways. This is a favorable situation for organizations to have. It would be perilous for organizations to not have the right strategy, nor invest in the right set of technology to tap into this vast workforce and use them to transform their businesses.
Additionally, there is increased pressure for every one of us to start learning to code, including kids in school (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/27/technology/education-partovi-computer-science-coding-apple-microsoft.html). There are obvious benefits of learning to code, such as helping us to boost creativity and problem-solving abilities, and increasing professional advancement opportunities. However, it cannot be refuted that not everybody is wired to be an excellent coder and loves doing this all the time! It cannot be denied that some of the most creative minds in technology have not been the best or greatest coders, but they were always driven by their passion to innovate and make a change, a very good example being the legendary Steve Jobs. This book is going to be of immense help for such innovators who wouldn't like to spend a lot of time learning to code in a new language before bringing their ideas to fruition.
Anybody can build an app and automate without formal knowledge of coding; this is where the promise of this new low-code/no-code platform that is now available with Microsoft Teams and Microsoft Dataverse for Teams comes into play. This enables technology to meet people where they are, rather than asking them to go through a massive learning curve of learning to code in a certain language before deciding to solve a business problem. Thus, we will be empowering everyone to build low-code/no-code applications and other digital solutions to make a change, whether they are an information worker within an organization, a teacher in an elementary school, an analyst in an investment bank, a health professional in a hospital, a volunteer at a non-profit organization, or whoever. In the next few chapters, you will start to appreciate this claim as you start putting your ideas into action.
Meanwhile, let's delve into the remaining three aspects of achieving digital transformation.
Transform Products and services
A classic example to explain how and why products and services need digital transformation is the case of Netflix, the online streaming giant that we all are familiar with today. In 1997, Netflix was founded to sell and rent DVDs by mail, but changed to a subscription-based streaming service and also plays an active role in the production and distribution of its own content. While Netflix has become one of the largest entertainment companies that we all know of, many of its competitors, who started with the same business of renting out DVDs and VHS tapes, have now become extinct.
With the advent of broadband, Netflix was able to use the benefits of technology – advancements in internet streaming speed whereby consumers stopped measuring their internet speed in kbps (during the era of dial-up modems) and now measure their internet speeds in Mbps and even Gbps, with some ISPs using fiber optics. Netflix saw the opportunity to transform its business into a streaming service. There are several such examples where businesses have transformed their products or services by using advancements in technology.
The most important reason why other businesses and organizations have perished is due to their lack of willingness to transform their products and offerings. It is equally encouraging to see how some other organizations, and even certain classes of industries, have also come into being because of doing exactly the opposite. Digital technology is the foundation of their existence, and they never stop to evaluate and transform their services. The ride-sharing industry (such as Uber and Lyft) and home-sharing services (such as Airbnb and Vrbo) are all examples of this. A few more examples can be found in industries that are seeing this digital transition of their products and services, such as in-home fitness, gaming, and educational and professional development. There is a shift to provide products and services via a subscription model and delivered to your home either physically or virtually through the internet.
While these are some radical changes in industries that sell services, there have been some massive strides made by organizations selling products. With the advent of IoT devices, most of the products sold these days, ranging from home appliances such as a connected refrigerator or a smart TV, all the way to domestic and fighter aircraft, are all capable of generating enough telemetry to self-diagnose issues. This transforms the product from being an issue or defective into a product that can self-diagnose and heal these issues. This helps organizations build trust with their customers when it comes to the reliability and serviceability of these products. In the case of connected appliances, many appliance manufacturers get telemetry signals through IoT devices planted in them and can detect signals that tell them it's time to replace the air filter or water filter in a smart refrigerator and then offer value-added services such as sending replacement filters for a monthly subscription fee.
We have seen how products and services can be transformed by using the benefits of digital evolution to deliver a stellar customer experience and become a leader in the industry. We have also seen organizations carving out a net new niche industry.
Next, let's look at how digital transformation is applied to the backbone of any organization – its business operations, which power the organization to deliver its products and services to the customers on time, with the desired quality.
All sorts of processes and activities that take place within an organization that help it to deliver products or services are collectively referred to here as operations (sometimes referred to as business operations). Most organizations have well-defined processes or standard operating procedures to carry out day-to-day activities. As the maturity of the organization increases, so does the efficiency of these processes and procedures. However, while these models help to make the existing processes efficient, it is necessary to focus on partial or total transformation.
Going back to the example of 5G-connected cows, it might look and sound radical at the beginning, but it is becoming increasingly evident that hiring humans for mundane and repetitive tasks that don't need cognitive skills will become increasingly difficult due to what we discussed about the characteristics of the new evolving workforce. As technology keeps breaking barriers, it will make inroads into a lot of such legacy practices, processes, and procedures, even if they have managed to survive unchallenged for so many years.
One of the most elementary processes that happens in almost every organization dealing with products and services is the process of maintaining an inventory of raw materials or finished products or services being rendered on a day-to-day basis. There is a lot of manual effort involved here, and the process is often error-prone due to human involvement. To cite an example, a manufacturing firm that makes machines or cars will have a lot of components arriving as raw materials. If all the parts need to go through a quality assurance process and meet specifications and standards, it is not possible for humans to scale and ensure that all the raw materials meet the quality bar and even regulatory needs. This is where artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning can be used to process large volumes of inspections. Cobots – collaborative robots – can also further augment human labor rather than replace it. By taking on dangerous, physically strenuous, and repetitive tasks, these new apps, bots, and automations are making factories safer and more efficient for employees.
To give a simpler relatable example, as a modern information worker, you must have seen organizations requiring employees to digitize documents such as receipts or manually type in massive amounts of data from invoices. This takes several hours of manual work, and it is often error-prone. However, in just a couple of hours, using the receipt processing capabilities of AI Builder, anybody can build an app that will automate this process and save several productive hours for the organization.
If you want to learn more about AI Builder and prebuilt receipt processing, please see this link: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/ai-builder/prebuilt-receipt-processing.
Operations is a crucial function in any organization and, often, a new start-up or a developing organization struggles to streamline their operations, often neglecting the need for transformation of this vital backbone, often to their peril.
Now, let's look at the most important aspect, the foundation of any organization: happy customers! In the next section, let's see how digital transformation is shaping the future of customer experience and helping some organizations to embrace a customer-obsessed culture.
Exceed Customer expectations
There is a tremendous opportunity to influence customer expectations in the different phases of the customer life cycle, such as marketing, sales, acquisition, retaining, and servicing. While each of these processes represents an opportunity to use digital technology and improve the customer experience, given the purpose of this book, let's focus on a couple of aspects that will demonstrate the value of applying digital transformation to customer-related processes and thereby exceed customer expectations.
Organizations today are increasingly sensitive to their brand's reputation, especially on social media. Besides just targeting random folks for your marketing campaign, it is equally important to connect with each of these customers individually to build a long-term relationship. JetBlue Airways (jetBlue) is a major American airline that does a stellar job of providing a wonderful customer experience when dealing with complaints. On any given day, you will see this organization's Twitter handle trying to improve customer experience, whether related to a delay in takeoff, switching seats, or changing travel dates. Besides addressing customer issues, this Twitter-based help desk is also helping to build the brand's reputation as a customer-friendly organization, given the quick responses and near real-time resolution of customer issues. This is a very good representation of digital transformation applied to marketing, and it can also be categorized as the digital transformation of the customer service (servicing) life cycle too.
Let's take an example of an airline passenger who is stranded at an airport due to overbooking. The customer tries to reach the customer support department of the company through which the booking was done, and at least the first 5 to 10 minutes are lost in sharing basic details, such as the booking reference. Hopefully, after this, the customer service agent can resolve the case quickly and rebook this passenger. That would be an ideal situation, assuming you can get through to a customer service agent who understands what needs to be done. If you analyze this experience and how much time and money is being spent by the agent and the customer, then it becomes obvious that there is a great opportunity to improve this process. Therefore, many organizations have deployed some sort of automated voice assistant for phone calls, or chat bots on their sites, to deal with this. And with these digital assistants or bots, once you pass your booking reference number, it can pull all the information about the customer, provide all the information, and even re-book the customer using the customer's preferred date.
Besides providing huge savings for the booking/airline companies by cutting down the time spent by customer service agents on these calls, these digital assistants/bots also help to improve customer service expectations. Besides making drastic improvements to KPIs such as average response time, customer service cost, and first call resolution, this sort of automation helps bolster customer confidence in the organization and brand retention, which will be reflected in CSAT/NPS scores over the course of time.
Thus, the path of digital transformation rests on these four pillars, and you should now be in a position to appreciate what digital transformation is and why it is essential for the future existence of every organization, whether they are corporations, the public sector, health, the education sector, or anything else.
We are living in interesting times due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has helped us to learn and validate the benefits of digital transformation that some organizations were able to reap while others just perished. Businesses are connected and dependent on each other more than ever, customers are connected, and the velocity of change for their customers, their industry, and their supply chains is unprecedented. There is a level of agility that is required, and this can only be achieved by digital transformation.
Many organizations, some your favorite brands, had to file bankruptcy and go out of business overnight. Here is a list of some of these organizations: https://www.forbes.com/sites/hanktucker/2020/05/03/coronavirus-bankruptcy-tracker-these-major-companies-are-failing-amid-the-shutdown.
It is abundantly clear that the digital transformation of the four pillars of your organization mentioned previously is imminent, and it has become more urgent than a "good to have" business objective, due to the changing economic conditions of current times.
Two of the most important factors that can contribute to the pace of this transformation are as follows:
- Availability of talent (skilled employees) to carry out this transformation
- Pace of transformation
This is where the role of low-code/no-code development platforms comes to the fore.
Introducing Microsoft Power Platform
Low-code/no-code development platforms are being provided by many technology companies, including Microsoft, Google, and Amazon, and they enable people who don't have professional development skills to be able to build solutions for the needs of their organization.
- A shallow or almost non-existent learning curve for training new folks
- The speed (productivity) at which these solutions can be built and deployed
One such promising platform is Microsoft Power Platform. Power Platform is a low-code/no-code platform that consists of a suite of products that enable organizations to not just accelerate digital transformation but also spread the viral adoption of these skills across the organization. It is a suite of low-code/no-code products, as shown in the following diagram:
Here are the important constituents of Microsoft Power Platform:
- Power BI: Empowers you to visualize and discover insights hidden in your data with Microsoft Power BI.
- Power Apps: Enables everyone to build and share business apps quickly, using no or very little code.
- Power Automate: Helps you to configure automated workflows that can be triggered on demand or scheduled to execute at set intervals to take care of business needs or enforce business logic.
- Power Virtual Agents: Provides everyone with a platform to easily build intelligent chatbots without any coding.
- Microsoft Dataverse: Easily structures a variety of data and business logic to support interconnected applications and processes in a secure and compliant manner.
- AI Builder: Democratizes the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to enhance your apps and business process, without having to write any code. Just bring your data, train the model, which is generated by the platform, and start integrating it into your applications. AI Builder is available as a feature within Power Apps that enables you to add intelligence such as object recognition, prediction, and form processing into your apps.
- Data connectors: You can easily integrate with various data sources within the organization through 350+ built-in data connectors.
- Portals: Power Apps portals enable you to interact with your customers, who are external to your organization, as well as enable internal employees to interact with business data stored in Microsoft Dataverse.
Given the entire suite of products included in the Power Platform, a citizen developer has enough tools at their disposal to carry out a world of transformations.
So, who is a citizen developer, and why are you, or may you soon become, a citizen developer?
Becoming a citizen developer
Citizen developer refers to any set of employees who may not have been hired to write code or work on traditional development tasks as their daily job, but with low-code/no-code platforms and limited professional support from traditional developers, these employees can build solutions for their organization, its customers, or to boost their own efficiency.
The term was originally coined by analysts at Gartner and is now widely adopted to refer to anyone who uses these low-code/no-code platforms.
As an organization, there is no more worrying about a dearth of skilled employees to kickstart an organization's digital transformation and, in fact, you will be converting and adding more resources to the pool every day.
As a citizen developer, you will enjoy the new-found freedom of being able to create a new solution without a steep learning curve, and trust us: once you are hooked, it is pretty addictive!
Besides this, once you have acquired skills as a citizen developer, you will have the confidence to sign up for bigger and bolder challenges as part of the digital transformation journey in your organization.
Now that you are aware of citizen developers and Microsoft Power Platform, it is time to introduce Microsoft Dataverse for Teams.
Microsoft Dataverse for Teams
Microsoft Power Platform is now getting integrated with Microsoft Teams to enable organizations to tailor Microsoft 365 to their needs and empower citizen developers to make greater use of the collaboration capabilities of Teams. Microsoft Dataverse for Teams blends with a set of Power Platform products and features that are integrated into the Microsoft Teams experience and provides data storage with different data types, security, and governance, as well as one-click solution deployments. These solution deployments enable easy portability of custom-built solutions across different teams and environments, or acquired solutions that are built by third-party ISVs and published in Microsoft AppSource.
In the next chapter, we will see how Microsoft Dataverse for Teams enables citizen developers to easily build and deploy apps and intelligent chatbots in Teams with Power Apps, Power Automate Flows, and Power Virtual Agents. Additionally, citizen developers can now easily create custom data tables to store business data that can be used by these apps, chatbots, and flows, besides ensuring robust security and governance features that allow you to control access to these apps, bots, and flows, as well as their underlying data. All of this can be achieved without leaving the Teams application!
Microsoft Dataverse for Teams, along with the Power Platform in Teams, makes app building and the automation of tasks so simple that most of the employees in any organization can pick up the skills required in a matter of hours. This claim will be validated soon, when you get to the next chapter of this book!
To summarize, in this chapter we have seen how digital evolution has shaped our personal lives, as well as organizations. We have also seen what digital transformation is and why it is a must for every organization to be ready for ongoing transformation.
We learned about low-code/no-code platforms and how platforms such as Microsoft Power Platform and Microsoft Dataverse for Teams can help you to accelerate digital transformation in your organization. This fundamental knowledge is essential to appreciate and build competency as a citizen developer. You could be part of the team implementing this digital transformation as a digital transformation agent or a leader initiating and championing the cause of digital transformation within your organization.
Finally, the last and most important aspect is the contribution of citizen developers to this digital transformation endeavor, while also gaining significant skills to help their own careers.
In the next chapter, Exploring Microsoft Dataverse for Teams, we will dig deeper into the different Power Platform components and Microsoft Dataverse, and explore how you can use the different components while building an app or a full-fledged end-to-end business solution.