Many organisations struggle with understanding what the Microsoft Power Platform is and how it can solve their problems. At the beginning, it’s worth mentioning one of its strongest points: it enables non-IT people to build their own IT solutions. Such an approach is called citizen development. It is a great platform to drive higher efficiency and innovation in the organisation as it allows for bypassing of the bottleneck that a traditional IT team can be for many businesses.
A common pattern is that Power Apps come with a O365 licence, so users already have access to at least a basic set of features. It means they can start creating apps without any IT oversight and governance in place. However, an uncontrolled approach to citizen development can very quickly generate what is called “Shadow IT” — unmanaged software that the company starts to depend on. IT departments need to start looking into this, whether they like it or not, and decide how these tools should be utilised in the organisation. They also have to implement proper governance over citizen development projects.
Microsoft Power Platform at a Glance
The Power Platform is a low-code application platform that spans Microsoft O365, Azure, Dynamics 365 and standalone applications. It is a common misunderstanding that Microsoft Power Platform = Microsoft Power Apps, and it’s all about building canvas apps. It actually has much more to offer:
- Power Automate for process automation,
- Power BI for data visualisation and business analytics,
- Power Virtual Agents for building bots,
- And at its heart, Common Data Service for data store and Data Connectors that glue all of this together.
It’s not necessary to use all the components, but the general setup is usually a mixture of at least 3 of them: Power Apps, Power Automate and Common Data Service.
Gartner has identified Microsoft with its Power Platform as a Leader in Enterprise Low-Code Application Platforms among well-established products like Mendix, OutSystems or Salesforce. Microsoft has invested a lot in the Platform since its release (2016). Many new features have been introduced: the ability to use low-code AI features with AI Builder or low-code chatbots, Power Virtual Agents, just to name a few. What is specific about Power Platform, is that its core product, Power Apps, offers one of the simplest interfaces to build apps using a drag-and-drop approach with an Excel-like expression language. This made Power Platform especially strong in citizen development scenarios. Things like employee onboarding apps, expense requests, and IT equipment tracking tools can be built within hours. These are simple, personal productivity apps that improve efficiency on a team-level, but they can also make a difference for the whole company if this approach is adopted globally.
What is Citizen Development?
According to Gartner, “a citizen developer” is a user who creates new business applications for consumption by others using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT.” We already had that long before any low-code platforms were introduced — citizen developers in HR, Accounting & Finance, and Marketing were building enormous Excel-based applications and no one knew how they actually worked. Access databases that were later published to SharePoint as an Access App that, one could say, were ancestors of what Power Apps are today. SharePoint and InfoPath, when used in tandem, formed a low-code platform, even though no one referred to this as such.
All the above examples have one thing in common — they were just tools delivered by IT departments to make businesses more efficient. However, no one has foreseen that they will be used to build “apps” that at some point would be utilised by entire teams or even departments. Excel files stored somewhere in SharePoint, SharePoint site collections with complex InfoPaths shared with everyone in the organisation, Access databases on Shared Drives accessed by hundreds of users. This type of activity has been identified as “Shadow IT”, a serious concern for any IT department. How to enforce compliance policies on these apps? How to make sure they are secure enough? Can we prevent data leakage? IT departments face such issues every day, and it’s no different in the context of the Power Platform. What makes the Power Platform stand out is that apps created there are in a controlled environment where IT can implement its own game rules, something that couldn’t be achieved with Excel, Access, SharePoint, etc.
What’s the Next Step?
So, we already know that businesses create apps using the Power Platform, but what can we do to have more control and knowledge of what is being built? Here are the basic steps that are recommended as a starting point:
- Configure the platform to prevent Data Leakage (Data Loss Prevention Policies) — without it, users can reach for any Data Connectors, even ones that can potentially expose sensitive data.
- Put a basic Environment Strategy in place — do we use one, default environment? Or split it into more specific use cases? Maybe departmental environments that will be used to deliver a certain category of apps? Either way, some basic strategy should be in place.
- Deploy the Core Components of the Center of Excellence Starter Toolkit developed by Microsoft — they will provide admins with tools that will help them identify what apps there are and who is creating them. This is crucial especially when more than 1 environment is configured.
Center of Excellence Starter Kit is a set of tools that allow IT admins to have much better visibility of what is being created in the Power Platform, who is developing applications, how often they are used, and much more. It can be further extended with additional components that can automate compliance processes and support nurturing of the Power Platform community.
Centre of Excellence — A Long-Term Solution
While Center of Excellence Starter Toolkit is just a set of tools, the actual term “Centre of Excellence” (CoE) has a much broader definition. According to Stephen Jenner and Craig Kilford it means “a coordinating function which ensures that change initiatives are delivered consistently and well, through standard processes and competent staff” (Management of Portfolios, 2011). Establishing a Centre of Excellence in the context of Power Apps means “investing in and nurturing organic growth while maintaining governance and control.” CoE is an “enabler” for a wide adoption of the Power Platform and is one of the key parts in the whole Digital Transformation of an organisation. However, establishing a CoE is not necessary to be effective with the Power Platform — it all depends on the adoption strategy (if you have one).
So, as a function, what should a Centre of Excellence actually do? Each implementation will be different but there are 2 common areas:
- Administration and governance: establishing Data Loss Prevention Policies, managing licences, access to data sources, setting up an Environments Strategy, monitoring apps’ usage, etc.
- Nurturing and evangelisation: providing a space to share knowledge, create templates and best practices, deploy trainings, etc.
CoE Starter Toolkit helps to build these competencies by providing a set of tools, but each organisation will have its own requirements for Power Platform adoption. Some will only install the core components that will be managed by the IT department. Whereas some will go one step further and create automated solutions, for example, to react when the number of people with whom the app has been shared reaches a certain threshold. And finally, some will go even further and build their own tools to support CoE initiatives. Generally speaking, the CoE Starter Toolkit IS NOT the Centre of Excellence — it only helps you establish one.
While CoE may sound a bit overwhelming, the actual best practice is to “start small and grow”. The very basic implementation doesn’t require many investments, but it may prove that it’s worth putting more attention to the overall strategy. There are many successful examples out there one can learn from. There’s also a great document called “Power Platform Adoption Framework” that defines the approach for adopting the platform at scale. I believe that anyone who considers such an adoption should read this document first.
Without any action, the Power Platform can easily become another “Shadow IT”. Your users may have already created dozens of applications that you are not aware of. Businesses are evolving and will always look for tools that will help them grow, with or without the IT. Since the Power Platform resides in a controlled environment, secured by the Azure Active Directory, it can be easily configured to match company policies and doesn’t require many investments. Furthermore, the Digital Transformation can get an additional boost by establishing a Centre of Excellence in the organisation. With that in place, the days of hidden monster Excel files and Access Databases just waiting to take over your company will soon be gone.
M365 Community of Practice Leader
He has over 9 years of experience in building software based on the M365 platform. He helps organisations leverage the full power of M365 to make their businesses more effective. Privately, he tries his hand at different sports from scuba-diving to snowboarding.
This article was originally published on Objectivity’s blog: Centre of Excellence — How to Succeed with the Power Platform