March 11, 2020
Why Power Automate?
Be more productive. Automatically. That’s Microsoft’s new slogan for the recently rebranded Microsoft Power Automate, formerly known as Microsoft Flow.
With its connectors to over 300 services, Power Automate gives you the ability to create automated processes connecting many parts of your digital life. This frees you to do more human activities and let machines do what they do best – repetitive or set steps and tasks.
Think, for example, of a task you must do each time a certain email arrives, or things you always want to follow up on each time you meet a new business contact. These processes can easily be automated with Microsoft Power Automate, allowing you to get on with more productive work.
If you’ve been wanting to try out Power Automate, but don’t know where to start, this article will help you get up to speed quickly. We’ll cover the basic concepts of Power Automate, and some tips to make the best use of the flow designer.
What is Power Automate?
At its most basic, a Power Automate flow consists of a trigger plus at least one action. A trigger is what starts the flow. There are three basic types of Power Automate trigger:
- Automated, when a specified event occurs
- Instant (manual) via a button or click. This includes flows run from within SharePoint, OneDrive, or Power Apps
- Scheduled, recurring at an interval you specify
After the trigger there must be one or more actions. These can be things like notifying someone the trigger event has occurred, beginning an approval process, or updating a data source. There are also built-in actions to implement logic such as conditions and looping, and to create variables, perform conversions, and so on.
Each trigger and action (other than the built-in ones) is related to a connector, with each connector having its own set of triggers and actions. Some popular connectors include SharePoint, Outlook, Twitter, and Microsoft Teams. Generally speaking, the connectors to Microsoft products and some other personal productivity services such as Google products, are included within standard Power Automate and don’t involve additional cost. However, other questions of licensing and costs are beyond the scope of this article.
You can create a flow from scratch, beginning with a trigger and adding actions, or you can try one of the hundreds of pre-built Power Automate templates available. The templates have been created either by Microsoft or by the community, and are a great way to quickly automate something that others have already found useful. You can often use a template as is, but you can also make any changes you wish, and learn from the automation patterns used in the template. The most popular templates will be shown first, such as “Save email attachments to OneDrive for Business” – but you can also search by connector or type of productivity enhancement.
Yet another way to begin a flow is within SharePoint or OneDrive for Business. There are several flows built in to SharePoint lists and document libraries or OneDrive file libraries: Request sign-off, Set a reminder, Page approval, and Copy as PDF. These can each be initiated on a selected item or file, as the case may be, and some can be edited to suit your needs.
Create a flow
To begin, simply go to flow.microsoft.com and log in with your Microsoft credentials. From the Home page, click Create. You’ll see the three types of flows mentioned above, plus Business process flow, which is based on Common Data Service entities and is beyond the scope of this article.
NOTE: All screenshots are current as of this writing, but the Microsoft Power Automate team makes updates fairly frequently, so you might see something a little different here.
To get a very basic idea of how the flow designer works, you can try selecting Automated flow. This brings up a dialog where you can name your flow and select a trigger from a list of popular ones (or Search all triggers if what you want isn’t on that list). As an example, we’ll choose the When an item is created trigger, which uses the SharePoint connector.
You’re then taken to the flow designer screen, pictured below. Your selected trigger is shown, and here is where you can configure it. If you aren’t currently logged in to the relevant service, you’ll be asked to provide credentials. This creates a connection to that service, which you can then use in other flows without needing to provide your credentials again.
Most triggers have some required fields, and many have optional fields which will be located under a Show advanced options link. There are additional settings behind the … menu on the trigger; those are beyond the scope of this article, but you may wish to explore them using the resources at the end of this article.
In this trigger example the SharePoint site URL and list or library name are required. Clicking the Site address dropdown will give you a list of your recently visited sites, but if you don’t see the one you need, you can select Enter custom value at the bottom of the list, and paste in a site URL (just the site, not the list). After the site is selected, you should see all custom lists within that site in the List name dropdown. If you wish to use a different type of list (such as a task list), you can type it as a custom value.
TIP: In Power Automate, triggers and actions using the word “file” are related to SharePoint or OneDrive libraries, while triggers and actions using the word “item” are related to SharePoint custom lists.
After specifying the appropriate details, click on +New step to add an action. This opens a dialog where you can search for the service and type of action you wish to add. For example, if you want to send an email, you can simply type send email in the search box, and you’ll see relevant actions and services to choose from.
Selecting an action will place it into the flow designer, again with various fields to fill in. One of the key concepts in Power Automate is that all output from the trigger and from previous actions is available to use in subsequent actions. Thus, in our example, any of the data from the SharePoint list item which was created becomes available to add to, say, an email. When you click on a field in the action, you can add either Dynamic content or an Expression (function) to access values from previous steps.
In an example like the one shown here, in the Subject or Body you can add dynamic content as well as typed text, to make it read however you want it to. After entering something in each required field, click Save to save the flow. It’ll be “on” by default, so you can test it by creating a new item in the SharePoint list (or whatever your trigger is).
After the flow runs, you’ll see all successful or failed runs on the flow’s dashboard page, and you can click on any run to see exactly what happened at each step. After the flow has been triggered once, you can use the Test button in the upper right corner of the flow designer to re-run the flow using that same trigger data. This saves you needing to re-enter test data over and over as you test your flow.
And that’s it – you’ve created your first Microsoft Power Automate flow!
There are so many more tips to share, but there’s just not enough space in this article. Plenty of learning resources are available for Power Automate, though. Following is a short list of some especially helpful places to continue your journey.
Jon Levesque, Senior Program Manager for Power Automate at Microsoft, posts tutorial videos on his YouTube channel at least once a week.
Microsoft Power Automate documentation and learning path are really quite good.
There’s an active Power Automate community which includes forums monitored by Microsoft staff and community members, and a “cookbook” of sample flows from which to learn.
On the monthly Flow Pro Show live webcast, you can learn about what’s new in Power Automate from me and my co-host Daniel Laskewitz.
And of course, community events such as the European Collaboration Summit are a great place to learn about Power Automate from the experts!
Collaboration means two-way communication!
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