Microsoft Flow: A beginner's guide

Learn how to create automated workflows with Microsoft’s codeless automation tool, now known as Power Automate.

Microsoft Flow, shown here on desktop, tablet and mobile phones with the product logo.

Have you ever thought to yourself, “Gosh, it would be really helpful if these two services I use talked to each other! That way I could have computers help me remember things, get notified when things happen, and kick off actions when certain things change on one service or another.” You might think that’s a pipe dream. How would Slack talk to Salesforce talk to SharePoint?

Wonder no longer: Like its competitors IFTTT and Zapier, Microsoft Flow allows business professionals of all stripes to do just that: create automated workflows (Microsoft calls them “flows”) involving a series of tasks across certain applications or services — even different services — that send notifications, ask for and offer approvals, and handle rote tasks automatically, with no coding required. The automation tool is part of what Microsoft calls its Power Platform, a suite of AI-enabled and AI-enhanced process automation tools that includes Power BI for data analysis and PowerApps for app building.

Editor's note: At its Ignite 2019 conference in November, Microsoft announced that Flow would be renamed Power Automate. We have let the references to Flow remain in this story because the full rollout has not occurred to all Office 365 tenants.

You might think of Flow as an automated assistant that, when certain things happen, can trigger other actions. Some examples:

  • When a new lead is received into the Microsoft Dynamics CRM system, a text message can be sent to a sales representative with details about the new lead, and at the same time, an email message can be sent to an administrative assistant to schedule a meeting with the new lead and the salesperson for an initial briefing.
  • When you’re having a conversation within Microsoft Teams, the Flow bot can recognize certain phrases (or users can manually trigger such phrases) to flag something for a manager or send an email to another department automatically, right from within Teams, where the original thought process is happening.
  • A survey you create in Microsoft Forms to send to customers after they buy your product or try your service can be configured to kick off a flow if a customer’s rating is too low (say, a 4 or 5 out of 10). That flow can send an email to a manager, text a customer service representative to follow up with the customer, or create an apology letter from a template in Office 365.

An unheralded benefit of Flow is its cross-platform — or rather, its cross-cloud-service — nature. It doesn’t work with just Office 365, but also with Google Apps, Slack, Dropbox, to-do apps like Todoist, Amazon services, contact databases such as Act! and Salesforce, and other popular services. Chances are your organization is using at least one service whose data and activities can be exposed and automated using a Flow template. Flows use components called “connectors” to access these services, and you can find them all on Microsoft’s ever-expanding list of supported connectors.

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