What Business Process Can I Automate Immediately Using Office 365?

Posted by Sherry Goode on May 4, 2018


When I interview users on client engagements, I often hear the statement “there has to be a better way… .” Often, these users are referring to a business process that is completely manual.   Either there is physical paper being circulated between people in the office for sign-off, or there are numerous emails with attachments being sent back and forth between various teams that are part of that manual process.  

What then happens is the paper document gets stuck on someone’s desk and eventually hidden under piles of other documents, or those emails get buried within a person’s inbox.  Weeks will go by without anyone knowing what happened to the last request.  Then the process must start all over again.  What a nightmare!  This is when business process automation comes into play.  Business Process Automation (BPA) is defined as a “technology-enabled automation of a business process¹.”  There are several types of technologies on the market that can be used to automate a business process.  There are also many business processes within your organization that could be automated.  However, which technology do you use and what business process can you automate quickly?

If you have purchased Office 365 licenses for your organization and are already utilizing applications such as Outlook and SharePoint, look no further.  There is plenty of opportunity to utilize the Apps that come with your subscription and features of SharePoint to automate a business process.  I will divulge more on this a little later in this article.  Let’s talk about the actual business process itself.  What existing process can I possibility automate now?  Let’s think about this.  Many organizations have business processes that include new hire onboarding, IT support, invoice approvals, etc.  The list can probably go on and on.  Looking at our examples, a business process that could be automated immediately – New Hire Onboarding.  I selected this process, because most HR departments have a pretty defined process around the tasks involved with bringing a new employee on-board.  How else are many of us employed – lol?  Even the smallest HR groups have a process.   So, let’s start there. 

Step 1 – Get the Process Written Down

The first step to automating any process is to document the steps involved in that process.  When completing this step, keep in mind to not over complicate this.  The easier this is to understand, the easier it will be to translate into an automated process, such as a workflow.  It will also be easy to identify, what can be automated versus what must remain a manual action.  I think a second mistake that many organizations make with business process automation is taking away the human touch completely.  Technology is very advanced, but it has its days.  If a system is impacted by some sort of outage, there is potential for something to get hung up or even missed.  It’s good to have some sort of human verification.   I read a great blog post, by Greg Zelond of SharePoint Maven², about how to document a process.  He states to just Spell It Out exactly how it’s done – it’s that simple.  As you are working with your team to define your process, in text type out each step that is taken.  Using our New Hire Onboarding example, let’s spell out some steps:

  1. Human Resource Manager receives offer from department head that the potential employee has been hired.
  1. Human Resource Generalist updates HR Candidate tracking application with updated information.
  1. Human Resource generalist creates a new employee setup form.
  1. Human Resource generalist emails the new employee setup form to the HR Team, IT Team and Payroll Team to complete their individual processes.
  1. IT Team creates new accounts and logins, and builds out a laptop. Provides accounts, logins and laptop to HR assistant for first day.
  1. Payroll Team creates new accounts and logins.

The above is just an example, there could be more steps added or there may be less steps.   The idea here is that the statements are called out the way that they occur for the process.   Once the steps have been outlined for the process, we can start to define in greater detail what can be automated, and finally decide what tools we can use.

Step 2 – Define What Can Be Automated

Continuing with the on-boarding example, as a Business Analyst, I would dig deeper into these steps to help define what can be automated and what should be a manual process.  First thing to consider is while the owner of on-boarding process is HR, there are other teams involved.  A second thing to consider, is that these teams may have their own processes involved for the steps that they are involved in.  To keep things simple for the employee on-boarding process that is owned by HR, keep the other teams’ process steps outside of the on-boarding process.  For example, IT may have several steps that they must take to request a new user account, those steps should remain with the IT team and not incorporated into the HR employee on-boarding process.  With that in mind, we can now take what we have above, and start to figure out what can be automated. 

  1. Human Resource Manager receives offer from department head that the potential employee has been hired.  

What information is in this email?  Candidate name, salary, start date?   This is just collection of information, and will still require the human touch.  We won’t automate this step.   Note: It could be automated down the road, but for simplicity and timing – we’ll leave this with the user.  However, the information received in this email can be used for Step 2 and Step 3. 

  1. Human Resource Generalist updates HR Candidate tracking application with updated information.

For this step, we’ll leave this outside of the automation process.   We will assume that our HR Generalist uses an application such as Taleo or Delek which is outside of Office 365, so this will remain a manual step by the HR Generalist.

  1. Human Resource generalist creates a new employee setup form.

Ah, finally! A step that can be automated.  The new employee setup form can be transformed into a list within SharePoint! Side Note: SharePoint’s new Modern lists have direct integration with tools like Microsoft Flow and PowerApps that can be used with automation efforts too.

First step will be to transform the employee setup form into list format.  To do this we will create site columns (yes, at the site level, not the list level – reusability folks!) for the information that is being collected in the form we will transform into site columns below:

Field Name (Employee Setup Form) Title Column Type (SharePoint) 
Employee Name Single Line of Text
Start Date Date/Time
Title Single Line of Text (a choice field can be used for consistency)
Employee ID Single Line of Text
Shirt Size Choices (S, M, L, XL)
Office Location Choice
Manager Name Single Line of Text (a people picker can be used instead)
Department Choice

Once we create the SharePoint columns we will be able to create a content type for “New Hire Setup Form” and apply it to a list on the HR site in SharePoint Online.  This step is still manual, but now the above information will be entered in our list in SharePoint Online instead of a Word Document.   We’re one step closer to process automation!  This step will also become a trigger for our process to start.  For example, when a new entry is created in the list, we’ll want something to happen. 

  1. Human Resource generalist emails the new employee setup form to the HR Team, IT Team and Payroll Team to complete their individual processes.

This step can be automated.  We know that an email goes out to these teams, so this email would now become an automated email.  The creation of an item in the New Hire Setup form in our SharePoint list would be the trigger for this email.  Some additional stuff to consider, who does this email go to – a group or a specific user within these teams?

  1. IT Team creates new accounts and logins, and builds out a laptop. Provides accounts, logins and laptop to HR assistant for first day.

Like Step 2, we will keep the IT Team’s tasks outside of the of this process.  However, what information do they need from the New Employee Setup form to complete their tasks?  This can become part of the automated email that goes to them or can get included in a task that gets assigned to them.

  1. Payroll Team creates new accounts and logins.

Like mentioned above, we will keep the Payroll team’s tasks outside of this process.  Again, what information does the Payroll team need to complete their tasks? This can become part of an automated email that goes to them or can get included in a task that gets assigned to them.

  1. IT Team and Payroll Team communicate back to the HR team that their tasks are completed. When HR receives notification that both IT and Payroll have completed their tasks, the new hire request will be set to be completed.

Ah, so it looks like the IT and Payroll teams need a way to communicate back to HR that their steps are completed.   We also want to get away from sending emails back to HR that these are done because emails often get lost in the Inbox abyss.  Sounds like these teams need to be assigned a task!   To keep everything in Office 365, we will setup a flow (Microsoft Workflow product for Office 365) to handle assignment of tasks to these teams.   When a task gets assigned to these teams they will get an email with all the information they need and they will be assigned a task that they can mark as complete to notify HR that they completed their part of the employee on-boarding process. 

Now that we’ve figured out what we can automate, and we have transformed our Word document into a list in SharePoint, we can begin to use the features of Office 365 to start the automation process.

Step 3 – Design and Build Your Flow

Before you begin!

There are a couple of steps you want to take before you jump immediately into creating your new Flow (workflow) to automate this process.   I won’t go into them in detail for this article, but just know they are very important (see below):

  1. Synthesize everything from the process automation definition in Step 2. Define what will trigger this process to start, what emails get sent out (to who and what should be in the emails), what tasks need to be assigned and to who.  What happens when those tasks are completed or not completed?
  1. Create a process flow diagram. It’s important for the person who will be building your workflow to understand all the steps in the process and know what steps are going to be handled by a person versus technology.   Again, SharePoint Maven has a great article around this.  You can use a tool such as Microsoft Visio, but if you don’t have access to this tool, feel free to use Microsoft PowerPoint. 

 BPA_Office 365_blog_May 2018Example flow diagram with swim lanes.  Image from of SharePoint Maven.

3. Once you’ve defined the process and the parameters around the process. A Flow can be created on the SharePoint list to automate the process.   Make sure to test your flow with its creator to make sure that this process works from start to finish and VIOLA you’ve automated your first process. 

The key to business process automation is to put the work in on the front-end and to first define what your business process actually is.  It’s also equally as important to be realistic around what to automate with technology and what to leave in human hands.  I’ve worked many projects when the team I am working with wants to over engineer the process.  Then when we start building they can’t figure out why its taking so long and why it’s so complicated.  Going back to the example above, technically, we could have automated all the steps that we listed in our initial capture of the process. However, that would have increased the scope and complexity of automation and we are talking about what processes can we “immediately”  automate in this article. 

Secondly, I can’t emphasize enough that while it’s a cool thought to automate and to go build a worfklow – take the time to document your process and put together flow diagram.  As someone who has built numerous workflows, it is very frustrating to have to stop to go back to the process owner to get clarfication on a step because it wasn’t documented while I am building the workflow. 

Third, if while your discussing with your team what your process is and as you document it you realize that the process is more complicated than originally thought, this is okay too.  It’s good to figure that out early on and not when you are in the process of implementing your solution.  In situations such as these, keep going with documenting the process with an understanding that this might not be the “quick” automation business process.  That process can still be automated, but with the expectation that it may take longer to define with all parties involved and most likely will take longer to implement. 

Howeve, when we find that there are business processes that are less complicated and are well detailed, we can use the tools in Office 365 and SharePoint to go from emails and Word attachments to Flows and SharePoint lists.

¹Business Process Automation definition provided by: Wikipedia
Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
²4 Things to Do Before Creating a Workflow in SharePoint and Office 365:  SharePoint Maven
Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Interested in learning more about automating some of your manual processes? Contact a Business Process consultant online today, or give us a call at 240-406-9960. 

Topics: Office 365, Business Process Automation (BPA)

Sherry Goode

Sherry Goode is a Senior Business Analyst at Withum. Sherry has been an IT professional since 2007 with degrees in both Network Systems Administration from DeVry University, and Information Systems Management from University of Maryland University College.

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