The power of SharePoint lists: 5 reasons why they are better than spreadsheets

A SharePoint list is one of the most powerful and flexible features of SharePoint, but its potential is often overlooked. One of the reasons for this is that lists are often regarded as a feature that only IT professionals or those with sufficient technical knowledge are able to exploit, but actually, SharePoint lists are not that difficult for power users and citizen developers to utilise.

Another potential reason that lists get side-lined is because they have been around for so long and are not really the focus of attention. SharePoint lists are far from being shiny and new, but used in the right way, they can deliver great value and play a key role in business apps and solutions.

SharePoint lists vs Excel sheets

A SharePoint list is simply a collection of data that has some kind of structure to it: it is essentially like a table, a spreadsheet or a simple database. It can include many different types of information including numbers, text and even images.

Within organisations, information that is regularly updated by a number of people and also acts as a wider reference point is often managed on an Excel spreadsheet. Typically, this might be a list of suppliers, a list of employees who are qualified to give first aid or a list of business publications that an organisation subscribes too. Excel is a great solution that we all rely on, but there are times when a SharePoint list provides far more value for storing, managing and visualising information.

Lets explore five reasons why SharePoint lists can work better than Excel spreadsheets.

1 Ensuring there is one source of truth

When a team or a number of different users enter data into a spreadsheet, there can often be issues with version control. Even when Excel online is being used, users are still liable to save local versions onto their own drives. Sometimes, to avoid these issues, one person ends up being responsible for entering data into the spreadsheet, with different people emailing that person with updated information. This long-winded process is inefficient and prone to errors.

A SharePoint list avoids many of these issues; it is online so there is only ever one version and therefore one source of truth. Multiple users can update information as required without the danger of creating multiple copies.

2 Maintaining control over certain areas

Excel spreadsheets can get complex, for example with formulae in particular cells, or with various different formatting. People also want to sort data and potentially manipulate it within the spreadsheet. With multiple users involved, it can be easy for an individual to inadvertently delete a cell or make unwanted changes, maybe even ruining the spreadsheet or altering information that might not be noticed before problems arise down the line.

Part of the problem is that it is impossible to assign permissions to different parts of a spreadsheet – people can either access everything or nothing. With a SharePoint list, you can designate permissions for each item in the list and protect any formulae or controlled lists, helping to ensure you do not lose valuable information or compromise the lists integrity.

3 Guiding users to enter the right data

With a SharePoint list, you can also nudge and guide users to provide the information you need by creating a form as a more user-friendly interface for data entry. Instead of adding information directly into cells on a spreadsheet, users can be presented with explanatory text, help options, drop down lists, validation criteria, custom error messages and so on.

While some of these features are available on a spreadsheet, there is no comparison when it comes to easily creating a form to help users and ensure you can control the data that is entered into the SharePoint list.  Here, values in drop down lists and validation criteria can be targeted to different AD groups and even reference other SharePoint lists, allowing you to manage sophisticated data collection processes online with a level of control that is largely lost when you use a spreadsheet.

4 Better data integrity

The combination of permissions, forms, targeting, and data validation which can be applied to different parts of a SharePoint list, along with the ability to collate one source of truth, means that, overall, you can manage data integrity better via a SharePoint list than an Excel spreadsheet. This is also supported by audit trails for each item in the list with an edit history for every single item in it, as well as related version history.

5 Integration with Microsoft 365

A SharePoint list also has the ability to easily integrate with the rest of the Microsoft 365 suite in ways that can deliver more value than Excel. For example, it is very easy to integrate a SharePoint list with Power BI to feed custom reporting, as well as trigger workflows defined within Power Automate based on values that are entered into the SharePoint list. It is also straightforward to present the data in visually appealing ways in your SharePoint intranet.

When you start to combine these elements, a SharePoint list can be at the centre of a business app or solution, where it provides an easy place to maintain dynamic information that in turns powers a data visualisation layer with Power BI, and a data processing layer with Power Automate.

Use cases

There are numerous use cases for SharePoint lists, often involving the intranet. For example, a  SharePoint list is perfect for keeping an often-changing list of suppliers up to date, with different functions adding information, and the results available for everybody to view on the corporate intranet. Another key use case might be maintaining a central catalogue of apps used throughout the enterprise.

A potential more sophisticated use case that could be powered by a SharePoint list relates to managing the reopening of offices during the pandemic. Here, employers will need to keep a record of everybody who attends an office in person for the purposes of any track and trace processes in case anyone tests positive for coronavirus. In this circumstance, a SharePoint list can potentially provide:

  • A place to manage a dynamic set of data with numerous people regularly adding information
  • The potential to provide multiple views of the data – by location, division etc.
  • The ability to provide overall reporting of working patterns through a Power BI dashboard
  • The ability to have a check-in form with approval workflow so that employees require approval of plans to visit the office, providing a simple structure through which to manage strict limits on numbers
  • The potential to extend this form to a PowerApp available on a mobile device
  • Having one source of truth for all this critical information with audit trails etc.

Here, a fully working business solution is seen with a SharePoint list right at its  centre.

 

We love SharePoint lists!

OK, we know it sounds a bit geeky, but here at Content Formula, we really do love SharePoint lists, and you should too. They are simple to use and provide an excellent way to keep control over and present dynamic collections of information that are frequently updated by a wide group of people. They can also power various Microsoft 365-based apps and solutions. If youd like to discuss how you can use SharePoint lists in your organisation, then get in touch!

#MSIgnite2020: Day 1 Microsoft introduces a whole set of new meeting experiences, and finally brings SharePoint in to Teams

Microsoft today have announced at their virtual Ignite event a whole set of new updates that will be coming soon to SharePoint, Teams, Yammer and OneDrive. Here is a run down of some of the things that we can expect to see rolled out over the coming months:

Home Site App in Teams

This is the one were excited for! Today, you can add a SharePoint page to a Team channel quite easily, but this dedicated Teams app promises to deliver a whole new level of integration between SharePoint and Teams straight out of the box.

Microsoft will be allowing customers to set a customisable app icon and name, apply a consistent brand as well as having a multi-level navigation across Teams. The app can also be pinned to the personal Teams bar area and rolled out to different users through Teams policies.

Custom Meeting Layouts

Later this year Microsoft will allow event organisers to customise how their meetings display to participants. This will include the ability to overlay video on presentations and move participants around the screen.

More powerful webinar features

We think that this might finally mean that Teams becomes a reliable competitor in the webinar field. Microsoft today have announced features for more structured meetings, such as customer webinars, meeting organisers can use event registration with automated emails to make it easier to manage attendance, and after the meeting, view a detailed reporting dashboard that will help understand attendee engagement. These new features are expected to begin to roll out by end of year.

Extending Teams meetings with Apps

It looks like soon consultancies and developers like ourselves will be able to extend the Microsoft Teams meeting experience using a extensibility framework that will be released in the next 6 weeks or so. We will soon be able to integrate apps into Teams meetings and create scenarios that have deep awareness of the meeting context including particupants, roles, and permissions. New meeting surfaces, such as meeting tabs, in-meeting side panel, and content notifications will enable us to build powerful scenarios and provide end users with a richer meeting experience.

What is Power Virtual Agents and how can it help my business?

We often get asked by digital workplace teams about different tools and what they do, particularly relating to Microsoft 365. We try and cover the common answers through an article here on the Content Formula blog. This time it is the turn of Power Virtual Agents, a relatively new tool within the Microsoft Power Platform.

What is Power Virtual Agents?

Power Virtual Agents is a newer feature within the Microsoft 365 Power Platform that provides a no-code interface to allow teams to create chatbots that can be deployed across multiple channels. Because the Power Virtual Agents tool is a no-code solution, it means citizen developers now have the ability to build relatively sophisticated bots, empowering non-IT professionals to continue using Power Automate to design apps without relying on the IT Department.

Power Virtual Agents was originally part of Microsoft Dynamics but has been worked into its own separate capability. It was announced in late 2019 as a new addition to the Power Platform suite that is available with some Microsoft 365 licences. There are various other licensing options to explore, including Power Virtual Agents being available on a standalone basis.

How it Works

At the heart of Power Virtual Agents is a powerful authoring canvas that allows non-IT people to start building bots. This is very well-designed and intuitive, making bot design a realistic option for power users and citizen developers.

The authoring process works something like this. Lets say you are designing a bot that is going to appear on your intranet to answer questions from employees; within Power Virtual Agents you define a list of the topics that you want the bot to answer questions about. One of these might be Office Hours so customers can query the opening hours of your different locations. Realistically, your bot will have multiple topics that are defined within Power Virtual Agents.

Each topic will have a list of defined trigger phrases that will illicit some kind of response from the bot. Here, the matching trigger phase is based on a percentage score so the matching does not need to be exact, but it is easy to add multiple trigger phrases for each topic.

From the trigger phrases, the user can then define each step of the bot and the related conditions. There are several options for each step, including the ability to display a message and answer a question. You can also introduce branching to give different options dependent on the responses from the user. For example, the bot can ask a question – For which office do you want to know the opening hours? – and offer five choices, with a response then defined for each choice. These are then presented as different branches within the authoring canvas.

Additional features

The Power Virtual Agents authoring canvas also allows you to add more sophisticated functionality at each step, turning a simple conversation flow into a more complete process. These additions include the ability to add Calls to Action, trigger workflows that leverage Power Automate, retrieve information from different systems including SharePoint lists, and the ability to transfer to another topic within the tool. This means that you can use the tool to create bots that help employees to complete simple transactions, such as log an IT support ticket or request annual leave. Here, the integration with Power Automate and a library of connectors to other systems is very powerful.

Another feature is the ability to hand over to a live agent to take over the conversation. This can be particularly powerful in IT and HR support for internal-facing bots authored using Power Virtual Agents, or customer support for external-facing bots.

A robust capability of Power Virtual Agents is strong analytics straight out of the box that shows how users are interacting with a topic, the volume of use, completion and abandonment rates and so on. A well-designed analytics dashboard down to the topic level allows authors to make changes such as adding new trigger phases.

Power Virtual Agents also allows you to easily post your bot to multiple channels, including your intranet or website, Microsoft Teams, and even Cortana with speech activation.

Why is the Power Virtual Agents Tool so powerful?

Power Virtual Agents is an exciting tool that effectively democratises bot design across the enterprise. There a number of standout capabilities that make it particularly powerful.

1. Great design to enable input from subject matter experts

We love the authoring canvas design it is extremely easy to use. This is really important as it allows subject matter experts to directly author and configure a bot. Their input is critical when it comes to creating specific solutions that require strong domain or expert knowledge; in our view it not only creates better bots, but also engages non-IT people to continue to make improvements and directly configure the bot themselves.

2. The tool is very flexible in driving continuous improvement

Good bot design is very iterative in its nature; you need to tweak and improve the bot to make it more effective, ideally through a process of continuous improvement. The design of Power Virtual Agents reflects this; the authoring canvas is very dynamic and easily allows you to make changes and additions. The analytics are in very easy reach to inform the design changes you need, as you can effortlessly switch from analytics screen to authoring canvas (and vice versa) in one click.

3. The integrations drive the power and value

A clear advantage of Power Virtual Agents is the easy integration with the rest of Power Automate and the Microsoft 365 suite as well as other systems, often out of the box. The handing off to live chat with an agent receiving the history of a conversation is a strong feature, and the ability to post to multiple channels supports good adoption. These features allow the creation of bots to improve business processes that have real value.

4. You can still involve your developers

Even though Power Virtual Agents has a no-code interface targeted to non-IT professionals, your software developers can still use their traditional coding environments to work with Power Virtual Agents. This gives IT functions the option to build a bot, and then hand off ownership and management to non-IT professionals.

What can I use bots for?

You can use bots for a variety of different use cases, both internal- and external-facing. We recently covered six bot capabilities and six bot use cases for your business, that include:

  • HR and IT helpdesk employee self-service, for example allowing users to complete simple transactions and find out information
  • HR or IT helpdesk automation, where repeatable task carried out by the helpdesk can be automated, such as unlocking a mobile phone
  • Enterprise or intranet search, to help users carry out advanced searches using a guided conversation rather than a more complex search interface
  • Learning and development, to nudge people to take training or to connect them to learning opportunities
  • Change management, providing information for upcoming organisational changes
  • A digital assistant to support new hires with the employee onboarding process.

 

Want to know more? Get in touch!

Power Virtual Agents is a great addition to the Power Platform and Microsoft 365 suite of tools and opens up exciting possibilities for bot creation and ongoing improvement. If you would like to know more about Power Virtual Agents and how it can help your business, then get in touch!

Returning to work and reducing the need for office space: how the digital workplace helps

The COVID-19 pandemic still remains an unknown that will impact our lives for the foreseeable future. At the moment many organisations are tentatively reopening their offices but ensuring there is social distancing in place and usually with far less people actually working there. In practice many employees continue to work remotely (both by choice and through their employers guidance), but the situation remains one that is highly changeable, with the possibility of local or even a national lockdown at short notice for the coming months.

The digital workplace and its constituent tools can help organisations to navigate some of the trickier challenges around reopening offices and physical workplaces in several different ways. In the longer term, with scaled-up remote working likely to continue and difficult economic conditions, there is likely to be a longer-term need and desire to reduce office space.

In this article were going to explore the different ways the digital workplace can assist organisations in the difficult transition many currently find themselves in, but also support longer-term ambitions to reduce the size of offices.  Often the related apps and capabilities help both scenarios. Lets explore ten key areas where digital workplace tools make a difference.

1. Clear and trusted communication channels

Having clear, trusted communication channels that can deliver real-time updates to all staff has been critical in keeping employees informed and up to date during the crisis. This needs to continue as physical workplaces relay up to date information about different locations, for example if they are open, have had to reclose or have other critical updates. In the longer term, to successfully reduce office space, having clear, real-time information for visitors about a location will be essential, as generally more planning will be required by a user to ensure there is adequate space and equipment for their visit.

2. Advanced remote collaboration tools

It goes without saying that the digital workplace needs to continue to remote working with tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. In the longer term to support a reduction in office space, more advanced digital collaboration tools may be needed to support some of the deeper collaboration that goes on within teams and projects, for example the use of whiteboarding.

3. Survey and screening tools and related dashboards

At the moment the safety, health and wellbeing of employees is paramount. Different survey and screening tools can allow employees to help to determine or inform of their need to self-isolate if they get COVID symptoms, and therefore their ability to work at a physical location or otherwise. This can have a knock-on effect on the ability or desire of others to work at a location. Dashboards that display information can also help in planning space utilisation and to identify likely trends.

4. Meeting room booking, desk booking and shift management

One of the major impacts of using office space in the current situation but also going forward if office space is reduced is for there to be more planning; employees can no longer just turn up and expect a desk to be available. This is already the case with many organisations that have already introduced activity-based working. Similarly, meeting room booking also needs to be planned far more carefully, not only to ensure rooms are available but also to provide the cleaning operations that may be required in between meetings. Therefore, systems that support remote meeting room booking, desk allocation and perhaps shift management are required to ensure these processes can happen.

5. Team scheduling

Another aspect of planning a visit to the office may also be to see who else is going to be there, for example needing to be able to coordinate different members of a team so that they are all coming into the office on a given day. Therefore, some kind of team scheduling capability in your digital workplace will also be useful where employees can clearly see who has booked to go into the office.

6. New meeting room support

When you scale up remote working, you need to account for more virtual working spaces within the office to allow staff to conduct virtual meetings with their colleagues who are not in the office. This may mean the need for a rethink or increase in meeting rooms with virtual meeting capabilities, or ones that better integrate with the collaboration tools used by employees working from home.  The use of more voice-activation to control or request equipment that helps reduce the need to touch screens may also be useful; we can see more Alexas in meeting rooms for example.

One of the challenges to navigate here is how to create informal places for impromptu virtual meetings involving more than one person. For example, three people want to go and find a comfortable place for an impromptu meeting. They then want to bring in their colleague who is working from home. How do they do that outside booking a formal meeting room which may not be possible? While the pandemic rages, impromptu meetings may be less than ideal, but going forward creating space for informal and impromptu virtual collaboration will be a challenge for office design.

7. Enterprise contact tracing

Enterprise contact tracing that helps to identify any staff who may have come into contact with a person who subsequently develops COVID symptoms so these staff can then self-isolate, is a hot topic at the moment. Several apps are being marketed with this capability and this may prove to be very valuable in helping organisations and employees safely return to scaled-up physical working in the coming months.

8. Flexible wayfaring tools

As employees return to work, there may be considerable changes that have taken place, for example in reducing space, or in relocating functions, or in new flexible areas. Having a wayfaring tool or office map integrated into the intranet or on an app that allows users to find how offices have changed and where particular facilities are now situated can add real value. In the longer term, wayfaring functionality can help to support a more flexible and streamlined approach to office space that for example responds to seasonal fluctuations or business need, without having to acquire permanent office space.

9. Learning platform

In the short, medium and long-term, the way we work both remotely and within the office is likely to transform. There are change management aspects to consider. Here a good learning platform accessible by everybody and ideally on mobile devices can be useful in helping employees learn about new ways of working, as well as important procedural information that can support safety, health and well-being.

10. Office space utilisation tools

Tracking movements within the physical workplace and measuring the utilisation of space and meeting rooms helps real estate professionals plan the optimum use of office space with a view to supporting employees in their work and collaboration, making better use of space, and identifying opportunities to rationalise space. Here a variety of tools can help, including the use of Bluetooth beacons to monitor movements, use of pressure pads and other sensors to measure footfall, and using meeting room and desk utilisation software to check occupancy.  Information generated about meetings and interactions from Microsoft Graph can also be very powerful, while Power BI can also provide useful dashboard and data visualization capabilities.

In using these sorts of tools, it is critical to ensure users data privacy is not compromised, and that any employee concerns are addressed.

 

Harmonising the digital and physical workplace

The harmonisation of the digital and physical workplace is an ongoing theme in the digital workplace world. As the role of the office evolves in both the immediate and longer term, it is clear that the digital workplace plays a critical role in managing and reducing current office space. If youd like to discuss how the digital workplace can support your longer-term physical workplace strategy, then get in touch.

Six bot capabilities and six bot use cases for your business

Bots have long passed the novelty stage and are now delivering business value for employees; they are becoming an established part of the digital workplace and are increasingly commonplace both in commercially available products or integrated into different apps and platforms.

The number of bots is likely to increase as bot frameworks become more widely accessible and no-code or low-code solutions emerge; here, the release of Power Virtual Agents into the Microsoft 365 Power Platform is likely to be the most significant, allowing non IT-professionals and citizen developers to configure simple bots through a highly intuitive interface.
One of the great things about bots is they can be accessed through numerous different applications and platforms, but commonly are found on Microsoft Teams and even through the intranet. Here, a bot might be accessible from an intranet toolbar or even the footer. Bots usually also work well on mobile devices.
With bots becoming established in the digital workplace and employees starting to engage with them more as the user experience and business relevance improves, it is worth thinking about the different types of bots for your business and some of the associated use cases. Note that in this article we are only covering bots that are intended for employees rather than external-facing bots aimed at customers.
First, lets explore the different capabilities of bots. Note that a single bot may actually cover one or more of these capabilities.

Six types of intranet bots

1. Finding information

Most bots are set up to find information based on questions and keywords entered by users. The bot recognises information may be a on a particular topic or even connect to a wider search, such as the employee directory; bots can also return external information such as the weather. Often the bot may refine an information request by asking relevant questions to get more information, effectively refining the search based on the trigger phrase entered by the user.

2. Forms and workflow

Bots can be used to request information from employees that can then trigger workflow, for example requesting annual leave or ordering business cards. Approval then might be given by a line manager. The bot can request information from the user in different ways, for exampling presenting a complete form or asking separate questions to the get the required pieces of information. This can involve different questions depending on the answers by the user given at each stage.

3. Simple transactions

Bots can usually perform simple transactions that also involve other applications or even multiple applications. For example, a bot might be able to log a ticket in an IT issue ticketing system such as Zendesk and then also send a confirmation email to the user at the same time. Simple transactions may involve integrations with different applications.

4. Triggering and tracking a process

Sometimes a bot can effectively trigger and kick off a longer process and then keep a user informed about its progress, for example either responding to further questions or even notifying them of progress. For example, if a user does logs a request with an IT helpdesk, the bot might be able to provide up to date information on the progress of the request on demand, or through notifications as different stages of progress are reached.

5. Nudges, reminders, notifications and suggestions

Some bots will also send messages and reminders unprompted to users in their chat feed, making suggestions, remind them of actions to be carried out or notifying them about important information. The user may be able to then interact with the bot to complete an action or find out more Where a bot can add value is when it starts to make suggestions based on information about the users situation. For example, if the bot knows a user has just changed their role or business title, it might suggest an employee updates their person profile.

6. Handover to live chat

Some bots are able to be used in conjunction with live chat so, for example if an issue cant be solved by the bot and requires the attention of a human being, the bot can seamlessly handover the user to live chat for issue resolution. The agent will then be able to see the previous conversation, and also should have basic user information too, such as their location and department, all of which provide important context for resolving the issue efficiently.

Six uses cases for intranet bots

All of these bot types and capabilities either on their own, or in combination, can support some key business use cases. Lets explore six of these.

1. HR and IT helpdesk: employee self-service

Employee self-service empowers users to complete simple transactions and find out information, particularly relating to IT and HR issues. When a bot is used as the first entry point for IT or HR helpdesk questions and requests, it can help to drive self-service by linking to information to resolve issue or providing the capability to complete transactions. This takes pressure off busy IT and HR helpdesk support teams, but also makes life easier for users. For example, using a bot on your intranet or in Microsoft Teams means it should already know all your user information (Name, Location etc.) that otherwise you might have to explain over the phone to a call agent. Your issue may also be easily solved with a FAQ that the bot can send you too, again saving the user considerable time.

2. HR or IT helpdesk: automation

A bot can also help drive HR or IT helpdesk automation, for example allowing a person to make simple requests that can be carried out there and then, such as unlocking a mobile phone, changing a business title in a system, accessing a particular application, or topping up funds to pay in the staff canteen. When previously manual processes are automated via a bot they can reduce the time spent on the transaction from minutes to seconds and also reduce the chance of errors; when these efficiencies are repeated across an entire organisation the value the bot delivers is considerable.

3. Enterprise or intranet search

A bot can be an interesting interface for particular enterprise or intranet searching because it can help and encourage users to refine searches based on different criteria or return different types of content based on their preferences. Sometimes the advanced search screen on an intranet can be off-putting or daunting for users; it can also be impossible to use on a mobile device. A bot interface can make advanced searching more effective and also possible on a mobile device, particularly for firstline employees or those outside the office.

4. Learning and development

A bot can work very well relating to an individuals learning and development options, especially when it is integrated with a companys LMS system. For example, there is a very useful bot embedded into LMS365, a learning platform we help clients to implement. A bot can deal with simple requests and return personalised information on a persons training record, for example telling them the upcoming courses they are enrolled on or the mandatory learning they still need to complete. The bot can also help uses to query a course catalogue and then organise enrolment, also adding a calendar entry to Outlook. Bots can also deliver training suggestions and reminders.

5. Change management

A bot can effectively support change management initiatives, particularly by providing information relating to a particular initiative. For example, a bot can work very well in answering questions about an upcoming or current organizational change such as an office move or a company merger. A bot can also be used to answer questions relating to changes to remote working brought about by the current crisis.

6. Digital assistant for employee onboarding

A bot with multiple capabilities can be positioned as a digital assistant that can support employee onboarding, helping new hires orientate themselves when they first start working for a company. A bot can act as a point to ask questions and link to essential information, but also help employees complete some of the key transactions and processes that need to take place. When the bot also issues reminders, notifications and suggestions, it can also help ensure new starters complete all those tasks that need to be done at different times; these notifications will also be personalised to the individual. The bot can also be branded and even named, to make it more friendly and engaging.

 

We love bots!

Here at Content Formula we love bots and were getting more and more interest from clients. Bots continue to get better and better and are delivering value for both users and the digital workplace teams. If youd like to discuss how bots can work for your business, then get in touch!

 

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