by Kate Krupey, Director of CPA solutions, Netgain
As CPA firms continue to wrestle with a tremendous talent shortage, IT leadership at firms have become increasingly interested in identifying ways to increase efficiency to cover the gap. In this article, we’ll discuss how CPA firms can use a tool they already have - the Microsoft Power Platform - to accomplish just that.
The Power Platform provides CPA firms an opportunity to create their own discrete solutions that work alongside the firm’s current application set and help firms move the needle on their digital transformation journey. With its native integration with M365 applications such as Teams, SharePoint, and OneDrive, the Power Platform allows firms to create efficiencies by automating manual tasks, addressing bottlenecks, and enforcing consistency.
What Is the Power Platform?
The Microsoft Power Platform is a low-code platform or set of tools that provides a way to create applications, data visualization, workflow, and automation in an accessible and familiar environment – Microsoft 365 (M365). They put the power of innovation in the hands of the people doing the work in a space where they already communicate, collaborate, and get work done.
The Power Platform is composed of four applications which all leverage the low-code model and can be used independently or in combination with each other:
Power BI helps clients analyze and understand data from various firm data sources.
Power Apps is a tool for building custom business applications that can connect to a firm’s data sources and work securely in a web browser or on a mobile device.
Power Automate is a tool used to automate manual business processes which can then reduce errors, increase productivity, and drive efficiency in firm operations.
Power Virtual Agents is a low-code tool that allows firms to create their own chat bots to interact with end users and clients.
While each of these tools was designed to be used with a graphical user interface (GUI), there is a programming language behind the scenes that was specifically developed for the Power Platform - Microsoft Power Fx. This language was inspired by Microsoft Excel and, while most people don’t have to work directly with the code, those with a deep familiarity in Excel will find the logic familiar. For the more curious, you can use a “Peek at the Code” feature to see what Power Fx looks like.
Use Cases for the Fab Four
Power BI provides interactive visualizations and business intelligence (BI) around firm data. By bringing data from multiple systems, such as practice management, accounting, workflow, and even Excel tracking worksheets, together in Power BI, firms gain insight into their processes and identify risk and areas ripe for improvement. You can more easily identify correlations and relationships between disparate data sets and create meaningful dashboards can help individuals manage their work, help managers keep track of a group’s progress, and help firm leadership understand firm performance from multiple vantage points.
Getting started with Power BI is pretty straightforward, and there are many accessible tutorials to help along the way. As users get more advanced, learning about data normalization when bringing data from different sources together will be beneficial.
Use Case: A partner uses a Power BI dashboard to view progress on his clients’ jobs alongside his monthly billings report, while the chair of the tax department uses a Power BI dashboard to see utilization and realization statistics across her department.
Power Apps helps users create applications more quickly than more traditional methods of application development. Typically, a firm would build an application to bridge small gaps or help extend a firm’s capabilities in an area not currently met by a firm’s existing application set.
When used in conjunction with tools such as Microsoft Forms, SharePoint, Excel, and other Power Platform tools such as Power Automate, we can create very powerful, targeted applications to address significant pain points. Microsoft has just announced a Pay-As-You-Go licensing model for Power Apps in their November 2021 Ignite Event, making it even more affordable to get started with developing your own firm apps. They also announced Power Apps mobile apps for iOS and Android which are now available in preview. This allows you to access your custom application outside of the Power Apps application – and get it natively on your mobile device.
Bringing different pieces of information together and allowing you to act on them from a secure, mobile application can really improve the employee and client experience which is top of mind for everyone in the CPA profession. For instance, firms can use Power Apps as a key part of a solution to automate client onboarding or contract/engagement letter processing. The interface for a Power App can be seen right through Microsoft Teams or can be found online or on a mobile device.
Use Case: A partner is heading into a tax planning meeting with a client and before she does, she checks her firm’s “Client Overview” app on her mobile phone. This gives her last year’s tax return, questions the client team has assembled, invoices any AR balances – all on her phone.
Power Automate is the low-code tool that enables the creation of automated workflows. It connects to the firm’s data sources to automate business processes. This automation tool has a graphical interface that allows users to develop flows in a diagram format – selecting data sources and actions from drop-down menus. The power in this automation tool is that it can bridge gaps left by current “best of breed” solutions and eliminate the need for manual repetitive tasks. Automating manual tasks can not only eliminate bottlenecks to increased production, it can also reduce human error, creating a consistent experience.
The first step in automating a process is to define that process on paper. This exercise usually leads to the elimination of unnecessary steps, in particular the repetition of quality control steps that we as humans use to minimize mistakes. For larger processes, it is advisable to use a methodology such as Lean Six Sigma to analyze and clean up the process prior to automating it. Most processes that seem complex are really a series of smaller processes. Breaking these down can help us start small and build our automation strategy as an essential piece of the digital transformation process.
Use Case: Human Resources uses an automated process to make sure that people who have been promoted are now included in the correct email distribution groups and Teams and have been granted access to the appropriate document libraries in SharePoint. A notification is sent to the employee once these tasks are complete.
Power Virtual Agents
Power Virtual Agents is a tool that allows you to create chat bots for your employees or clients to use. They create a conversational experience for users to get questions answered without needing to call, visit a website, or find a document. These bots are created using a no-code graphical interface and use trigger phrases to return requested information.
These chat bots can be built into your Teams channels or firm intranet site to guide users to the information they need. The information gathered from these bots can also be handed over to a live person, say in the HR or IT department. Chatbots are also becoming more valuable as tools for internal communication. With the right setup, chatbots can answer questions about deadlines, help people determine who else in the company to contact, or even contact others for help and support.
Use Case: Your firm’s IT team has developed a Power Virtual Bot to answer questions about working in a hybrid work environment. Users can ask questions about obtaining equipment for home offices, how to connect from different locations, and what limitations they might run into.
Microsoft is focused on embracing faster end-to-end business processes which are more effective and deliver superior experiences to clients and employees.
How Can Firms Get Started with Power Platform?
Firms can get started with the Power Platform in any number of ways but using the 4 different components in combination with each other will have the most powerful outcome. Consider the information that you are currently collecting manually or are tracking in Excel spreadsheets. There are opportunities to automate pieces of those processes as you learn how best to leverage these tools.
As you get your feet wet with these tools, you may also want to start collecting ideas on what areas of the business you wish to focus on first. We find that many administrative processes are the last to be addressed by the current application set for firms and are a good place to start. Many firms look at client and employee onboarding as larger processes that need improvement.
Power Platform has become one of Microsoft’s most useful tools for companies of all sizes. Its true value isn’t immediately apparent, though, because it only shows its true worth once you start connecting data and other Microsoft applications.