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Guest post by Treb Gatte (@tgatte)

Is your organization having any luck building small, scalable solutions for specific needs without it becoming a massive IT project? Let’s look at PowerApps, Flow, and Power BI as a potential way to enable today’s version of a handyman, a digital handyman as it were. The question we must ask is whether these Power User-enabling tools will be any better this time, or are we seeing Access 2.0.

The handyman was there for good enough solutions

When I was growing up, if you needed something around the house repaired, you called the handyman. Most household equipment was not complex enough to require deep technical expertise. Therefore, a handyman who had a general level of skill across machinery was usually sufficient to address the need.

IT has always struggled to enable Power Users to develop these solutions

Contrast this to Information Technology, where for years, meeting the needs of any user required deep technical expertise to design the solution and pull all the requisite pieces together to deliver the solution. IT was not and is not for the faint of heart.

Many vendors tried, though these efforts caused IT heartaches

While there were products out there targeted to the Power User, most were limited as to how far the Power User could go without IT assistance. Many of these applications were developed under the IT radar.

Microsoft has had several forays into the enabling the Power User experience. Any IT professional who’s had to convert Access applications to “real” applications is very aware of these past investments. Access databases populated like rabbits across corporations as they served a point need well enough for most businesses. These solutions got in trouble when they attempted to scale across the enterprise or add enterprise level features.

SharePoint also got a start as a free tool running under someone’s desk, away from the controlling eyes of IT in many places. Users needed a solution and all was good until things like scaling, security, auditing, and disaster recovery needs reared their respective ugly heads.

Eventually, Access was brought into the arms of IT via Access Services and other means. SharePoint grew up into an IT managed service. The need for agile point solutions still exists in the organization. Many tried to use SharePoint lists to address those needs, however, these solutions were lacking.

Is PowerApps, Flow and Power BI better or are we revisiting old issues?

This brings us to today, where we have new capabilities in PowerApps, Flow and PowerBI that most Power Users can easily leverage.

The tools are much better

Overall, I think that PowerApps, Flow and Power BI are going to be used to create some great applications. The question is whether those applications will be built by IT professionals looking for a more agile way to create these smaller apps or by Power Users who are tired of waiting on IT to meet their needs. I suspect it may be more the former than the later. More on that in a bit.

Many past challenges are addressed

One thing is different in that Microsoft seems to have addressed many of the challenges that were present with past efforts. Making it a cloud based offering offers built-in scalability. The Common Data Structure provides data support while avoiding the tortured data designs of the past. Mobile access, security features, and the safety of data in the cloud are inherently baked in. There’s a lot to like.

No more stealth IT groups

Lastly, PowerApps, Flows and Power BI data models are also visible to IT administrators as they are registered with the Office 365 instance. No more hidden Access apps to stumble over. This provides some IT oversight if an application starts to cause issues.

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns. One key issue remains.

The challenge on whether we see the rise of the Digital Handyman will rest with the ability of the Power Users to build maintainable solutions. Power Users typically have great business domain knowledge and a willingness to try new technology. The skills they lack is how to build out a solution in a systematic way. Hence, many Power User written apps will be emergent in nature. While these apps generally serve their original need quite well, the solutions do tend to be brittle when it comes to changing them to meet changing business needs.

It is imperative that an organization looking to gain value from these new tools take care to provide support to their Power Users. Such support enables them to learn from others who do this professionally, so that they can learn how to avoid creating brittle solutions. Productivity tools of this nature are magnifiers of the solution creator’s skill. In the hands of someone who understands how to use the tool, great value will emerge. However, giving the tool assuming it will make a person more productive, without giving them the requisite support, will simply result in chaos at light-speed.

Treb is Business Solutions MVP, and Managing Partner at Tumble Road

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