Process Automation

Welcoming the magic of Flow to OneDrive

January 2019 update:
Out-of-the-box Microsoft Flows are now available in OneDrive! Microsoft has integrated two new flows into the OneDrive interface–Copy as a PDF and Request sign-off. The Copy as a PDF flow replaces the custom flow solution outlined in my blog post below. Saving documents as PDF files in OneDrive is now easier than ever before. Simply select the file and start the Copy as a PDF flow. That’s it!

Original post:
In November 2017, Microsoft released its integration between Flow and OneDrive. Users can now create flows in OneDrive that will perform actions on OneDrive documents or folders. There are a wide variety of flows you can create, including:

  • Saving a copy of email attachments to a specified OneDrive folder
  • Routing OneDrive file(s) for approval
  • Sending OneDrive file(s) to other users
  • Sending links to OneDrive file(s)
  • Requesting feedback on OneDrive file(s)
  • Sending OneDrive file(s) to Microsoft Teams
  • Setting up alerts when new document(s) are uploaded
  • Searching for files in a given OneDrive folder
  • Copying OneDrive files
  • Converting OneDrive files to PDF
  • And more….

Because I present at multiple conferences/events per year, I wanted to test the capability of using Flow to convert my PowerPoint files to PDFs for easy sharing with conference attendees. I set up a flow in OneDrive to perform a PDF conversion on whichever files I select. I was able to use one of Microsoft’s standardized templates for the flow, with only a couple of minor tweaks.

Here are the steps to re-create this PDF conversion flow:

  1. Open OneDrive.
  2. Click on the Flow link in the OneDrive ribbon and select Create a flow.
  3. When the window of flow templates appears, select the Convert selected file to PDF option.
    Flow_OneDrive_02If this is your first time using Flow, you’ll be asked to choose your country and click on the Get started button.
  4. You’ll be taken to a detail page that has information on the Convert selected file to PDF template. If this is your first time using Flow, you may be prompted to sign in and authenticate to OneDrive so the flow can be built. Simply click the Sign in button to log in. Once you’re logged in successfully, the Sign in button will be replaced with a Continue button. Click Continue to start working on your flow.
  5. The template will populate, showing you all the preconfigured options for your flow. The flow is designed to save the selected file in PDF format and upload it to the root of your OneDrive folder structure. These default options are good, but I opted to make two changes to my flow:
    1. I clicked into the Flow name field and re-named my flow to PDF converter flow. This is the name that will show up in my menu of flows to run in OneDrive.
    2. I wanted all my converted PDF files to be stored in my OneDrive Presentations folder. To configure this option, I opened the Create file step and specified the creation folder path of /Presentations. (Note: If you choose to use a custom folder to store your PDFs, you must create the folder in OneDrive before you can specify the folder name in your flow.)
    3. Once these changes were made, I clicked on the Create flow option to create my new flow:
    4. Flow_OneDrive_04.png
  6. Once my flow is created, I’m taken to the complete screen. All I need to do is click Done to exit.
  7. Now I’m taken to the overview page for my new flow. I can see that this flow is turned on and is set up to run on my OneDrive account. I also see a run history box. An audit record for each run of this flow will be recorded in the run history.
  8. Now I’m ready to return to OneDrive and test my new flow. To do this, I navigated back to OneDrive, selected the file I wanted to convert to PDF, clicked on the Flow dropdown menu and selected my new PDF converter flow.
  9. After waiting 5-10 seconds, I refreshed my page and there’s my new PDF!

A few lessons I learned during the process of setting up this new flow:

  • Neither the free version of Flow nor the E1 tenant license supports PDF document conversions. While the free version of Flow and my E1 tenant could be used to create other flows, the PDF converter required at least an E3 Flow license.
  • The PDF conversion flow can’t be run against multiple files at once. I had to start the PDF converter flow for each file individually.
  • PDF conversion speeds are variable based on file size. A 51MB PowerPoint file took almost a minute to convert. Small PowerPoint files converted in under 8 seconds.

If you’d like more information on the integration between Flow and OneDrive, read the blog post announcement from the Flow team.

Webinar recording: Creating effective business process solutions

The recording of my November 2015 webinar on usage of SharePoint as a business automation platform is available! If you are a VisualSP subscriber, you can view the recording at (For more information on VisualSP’s content and subscription model, visit )

In the webinar, I summarize the business process challenges we all face, identify the forgotten layer of content management in our organizations, explain how I built a successful SharePoint automation practice with an annual ROI of $550,000+ and provide a roadmap to get you started on your business automation journey. You’ll learn how to design solutions for voluntary and involuntary users, how to find that ever-important first project and how to effectively gather requirements for your new business automation solutions.

Session abstract:

Are you caught in an infinite loop of overgrown, outdated processes? Are your end-users stuck in a rut, copying data between an endless string of Excel spreadsheets? If so, this is the conference session for you! We’ll explore common process engineering methodologies, outline the “universal truths” that will help you relate to your business users and expose the “forgotten layer of content management” that exists at most organizations.

Then it’s GO TIME! We’ll outline a formula for finding your alpha project, provide a streamlined storyboarding/requirements gathering process and show you how to incorporate ROI valuations into your project timeline. You will leave this session with a “couch-to-success” plan for building effective business process solutions.

The forgotten layer of content management

An old, abandoned house in the woods, overgrown plants

Many organizations have Content Management Systems (CMSs) in place to house their business-critical content. CMSs offer a deep set of features and capabilities, including content creation/storage, provisioned access based on user groups or roles, compliance tracking/reporting and content metadata tagging for content retrieval and re-use. The type of content stored in a CMS varies by industry, but may include case files for law firms, documentation for software firms, digital image assets for photography studios, and UPC/SKU content for retailers.

Although CMSs serve a critical function, they cannot stretch to house and govern all the data generated by business users. Think of all the e-mails that users create and send on a daily basis. These emails are often a critical part of ongoing work efforts, but the emails themselves are not managed effectively. A single work issue may result in a series of inefficient emails sent to multiple users. Add in all the critical work data sitting in Excel spreadsheets on shared drives and you have a huge mass of unstructured, disorganized content.

Why do users create all this unstructured content? Because they need to keep business flowing. Remember, business users are responsible for keeping the wheels of motion turning. If they don’t have the time, tools, or expertise to design automated solutions for their information management problems, they fill in the gaps with manual processes built on e-mail, Microsoft Excel, etc. These gap measures are often critical to the success of the business, but the processes themselves are not regulated or optimized. The data trapped inside these gap measures is the forgotten layer of content management.

We’ve identified the problem. Now we need to bring our business data into the light. If we can standardize the content and drive consistency in when and how it is captured, we can build repeatable processes and workflows to automate our core tasks. If we store the data in a single location and route it to employees on an as-needed basis, we will reduce the noise our employees wade through every day. Reduction in email volumes alone can save hours a day per employee.

SharePoint can be an incredibly effective toolset to store, route and manage this forgotten layer of content management. If we structure our content in SharePoint lists, map out workflows to standardize our processes and use filters, views and audience targeting to route data to people on a just-in-time basis, we can streamline our work processes and automate manual tasks.

The table below outlines WHAT we need to do, WHY we need to do it and HOW we’ll build successful replacement solutions in SharePoint. Check out the related links below for details on how to choose your first project, gather your requirements and calculate the cost of your business processes.

Forgotten layer of content management - 01

Related Blog Posts

Land of Confusion: Why are our business processes so bad?

Work processes, like road signs, should be clear and direct. They should evoke a series of concise responses to effect a specific, desired outcome. The problem is, humans are organic. We start out defining a new process that will make our work lives easier. The new process may look like our straight line here–simple, efficient and productive.


But then we’re asked to do more and more things. In an effort to meet business objectives, be more efficient and manage our time, we load up our processes with too many steps and too many desired outcomes. Unable to stand under the weight, our processes devolve. They morph into a convoluted string of manual tasks that everyone performs but no one understands. The result looks like this:


In the end, we hate the very processes we hoped would save us. But the underlying need for the processes doesn’t disappear. So, inevitably, the cycle starts again. We abandon the overgrown processes we have come to hate, clarify our business needs, and voila! A new process emerges. Sound familiar? This is proof you are not alone! Process pain and mismanagement are epidemic. They exist in all industries, in all organizations and with a wide variety of toolsets. To prove the point, let’s go back to our road sign analogy. Here’s a road sign that works:


When you approach a STOP sign, you know what the process is:

  1. Bring your vehicle to a complete stop.
  2. Wait for traffic to clear.
  3. Proceed.

Are you ever confused by these steps? No. Do you ever think you should add additional steps to this process? Maybe get out and check your tire pressure or check to see if your brake lights are working? No. The purpose of this sign is clear, and there is no value in adding additional steps to the process. Now take a look at this road sign:


Are you confused? You’re not the only one. What are we supposed to do after seeing this sign? What’s our process? It looks like we should be sitting, but then do we wait to be impaled by a rectangle? I have no idea.

Now relate this back to the processes in your organization. Could you create a clear diagram or roadmap that outlines all of your common processes? What about stakeholders, key steps and end goals? All too often, our processes are nebulous. They don’t have a clear start, a clear end or a clearly defined singular purpose. As these inefficient processes grow in length and number, our employees start feeling boxed in (both literally and figuratively). They face a wall of work each day that keeps them from doing higher value-add tasks.

We also tend to forget the underlying cost of our inefficient processes. Every hour spent on a wasteful process costs your organization money. Money that goes to benefits, salaries, license costs, hardware costs, facility costs, etc. And let’s not forget the opportunity cost of having your time taken up with these arduous processes. Time spent circling the process drain is time you can’t spend on other value-add tasks. In many cases, that loss of time can result in a loss of revenue for your organization.

Calculating the cost of your inefficient processes

Every process in your organization has a dollar value. If you knew the dollar value of the processes you completed every day, would it change your perspective? Do you think your management team would want to “buy” those processes if they knew their true cost? For many of our required work processes, the answer would be a clear YES. Yes, we need to follow regulatory processes like HIPAA and PCI. Yes, we need to get payroll out regularly and file taxes. But what about all those processes with nebulous results and purpose? The ones that get bogged down with lots of additional steps that everyone follows but no one understands? Would your management want you to keep those processes if they knew their ultimate cost?

Here is a simple formula you can use to estimate the cost of your work processes:


Here are some definitions for this formula:

  • Time to complete 1 iteration = The amount of time (in hours) it takes to complete the process one time end-to-end.
  • # of iterations = The number of times per year the process is completed. For a monthly process, the number of iterations would be 12.
  • Hourly rate = This is what an hour of time costs at your organization. I recommend working with your Finance department to arrive at this number. It should represent all appropriate costs, including salary, benefits, hardware and software costs, facility costs, etc. The rate should also be an average that spans all job grade levels and covers both full-time employees and contractors. (Having a single hourly rate to use in all process calculations will provide uniformity and enable you to easily compare process costs.)

Let’s walk through a simple example to show you how the formula works. Pretend you have a weekly process that takes 4 hours per week to complete. Let’s also say you’ve worked with your Finance department and determined that an hour of someone’s time at your organization costs $50. We’ll plug this data into our formula as follows:


Based on the data provided, this weekly 4-hour process costs the company $10,400 per year. Now for the key question–can this process be optimized? Can you use a tool like SharePoint to eliminate manual steps from this process, thereby shortening the 4-hour time frame?

Let’s say you were successful in optimizing this work process. You eliminated a bunch of manual copy/paste steps by moving the data to SharePoint where everyone can access it. You structured the data in a single SharePoint list and built a workflow that notifies people when they need to take action. You also built filtered list web parts to give employees a work queue. This enables them to quickly find the tasks that are assigned to them. In the end, you were able to cut the process time in half so now it takes only 2 hours per week to complete. When you plug these updated process numbers into the formula, you now get a process cost of $5,200/year.


If you take the difference between the BEFORE cost of $10,400 and the AFTER cost of $5,200, you determine that these process improvements save your organization $5,200/year. Now for the key questions–how much are your processes costing your organization? And can you use SharePoint to streamline them?