One of the few remaining things you can do with your own SharePoint Server farm that you still can’t do with SharePoint Online is email directly to your lists and document libraries. Let’s say you want your traveling sales reps to be able to quickly and easily upload contracts and other kinds of documents on the go, without having to log into your internal network via VPN or login with a mobile device. Well, SharePoint has long let you upload documents by email by simply configuring a specific email address for a library or certain kinds of list. Your sales reps could simply attach the document to an email, send the email to the library’s address, and Exchange and SharePoint will take care of the rest.

Due to the server-side configurations needed to make this work, this particular feature will never make its way to SharePoint Online. But it appears that Microsoft has been working on meeting this business need another way, with a Microsoft Flow template.

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Microsoft Flow is a new cloud service (as of 5/13/16, still technically in preview) that takes the IFTTT model and applies it to the Microsoft ecosystem.

IFTTT, if you’re not familiar with it, allows you to create simple workflows from “recipes,” letting you set some conditions (“if this”) and some actions in various apps and cloud services to run once they’re met (“then that”).

Microsoft Flow does the same thing, though instead of “recipes,” they’re called “flows.” You build your workflows from chains of one or more flow templates. There is a decent selection of flow templates available today–though IFTTT has many more–and Microsoft promises to continue to add new templates weekly. Some of the templates include:

  • Get daily reminders in email
  • Email yourself new Tweets about a keyword
  • Post to Yammer if new tweets match a hashtag
  • When someone tweets a hashtag, add an entry into a SQL database
  • …and many more

The template we’re going to be focusing on today is called “Save my email attachments to a SharePoint document library.”

First, you have to connect to your Office 365 inbox and to your SharePoint Online site. Obviously, this is the first potential hang-up. If your inbox is in Gmail or Yahoo, for example, you won’t be able to take advantage of this particular template. But assuming you’re nicely nestled in the Microsoft cloud ecosystem, this won’t be a problem.

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Once we click “Continue,” we will configure our flow, connected to both services. We’ll start with a condition, “On new email,” and we’ll follow with an action, “Create file.”

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(Further configurations and filters for the condition can be added if you click/tap to expand the header bar and then click/tap the ellipsis. I’m not sure why it’s so well hidden, since I’d imagine most people would want to manage these settings.)

At this point, you need to fill out the template with valid values. There are the rudiments of a more complex workflow engine to come (hopefully), as you can do some very basic manipulation of variables and we can actually string a number of flows together into more complex workflows. I imagine that Microsoft will focus on this piece in the coming months to turn the service into a much more powerful workflow engine than it is currently.

For our purposes today, however, we’re just going to enter an Exchange mailbox (I threw in a filter as well so that not all emails are put into the library)…

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And a SharePoint Online document library…

Then, once we create an email, attach a file, and send it with our “DEMO DEMO DEMO” string in the subject line, after only a couple seconds we see it land in our document library:

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Now, this isn’t a perfect duplication of the email-enabling feature in SharePoint Server, since it only works with attachments and document libraries. With email-enabled lists, for example, you can create announcements in an announcements list by email. No such luck here. But for the most common use of sending documents to libraries by email, this not only duplicates SharePoint Server’s capabilities, it actually surpasses them with the ability to configure many different kinds of filter. You can actually have multiple email addresses all pointed at the same library, or even have one single email address that sends to multiple libraries based on the text in the subject line of the email.

There is so much more to explore in Microsoft Flow, this post is just scratching the surface. But I thought it was pretty cool how smoothly the new service just filled one of the biggest remaining gaps in SharePoint Online’s feature set.

I’m very interested to see what Microsoft does next with this very promising service.