Implementing Workflows in Microsoft SharePoint
Of the many ways that Microsoft SharePoint can help people work together more effectively, “workflow” is one of the most elusive real-world scenarios. While the concept of “automating and streamlining repetitive business processes” promises compelling improvements in productivity and manageability, it is rare (in my experience) to find organizations that have successfully implemented workflow solutions in a meaningful way. More often, people plan to implement workflows later in the process, usually during the “run” phase of the typical “crawl – walk – run” approach. The problem is that they never manage to get there.
It doesn’t have to be that way. While it’s true that complex business processes can be challenging to automate, Microsoft SharePoint provides a variety of features and capabilities that can be leveraged to improve collaborative processes without necessarily requiring a lot of effort. In fact, SharePoint Server editions include several useful “out-of-the-box” workflows that you can start using with very little effort. They can facilitate easier and more robust document routing for review and approval, among other things. Even better, they can be accessed right inside the Office applications – you can tell SharePoint to circulate your document to one or more individuals automatically, without even leaving Microsoft Word!
If you wish to take a step beyond the default workflows that Microsoft provides, you have several options. In Microsoft SharePoint 2013, Microsoft Visio and SharePoint Designer work together to enable business analysts to design, build and deploy simple to moderately complex workflows, without any need for programming. You can graphically lay out the flowchart of your process using Visio 2013’s SharePoint Workflow stencils, import your flowchart into SharePoint Designer and from there deploy the “workflow template” to your SharePoint environment. Each time someone needs to manage an example of that business process, they can create a new workflow instance based on the template you defined.
There are, of course, some limitations to the types of workflow templates you can create in Visio and SharePoint Designer. While the 2013 versions do add some new activities and looping capabilities, you still can’t create “state machine” workflows. That means that more complex business logic flows will still need to be programmed in Visual Studio and will require the skillset of an experienced SharePoint developer. The good news is that those developers can leverage the full power of the Windows Workflow Foundation engine to do just about anything imaginable.
One final option that can be worth considering is third-party vendors that offer commercial add-ons for SharePoint. There are many options available, but the one I’ve personally heard the most good things about are the products from Nintex (www.nintex.com). They offer a workflow design environment that is conceptually similar to the Microsoft Visio + SharePoint Designer approach, but includes additional capabilities and enhanced features that reduce the need to develop custom workflow activities and solutions in code.
Regardless of how you approach workflow solutions in SharePoint, there can be a lot of value in leveraging its capabilities to improve your processes. Let your work flow!
If you enjoyed reading this post, please take a moment to read some of Jeff’s past posts on Microsoft SharePoint.
Microsoft SharePoint Governance Areas
The Importance Of Solution Design In A SharePoint Deployment
How will Microsoft SharePoint Bring Value to My Business?
Why Your Business Needs a Microsoft SharePoint Governance Plan
SharePoint and the Used Car Lot
Two Fundamental Approaches to Microsoft SharePoint
The SWC SharePoint Way – Part 1
The SWC SharePoint Way – Part 2
Designing Your SharePoint Architecture