Creating custom workflows in SharePoint

When manual business processes or workflows become more complex or involve multiple intersections or decision points, automation can help.

By Anthony Baratta

When manual business processes or workflows become more complex or involve multiple intersections or decision points, automation can help ease the complexity and offer additional workflow effectiveness. A SharePoint workflow is like an automated flowchart of a business process that takes much of the labor, guesswork, and randomness out of standard business processes. For example, take a look at the document approval-process in the illustration below. Running this process manually could mean having to conduct multiple check-ins and keeping track, forwarding documents and sending reminders to ensure that the process is followed accurately and smoothly. Each of those tasks may have to be performed multiple times by several team members, which can mean a lot of extra work and constant interruptions.

SharePoint workflow

As companies grow, there is an increased need to capture and store a wide variety of documentation, serve customers, and provide access to suppliers and partners through external or internal facing portals. The following use-cases are examples of the growing need for automated business processes:

  • Storing all engineering documents and managing document approvals/archive/disposal

  • Handling employee business processes and forms such as employee time management and requests for time off, expense claims and management, etc.

  • Providing access to suppliers to upload contracts and invoices, and managing approvals and authorizations

  • Conducting customer surveys and collecting customer feedback, and performing pre-defined sets of actions based on input parameters

Using Microsoft SharePoint in combination with the Microsoft Office suite, an organization can manage multiple document types and the life cycle of every piece of content. By bringing visibility to internal or external business processes, it’s possible to improve and achieve faster customer service, benefit from exceptional scalability and reduce the risk and cost of document “invisibility” throughout your firm.

Let’s explore the key building blocks of SharePoint workflow templates in more detail and look at custom workflow creation in a Microsoft SharePoint environment.

“Out-of-the-box” SharePoint Workflows in Nutshell

Out-of-the-box SharePoint workflows, are standard mini-applications that streamline and automate a wide variety of business processes for your organization. A big benefit of SharePoint’s out-of-the-box functionality is the ease of implementation - you don’t need to be an IT professional to create and maintain these off-the-shelf SharePoint workflows. Each workflow type included with SharePoint acts as a template that can be built upon and configured to suit your organization’s purposes. Each template offers the ability to specify options and make selections specific to your workflow — who the workflow assigns tasks to, task deadlines, how the workflow can be started and by whom, instructions to be included in the task notifications, etc. As such, these workflow templates offer a great deal of flexibility to suit different business needs.

For example, to begin the process of creating a basic document approval process for a document library, simply add an instance of the Approval workflow template to an existing SharePoint installation.

Note that workflows can be added to a whole site collection in SharePoint but workflows should generally be targeted at lists or document libraries unless implementing a records management workflow.

SharePoint provides five pre-programmed workflow types:

  • Approval (route a document or item for approval or rejection): An Approval workflow routes a document or other item to designated people for their approval or rejection. You can also use an Approval workflow to control content approval in a list or library.

  • Collect Feedback (route a document or item for feedback): A Collect Feedback workflow routes a document or other item to designated people for their feedback. The Collect Feedback workflow consolidates all of the feedback from participants for the workflow owner and provides a record of the review process.

  • Collect Signatures (route a document, workbook, or form for digital signatures): The Collect Signatures workflow routes a Microsoft Office document to designated people for their digital signatures. Note that the Collect Signatures workflow functions only with Word documents, Excel workbooks, and InfoPath forms.

  • Disposition Approval (manage document expiration and retention): The Disposition Approval workflow is designed to support records management needs within an organization. This workflow manages the document expiration and retention process by allowing users to decide whether to retain or delete expired documents or items.

  • Three-State (track an issue, project, or task through three states or phases): The Three-state workflow is designed to track the status of a list item or document through three states (phases). The Three-state workflow tracks event planning tasks through the following three states: Active, Ready for Review, and Complete. Each step of the workflow in these three phases can be customized to suit your specific business process and are intended to be help manage business processes that require organizations to track a high volume of issues or items — for example, tracking customer support issues, managing sales leads or automating project tasks.

Different sets of Tools to create Workflows

Depending on your business needs, you may decide to use different sets of tools to implement your organization’s workflows in Microsoft SharePoint:

  • Microsoft SharePoint (No extra tool): As we discussed earlier, it’s possible to create workflow instances using out-of-the-box SharePoint workflow templates for a content portal (documents, forms, list items and etc.), without the need to use other tools or 3rd party products. The benefit of ready-to-use templates is that most businesses can create basic workflows with ease and without special SharePoint expertise.

  • Microsoft SharePoint Designer: Certain types of actions can be created and managed in SharePoint, such as Send Email, Update List, Set Permission, Collect Information from users, Delete Item, etc. In addition, conditional statements (if ... the ... else) can also be used in conjunction with actions to create more professional and specific workflows. SharePoint Designer offers a free workflow designer for power-users.

  • Microsoft Visio: Illustrating business processes as part of business process modeling is a best practice and Microsoft Visio’s stencil for SharePoint simplifies the process. By importing the Visio file to SharePoint Designer, the workflow logic is created automatically. Although the workflow might need to be tweaked slightly in SharePoint Designer, this is a nice tool to keep business process documents in sync with actual workflows.

  • Microsoft Visual Studio: Some requirements may be custom and particular to your organization and the tools listed above may not meet those specific needs. Microsoft Visual Studio is a great custom application tool for designing and creating custom workflow actions and activities and append them to your solution.

  • 3rd Party Solutions: There are non-Microsoft commercial solutions for enhancing your workflow processes. Companies like Bamboo Software and Nintex offer industrial strength workflow add-ons that allow you to build new workflows via a web browser and avoid building complex workflows with Visual Studio. A web-based designer allows you a higher degree of design efficiency and reduces your need on low-level custom coding.

While out-of-the-box SharePoint workflow templates can meet most business process automation needs, other Microsoft tools of varying complexity can support the need to automate more complex business processes, integrate with 3rd party applications and fully align current business processes with SharePoint portals. Streamline business and save time by automating the steps behind some of your standard processes with SharePoint Workflows.

Make sure that your SharePoint consultant can guide you through an evaluation of your workflows and help you pick the appropriate tool.  For more information on workflows, check out our webinar transcript on workflows in Sharepoint.

Anthony Baratta
Anthony Baratta – Chief Technology Officer
Anthony helps the company realize it's mission - Real results. Every time. Fluent in technology, Anthony breaks down complex problems into scalable solutions and manageable automated tasks.
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