The Future of SharePoint Workflow Tools, Part 1

Are workflows disappearing from SharePoint? Not in the least. Microsoft is just once again evolving workflows for a new generation of SharePoint.

By Cathy Dew

When SharePoint 2013 made its big debut, the new SharePoint workflow tools were among the most significant talking points. Between SharePoint 2010 and SharePoint 2013, arguably no functionality evolved more substantially than workflow. With SharePoint 2016 and the latest version of SharePoint Online, though, these once-fresh workflow features are no longer being updated. This situation begs the question: what’s the next step for enterprises that want to stay on the cutting edge with workflow management?

A Brief History of SharePoint Workflows

Back in SharePoint 2010, workflows were intended primarily for approval pipelines. Enterprises could use SharePoint Designer—SharePoint’s now-deprecated page and workflow editor—to customize their workflows. The workflow process happened within SharePoint itself.

With SharePoint 2013, though, there was a change in workflow management and usage. Most crucially, Microsoft moved workflow functionality from within SharePoint to Windows Azure Workflow (WAW).

The move to WAW was the most significant shift for SharePoint Workflow, for several reasons. First, by taking workflows and making it so that they were no longer contained within SharePoint itself, Microsoft reduced the strain on SharePoint servers. This move was smart since SharePoint already has plenty of workloads across a slew of different categories. By offloading workflows to somewhere else, Microsoft made it possible for on-premise users to allocate their resources more strategically. WAW was an entirely separate installation from SharePoint and could be installed side-by-side on the same server or run in its own server environment. Either way, the systems worked in harmony, with the workflow definitions residing in SharePoint but the actual workflow activity happening in WAW.

Moving workflows to WAW also made it possible for Microsoft to introduce cross-platform support into the mix. When SharePoint itself hosted the workflows, they were limited only to SharePoint applications. The move to WAW allowed teams to manage all their .NET workflows in one place—including SharePoint workflow tools, Windows app workflows, and web workflows. Users could even create a workflow for one platform and then reuse it elsewhere.

At the time, Microsoft also promised that storing workflows externally from the rest of SharePoint would make future upgrades easier. One of the hurdles with upgrading from one version of SharePoint to the next has always been carrying over custom settings to the new version. Since those settings were now in WAW instead of within SharePoint, users could just leave them there and then apply them to the upgraded version of SharePoint. There would be no need to reconfigure each workflow for the newly updated version of SharePoint.

The Shifting Landscape of SharePoint Workflow Tools

When Microsoft moved workflows to Windows Azure Workflow, they kept workflow customization in SharePoint itself. Indeed, SharePoint Designer 2013 was meant to be the hub for all workflow authoring. Enterprises that used workflows frequently inevitably became very well-acquainted with the SharePoint Designer interface.

If your organization does a lot of workflow authoring, then you probably already know that there is no SharePoint Designer 2016. Perhaps you have updated and have been figuring out how to manage workflows in the new environment. Alternatively, maybe you are delaying your upgrade because you don’t want to deal with a SharePoint environment where you can’t use SharePoint Designer to author your workflows.

The good news is that newer versions of SharePoint still support SharePoint Designer 2013. If you are using SharePoint 2013 On Premise, SharePoint 2016 On Premise, or an up-to-date version of SharePoint Online, then you will be able to use SharePoint Designer 2013 to customize workflows and other features.

The bad news is that Microsoft’s ongoing support for SharePoint Designer 2013 only extends so far. While you can still use this workflow engine in newer SharePoint versions, it’s clear that Designer’s days are numbered. Microsoft revealed back in 2015 that there would not be a SharePoint Designer 2016, effectively discontinuing the software. Also, Designer workflow tools are now deprecated and no longer enhanced. In other words, while Microsoft still lets teams use SharePoint Designer 2013, the program is being phased out and will not be the future of workflows within the SharePoint platform.

Does that mean workflows are disappearing from SharePoint? Not in the least. On the contrary, it just means that Microsoft is once again evolving workflows for a new generation of SharePoint. Just like Microsoft once transitioned workflow support away from SharePoint itself and toward WAW, they are now pushing Microsoft Flow as the new home base for workflow functionality. The landscape of SharePoint workflow tools, in other words, is continuing to change.

In out next post we’ll cover the current features of MS Flow and how to make the transition from old school SharePoint workflows to the new “shiny” workflow options.

Do you need support with your legacy SharePoint Workflows? Or are you interested in learning and adopting the newest SharePoint workflow tools? Go online to schedule a free consultation with our team or call 510-652-7700 today.

Cathy Dew
Cathy Dew – CEO + Information Architect
Cathy focuses the company on our mission – Real results. Every time. Information architect and strategist, Cathy is passionate about making software work well – the function, the feel, the result.
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