Deep Dive: SharePoint Workflows

Designed to help simplify and save time

Built-in SharePoint workflows include:

  • Approval
  • Collect Feedback
  • Collect Signatures
  • Publishing Approval, and 
  • Three-state

and there is so much more!

Many of the enterprises that use SharePoint for document management purposes have complex business processes that they repeat over and over again. For instance, when a team creates a new project document, company policy might dictate that four or five different managers have to check it for approval. Alternatively, the business might have document retention policies that require them to archive certain files at specific times.

Manually performing these processes—particularly if there are many documents involved—can quickly become overly complicated and time-consuming. SharePoint workflows are designed to help simplify the equation.

What Are SharePoint Workflows?

SharePoint workflows give companies the power to automate the steps behind some of their standard processes. They map out these processes, telling SharePoint when to activate the workflow, what should happen at each step, and how to handle different events or actions. Simply put, SharePoint workflows are like flowcharts of conventional business processes.

The person setting up the workflow inputs the information about the flowchart and SharePoint then takes that information and uses it to automate the process in question.

To shine some light on exactly how SharePoint workflows function in real life, let’s use the example of the document approval process described above. For major project files, a business might have a policy that requires various project managers, department managers, and company executives to review the project and sign off on it. A well-designed SharePoint workflow might simplify this process by automatically routing the file through a pre-set group of people. Instead of requiring the creator of the document to contact different managers, executives, or team members and send them the file individually, he or she could just activate the workflow. The workflow would then route the file through the chain of approval.

Without a workflow, the creator of the document would likely have to send follow-up emails to check on approval statuses, forward the project document repeatedly, and risk losing track of the approval chain at every turn. With the workflow, the document creator would be able to monitor the entire workflow in SharePoint—remaining completely in the loop for every step of the process.

Microsoft includes several pre-configured workflows—including the aforementioned SharePoint approval workflow—as out-of-the-box features in SharePoint. You can build others from scratch, depending on the enterprise’s specific needs and capabilities. One common reason that a company might hire a SharePoint consultant, for instance, is to help configuring a custom workflow.

Learn more about the basics of SharePoint workflows.

Why is Workflow Automation Required?

The purpose of a SharePoint workflow is to take a complicated, multi-step business process and automate it. In any given company process that involves sending documents back and forth between multiple recipients, there is ample opportunity for error. Files can be misplaced or sent to the wrong people; review or approval steps can be forgotten and skipped; someone in the workflow chain might accidentally attach the wrong document when sending it on to the next recipient. All these errors can cause delays and lead to costly misunderstandings. On top of the possibilities for random, unforeseen error, manually setting up approval chains and other similar processes simply requires a substantial amount of time and labor.

With workflow automation, SharePoint can extract the possibility of human error from these complex company procedures. A well-programmed SharePoint workflow can make sure that the right documents or paperwork get to the right people at the right times.

Simply by reducing the likelihood of error, SharePoint workflows can prevent delays, save money, improve customer satisfaction, and boost team morale. Because workflows are automating the entire process, they are also saving time and labor—freeing up team members to focus on responsibilities that are related to their core specialities or work functions.

Read more about why workflow automation matters so much for the average organization.

Examples of SharePoint Workflow

The SharePoint workflow approval process cited above is arguably the most popular SharePoint workflow example. Since most enterprises that use SharePoint rely on it as a document management repository, document review and approval processes are standard.

The pre-configured SharePoint review and approval workflows can take these processes and automate them, simplifying the process for everyone involved.

The built-in SharePoint workflows that Microsoft includes with the software are:

  • Approval
  • Collect Feedback
  • Collect Signatures
  • Publishing Approval, and
  • Three-state.

While these workflows are mostly pre-configured for out-of-the-box use, they can also be customized to suit the specific needs of each organization. For example, an Approval process can be associated with specific content types so that each document belonging to a particular category (for instance, an invoice) goes through the same approval chain every time.

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A Collect Feedback workflow would function similarly. Again, this workflow would be associated with a particular content type and would work by routing a document to a group of people for review. Unlike document approvals, though, the feedback workflow is designed to gather comments and commentary from members of the workflow group. For example, a project team might use the Collect Feedback workflow to assess their progress on a project document and get tips on how to improve it from managers and other higher-ups. Collecting feedback from multiple sources would give the project team a good idea of where they were on the project, how much work they had left to complete, and what steps they should take to finalize the project.

Read move about SharePoint workflow examples—including an in-depth, step-by-step guide on how to create a three-state SharePoint workflow.

Benefits of SharePoint Workflows

The advantages of using SharePoint workflows go beyond convenience, efficiency, time savings, and error prevention. Here are just a few of the benefits that you can unlock with a smartly implemented SharePoint workflow process:

  • Security: During an approval, review, or feedback workflow, only approved people (individuals included in the workflow chain) are permitted to view the document in question. This setup makes sure that the information contained in the document stays secure and confidential until it is ready to be published to a larger group of people.
  • Flexibility: SharePoint’s built-in workflows can be adapted, configured, and tweaked to suit the needs of each enterprise. Above, we discussed how approval workflows can be attached to certain content types so that documents in those categories always go through the same approval process. This example is just one type of customization that teams can use to get the most out of their SharePoint workflows. Also, SharePoint workflows can be created from scratch to do everything from calculating sales tax to triggering custom events or actions.
  • Accessibility: Workflows can make sure that everyone has the information or content they need at precisely the moment they need it. For instance, with a document approval process, the SharePoint workflow is responsible for routing the document in question to each manager or executive in turn. These individuals don’t have to worry about going digging for the file because it is being delivered directly to them in SharePoint. Also, the creator of the workflow doesn’t have to email the file to each person individually.


Read more about the benefits of SharePoint workflows.

How to Create SharePoint Workflows and Make Them Work for Your Organization

While different workflow processes can be honed to serve very different purposes, you can create most SharePoint workflows in the same way. In SharePoint, just navigate to the SharePoint document that is to be subject to the workflow, select it, and click the “List” or “Library” tab. From there, click “Settings” and select “Window Settings.” Finally, click “Add a Workflow.

From the “Add a Workflow” menu, it is possible to use SharePoint to create a new workflow. You will need to specify your preferred workflow type (“Approval,” “Collect Feedback,” etc.), as well as choose a specific name or title for the workflow, stipulate when the workflow will activate, and add specific members to the workflow chain. Read our step-by-step guide to creating a SharePoint approval workflow, to see how to achieve the process.

Using the basic step-by-step process provided above, you can start building and configuring your own workflows. To make SharePoint workflows work for your business, though, you might consider allying yourself with an experienced SharePoint consultant.

A qualified consultant will not only know how to configure SharePoint’s out-of-the-box workflow capabilities but will also have experience building custom workflows that connect SharePoint to auxiliary Microsoft services or third party tools.

For example, you can create custom workflows that connect SharePoint to Microsoft SharePoint Designer, Microsoft Visio, Microsoft Visual Studio, and more. Read more about some of the capabilities you can unlock with customized workflows.

At 2Plus2, we can help you with any of your SharePoint workflow needs. Whether you need assistance putting together an unusually complex SharePoint document approval workflow or want to customize a workflow that connects SharePoint to Microsoft Visio, we can help.

Go online to schedule a free consultation with our team or call 510-652-7700 today.