Workflow is the magic word when visualising and automating business processes. Workflows under SharePoint enable business logic to be stored in documents in document libraries or elements in lists and connect them to tasks and actions.
Workflows offer a variety of possibilities to increase business efficiency and productivity. SharePoint has a default series of built-in workflows for standard business scenarios.
- Approval: One of the best-known examples is the approval workflow, in which primarily documents are forwarded to certain people or groups for authorisation. Especially recurring processes such as stock withdrawal, requests for airline or train tickets and the administration of passwords, certificates or leasing contracts can be automated and managed more efficiently.
- Publishing approval: This workflow enables the forwarding of contents for review and authorisation by third parties. The publication workflow is designed especially for publishing sites and facilitates monitoring of new or updated contents.
- Gather feedback: This workflow forwards a document to a person or a group, consolidates the feedback and returns it to the workflow initiator.
- Collect signatures: In this workflow, MS Office documents are forwarded to a person/group, who add their digital signature.
- Three-state: The three-state workflow is used when a large number of elements needs to be traced, as is often the case in large projects or complaints management. The three states could be termed “Not started”, “In progress” and “Completed”, for example.
The above-mentioned workflows address typical scenarios and simple process steps. Should further customisations be called for, or if the workflow is to be defined for use specifically in your own company, it is advisable to rely on user-defined workflows. When deciding to create individual workflows, many businesses select Microsoft’s SharePoint Workflow Designer.
The SharePoint Workflow Designer is a built-in workflow solution from Microsoft. The software makes it possible for professional users without programming skills to create simple workflows.
The strong points of SharePoint Workflows Designer
1. Creates workflows quickly
Microsoft provides a text-based workflow editor for creating workflows. The system resembles the set of rules known by many users from Outlook. The pre-designed workflow actions and rules only need to be supplemented and personalised according to specific needs. Meaning, in the end, that simple tasks can be shaped and automated as workflows quite easily. Find an overview of available workflow actions here:
2. Integration of web services
The Workflow Designer enables users to include certain web services, which makes it possible to use data from third party websites and CRM systems in SharePoint. This function simplifies the enrichment of SharePoint data and lists with external data. Optionally, the combined data can subsequently be exported to the CRM system, for example.
3. Repeat workflows using a loop
With the assistance of the Workflow Designer, workflow tasks can be repeated until a specific condition is met. For example, it can be defined that when the file “order.pdf” appears in the directory “XYZ”, a message is automatically sent to the back office.
4. It’s free
Another advantage, which is often the deciding factor for many businesses, is the price. The Workflow Designer is a built-in component in SharePoint and therefore available free-of-charge.
But the short term savings aren’t the only thing that users should take a closer look at when deciding on a workflow management solution. Difficult operation or missing features can quickly turn a bargain into a pitfall and user productivity suffers even more. So let’s take a closer look at the limitations of the SharePoint Workflow Designer.
The limitations of SharePoint Workflow Designer
1. No support for complex workflows
Pre-defined actions enable the user to create simple workflows in Workflow Designer. If Workflow Designer can’t fulfil business specific demands due to their complexity, one option is to purchase the tool Microsoft Visual Studio, with which custom actions can be added to the regular workflow functions. However, Microsoft Visual Studio is aimed at IT specialists, not standard users, and requires solid programming skills.
2. No graphic interface
Users have to go without a graphic design interface when creating business processes with SharePoint Workflow Designer. The rule-based tool, which is seen as an advantage at the outset, soon proves to be a disadvantage when automating complex business processes with multiple authorisation stages and interconnected flows. In these cases, it is recommendable to rely on alternative workflow solutions, such as the GBS AppDesigner.
3. No return to previous user
It happens over and over again in the business world: Forms aren’t completed correctly, orders arrive incomplete or for one reason or another documents must be returned to the sender. Unfortunately, this is not possible with the Workflow Designer.
4. No direct delegation of workflow tasks in cases of absence
Business processes must function independently of the absence of individual employees. Therefore, it is important to define a clear system of substitution. In cases of absence, SharePoint Workflow Designer unfortunately does not provide for automatic forwarding of tasks to a designated substitute.
5. Requires local installation
In order to take advantage of the full range of SharePoint Workflow Designer 2013 functions, the tool must be installed on the user’s end device. This means that the user cannot create workflows on any other device, unless the software has been installed there as well, which seriously limits the capacity for mobile use. The time and expense needed for installation and training must also be taken into consideration.
6. The alternatives
The market for workflow management solutions under Microsoft SharePoint is many and varied. In addition to the familiar faces, there are new, innovative solutions, focusing on an intuitive interface and overcoming the limitations of the integrated SharePoint Workflow Designer.
One example is the GBS AppDesigner, which, as a provider-hosted add-in, enables direct integration in SharePoint. Complex forms or workflows can be created by users without programming skills. Local installations and time consuming training are unnecessary.
The bottom line: The SharePoint Workflow Designer is suitable for quick digitalisation of simple business processes. More complex, multi-level processes require a more powerful third-party solution. The market offers plenty of alternatives that will satisfy the demands of any business.