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Go With the Flow: An Introduction to SharePoint Workflows

January 21, 2011

I have been spending a lot of time with SharePoint 2010 lately. Much of my focus has been on workflows and how they can best benefit those of us who play a role in business processes. This includes every one of us not in possession of last night’s winning lottery ticket.

You may have heard of workflows, but what exactly are they? Workflows, being so well descriptively named are just that; the processes involved in getting something done. This could be anything from the flow of processes involved in making your breakfast or ensuring a software rollout training form follows the proper channels for thorough data collection and consistent tracking. Workflows can help automate and standardize many of the business functions we perform on a daily basis.

Let’s take a common task for an Information Systems group at a law firm: template testing. These templates can be geared toward word processing, litigation support software, patching or upgrading existing software and everything in between. Testing is crucial to ensure everything plays nicely and as it should. When does this process kick off? When is it OK to move to the next step? Who is involved in the testing? Who is alerted when something gets done, or more importantly, doesn’t get done? Well, if your organization is like most, this involves what seems like a never-ending cycle of meetings, email chains, phone calls and time just to keep the process going and with luck, on schedule.

If this sounds even vaguely familiar for any process you are tasked to perform, then a workflow may just be your new best friend.

A workflow can automatically initiate based on a predetermined action of your choice. To use our previous “template testing” example, once you receive a template that needs testing, you upload it to your SharePoint list, initiating an automatic workflow with the following steps:

    1 Required information is drawn from other lists or databases.

    2. All testing participants are sent a message with the attached template, a description of what needs to be tested, testing guidelines and assigned deadlines.

    3. Task lists for each of the test personnel are updated with a percentage of work required for the duration of testing so resources are well managed.

    4. Flags are set to send follow-up emails as reminders to the testing group, send meeting requests or alert a team member of problems.

    5. All of this while collecting data in a nice, tidy list or set of lists that run a report on data collected (automatically, of course). Additionally, branching scenarios can provide further options for any number of criteria or snags encountered along the way.

The example above is fairly basic, but it does illustrate a point. We spend a great deal of our time ensuring work gets done, usually through a multitude of tedious steps. With workflows, spending a great deal of time on these processes repeatedly isn’t necessary. In fact, workflows can help make those time-consuming processes all but extinct.

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