Monday, February 17, 2014

What are SharePoint Workflows?

Workflows are a powerful component that is built into all current versions of SharePoint including those available in Office 365. Workflows allow you to automate processes in SharePoint. So, for example you could create a workflow that takes some specific action when a new item is created in a list.

All versions of SharePoint have a number, and it varies between SharePoint versions, of workflows that you can create using the browser. The most common of these is the three-state workflow which you can learn about here:

Use a three state workflow

The workflows in the browser are fairly limited in what they can do but you do have the option of creating your own customized workflow using SharePoint Designer.

SharePoint Designer is a free download from Microsoft that allows you to customize SharePoint in a variety of ways. You need to use a different version of SharePoint Designer for each SharePoint platform that you are using. You can download these versions using the following links:

SharePoint Designer 2007

SharePoint Designer 2010

SharePoint Designer 2013

Thus, if you plan to work with SharePoint 2010 and 2013 you’ll need the 2010 and 2013 version of SharePoint Designer.

If you plan to work with SharePoint Online via Office 365 all you will need is SharePoint Designer 2013.

You need to think of SharePoint Designer as a tool that lies between the browser customizations and full blown coding. Importantly, it has a number of limitations in what it can be used to create. SharePoint Designer basically uses a flow chart style to create workflows. This means you can only work with a limited set of programming tools which can be extremely frustrating at times.

SharePoint Workflows are typically attached to an object (or app) in SharePoint. This means you typically create a Workflow attached to something like a list or document library. The Workflow will typically be initiated when something in this SharePoint object changes, for example, an item gets added, edited or deleted. This leads to another important point about SharePoint Workflows, they are change based typically. This means that they only progress when things change state, they can’t be made to wait until a certain time and date, they wait until something changes and then proceed.

Now before you even start programming your Workflow you need to sit down and work out exactly what it is going to do. The best way to achieve that is using a flowchart. Getting the process down on paper and understanding what you want to happen beforehand will save you many hours of frustration later on when you start using SharePoint Designer.

Let’s say that we want to create a basic vacation leave request Workflow. We’ll need to use a calendar item to attach the Workflow to and then we want employees to be able to enter an item into the calendar for when they want leave. From there we need to notify a specific manager about this request and have them approve or deny the request and for that to be communicated back to the employee.

In the next topic I’ll look at how to go about making all this happens with SharePoint Designer.