There are always two ways through which you can view any kind of work – its content and its processes. Take a production line at a factory, for example. On the one hand, you can focus on the content: the automobile, the sneakers, or the mobile device being built. Yet, at the same time, underpinning this actual content are the processes that make it possible: the stages a product goes through as its component parts are created and fitted together.
While the content and processes underpinning knowledge-work are pretty different to a factory, the actual principle is fundamentally the same. From law firms, to creative agencies, to software design companies, knowledge jobs create their specific content and are supported by a lot of underlying structure.
Whether you work in HR, finance, procurement, R&D, or anywhere else in the business, your job likely involves many different processes and procedures. Often, these will be paper based, they might depend on colleagues reminding one another to fill in a form or send an email and, quite often, the process breaks down. The SharePoint workflow Manager is Microsoft’s attempt at giving you a tool that lets you improve the way structure in your day-to-day work is organized and run.
If you’re not totally familiar with workflows, let’s have a look at what they’re all about, what you can do with them, and how you can get started.
When would you use a SharePoint workflow?
Let’s begin with an example. As mentioned above, everyone’s job involves a range of processes and procedures. Often, however, these are done ‘manually’. The following example shows how replacing manual workflows with a SharePoint workflow would save a lot of time.
Imagine you work as an HR manager. Now, typically, when a new employee joins the company, you have to do a whole range of things to ensure that they settle in OK, and can be productive from day one. On a generic level, that person needs to be given various tools and introductions, as well as sign a lot of different forms and paperwork:
- They need to complete various Human Resources forms – everything from signing agreements, to watching training videos.
- They need to meet the facility's manager, be given keys, a tour of the building, and an induction on fire safety.
- The IT team needs to give them an email address, password, and access to any online working environments.
- They should have an introductory meeting with colleagues and be given their first tasks.
- And so on and so forth…
Now, if these processes were completely manual, you can imagine all sorts of scenarios where this process could break down. The facility's manager may be out of the office for a couple of days, and eventually everyone will forget he or she needs to give you a tour. The HR manager might give you some forms to complete, but not manage to find one specific form on day one and, consequently, this form might never get completed.
You can imagine all the problems, errors, and mistakes that might happen.
SharePoint workflows are an attempt to counter this kind of break-down. SharePoint basically gives you a series of pre-built workflows which you can set to trigger automatically; say, when a new employee starts their job. The beauty of workflows is that they automatically remind everyone of the steps they need to complete until they have done them. This, of course, saves you a lot of time, and minimizes the potential risk of people forgetting to complete their step in the workflow process.
How can you start a SharePoint workflow?
Workflows have been an evolving product in SharePoint since its 2007 iteration. Generally speaking, the workflows in SharePoint 2013 are the best yet, and give you a lot of scope to scale workflows and customize them as you like.
The key thing to remember is that you have to download SharePoint 2013 workflows. In earlier versions of SharePoint, workflows were automatically built-in and, in SharePoint 2013, you do get a legacy version of 2010 workflows. However, the 2013 update is downloaded as a separate product and ties in with your SharePoint server installation. Why’s this? Basically, Microsoft is taking workflows very seriously and improving them as a separate product, meaning they don’t have to be ‘tied’ to a specific release of SharePoint.
Go further with workflows
Microsoft’s development on workflows is great. However, if you need to build a workflow that’s more complex, or that integrates easily with third party applications (like Twitter, Mailchimp or Google), it’s worth checking out Nintex. Nintex workflows provide a really easy-to-use, ‘drag and drop’ interface for building custom workflows that are suitable for everyone.
In the end, workflows are all about giving end users the power to manage the structure of their work more efficiently, giving them more time to focus on the content side of things. As important as processes are, no one’s pretending they’re super fun. So, if you can use automated workflows to minimize the processes, you can maximize the engaging and exciting content part of your job, and you’ll be winning!
When it comes to managing your SharePoint environment in an automated and worry-free way, Workflow Manager is definitely the way to go.