SharePoint Workflows: Friend Or Foe?

In today’s fast-paced, 24×7 globalised market, the need for efficient workflow has probably never been higher. It’s a huge value for any brand that wants to be able to respond and react to customers in real-time, for certain. Good workflow, if done right, is going to be really key to keeping your processes and the way you work with partners on the money, too.

Recognising this need, Microsoft has built workflow into its major collaborative solution for the enterprise, SharePoint. Today, I want to delineate in a bit of detail what that means, precisely, though; how different is what Microsoft means by workflow than anyone else? I also want to highlight what I think are some definitely useful things in terms of customising the SharePoint workflow features it provides so as to really make them work for a customer.

So – Workflow. What on earth does that mean again?

Let’s face it, there’s some fuzziness out there around just what an automated business workflow really looks like. Most folks would probably agree, though, that a workflow system has to at least offer functions like Routing, Business Process Management (BPM) or even Dynamic BPM.

Here’s our first problem; Microsoft doesn’t do much more than the first. It does actively encourage partners to offer useful extensions, which is an important point, but out of the box, it’s pretty basic. That doesn’t mean you can’t get a lot of good work done with it, but as your process scenarios become more in-depth, requiring more functionality, e.g. being able to connect to other systems, recursion and rollback, drag-and-drop design options, no-code solutions, forms – both online and offline – and so on, nine times out of ten you’ll need to bring in a partner product specialised in such areas.

Quick history diversion

You can understand a bit more about why it’s architected this simply if you reflect for a second that the seed for what became SharePoint, way back in the late 1990s, was originally a pretty simple document collaboration tool.

Along the way, a lot of great features were added and improved, an entire ecosystem of partners and SharePoint enthusiasts sprouted up, many of whom are still very active in the community, and Microsoft looked to concentrate on the features that would likely appeal to the majority of the market it was finding for the system.

Workflow was part of all that but it was never the main thrust of development… plus, Redmond (WA) soon figured out there are a lot of different ways to do workflow within the enterprise. Some of the capabilities of SharePoint workflows were also truncated by the fact that providing more advanced BPM capabilities would have softened its engineers’ focus on building SharePoint features with wider appeal.

As a result, some features were left as gaps for partners to fill in, including:

Linear Workflow This is one of the more critical elements of the native capabilities within SharePoint workflows. But, NB, it’s built, for the most part, to only go in one direction

Design Tools As it stands, native SharePoint capabilities just really have to be extended by you, such as the ability to design and model the workflow solutions in ways that make sense for the user

Forms – Online and Offline A lot of users want the ease and simplicity of using forms whenever possible and they can be really appealing to casual users. Typically, you can also probably work up a form faster than many SharePoint based solutions.

I’m not knocking SharePoint, just highlighting the reality that more advanced workflow solutions are hard to deliver in the generic, work-for-every-business scenarios that SharePoint was designed to address.

The ability to create useful end-to-end workflows is always a challenge. With just some work, though, SharePoint workflows can adapt to the business, connect to other Line-of-Business (LOB) systems and can be changed on-the fly while gracefully handling exceptions.

But before you start…

Everyone wants solutions that help get their job done faster, that’s why I started by saying we all want good workflow. But don’t just plunge in, willy-nilly; I always caution that whenever someone starts thinking they want to add workflow to their solutions, they should model their ideas first to get some good design sorted out – which is much more likely to result in a useful system that users will want to work with. (I have a rule of thumb on this; great workflow solutions start at the whiteboard … not the keyboard!)

This is worth doing right, as helping the business do something faster, more accurately and more efficiently will usually earn IT credit and praise. Hey, and helping someone never have to do a specific task again will get maybe even get you a beer and a curry for your effort. That’s gotta be worth it, right?

Change Management Matters

Once you have a good design, be aware that one factor that can determine the success of your SharePoint based workflow solutions: its ability to adapt to change. Workflow solutions that are too rigid and not able to be modified to meet the shifting needs of the business will start to collapse and be seen as an impediment to success, not a positive factor in achieving it. A properly designed workflow solution makes it easy to adapt, adjust and include business process change.

Plan for exceptions!

When developing a business process management solution based on SharePoint workflows, you absolutely need to plan for exceptions. If you don’t and have no way to handle them effectively and efficiently, your system will suffer, your users will lose confidence, and eventually they will give up on the system.

A well-designed workflow has graceful exception handling. SharePoint Workflows can handle exceptions, but there are challenges with this because it’s not a full-blown BPM system, like we said. Code often needs to be written to handle these exceptions, or teams need to have tools to create purpose built workarounds that address the issues related to graceful exception handling.

Can SharePoint Workflows work for me or not?

The simple answer is yes – but as with all things, there are risks, rewards and tradeoffs.

Don’t expect SharePoint workflows out-of-the-box to cover all your needs, in other words; do some planning, expect to do some work and certainly spend some time designing.

A core requirement when adding workflows to your business process requires them to be predictable, repeatable and easy to monitor. The good news is SharePoint Workflows allow for this at a high level… but when more advanced business and technical situations arise, then it’s probably time to call in experts from the Microsoft partner community to extend this beautifully simple system to where you need it to go.

0c71577 Jeff Shuey K2 EvangelistAbout Jeff Shuey, Evangelist for K2

Jeff is a recognised expert in the Enterprise Content Management industry. An international speaker and writer on the Intersection of People and Process in Social, Mobile and Cloud Computing, over the past 20 years he’s worked with customers and partners to design, develop and deploy solutions around the world. Jeff’s held senior posts at Microsoft, FileNet (IBM), Captaris, Open Text, Kofax, Kodak and Gimmal and is currently the Chief Evangelist at K2. Follow him on Twitter, Google+,Facebook and LinkedIn

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