With most clients I’ve worked with over the years, I inevitably get asked the same thing sooner or later – “what’s workflow?" Or it’s “teach me about workflow,” or “how do you customize a default workflow?”
With this blog series I want to try to take explain some core concepts of workflow, then give some direction on creating them, the interface, customizing the default ones, some best practices and some ideas on extending them. Sounds like a lot, and it is! There are 2 and 3-day training courses just on workflow, but my goal is to give you some basics and direction to get you going with your adventure with SharePoint workflows. I won’t go into many step by steps on building a sample workflow, but I want to help you get started.
Part 1: Intro and Core Concepts (this post)
Part 2: Templates and Using Workflows
Part 3: SharePoint Designer and Creating Workflows
Part 4: Best Practices and Extending Workflows
The short answer is workflows automate business or work processes. More specifically, they provide rules, conditions and actions for automatic behavior and tasks on lists and libraries that generally produce an outcome. Another way, a workflow will automate a flow chart of different decisions, conditions and sub processes so that you don’t have to remind yourself to ask Bob why he hasn’t signed that purchase order yet.
A lot! Let’s look just a few:
Ready to get started? Not so fast! Go ahead and close SharePoint Designer for a minute and keep reading.
Workflows are tightly integrated into lists and libraries (for the most part), so it’s important to have a good understand of those concepts. If you’re going to be creating and editing workflows, I believe you should have a good comfort level with the following:
Those are bigger topics than I can explain in this article. Microsoft published some decent videos on these topics back for 2010, and they still apply regardless of which version of SharePoint you use. Specifically, look at ones like "document libraries I and II," and "lists I and II."
Just know that workflows bind to and run in (mostly) the context of the item or document. All of its properties (columns) will be accessible to the workflow. Depending on your requirements and workflow design, you may need to create additional columns for tracking statuses, or providing dynamic input into a workflow. You might need to use calculation columns to generate certain output that perhaps is too difficult to do in workflow.
There are three main types of workflows you can create with SharePoint
By far the most common is the List workflow and sits at the lowest level – the list or library. You have full access to all columns of the item properties, but it can’t be reused (without making copies), and isn’t meant to be exportable to other site collections. So I can apply this to a single list, but I can't reapply it to another list.
If we go up a level we have Reusable workflows. With this workflow type, you create it at the site level, and then add it to any list or library in the site you want, all sharing the single template (hence its reusable). These are meant to be exportable as a solution easily, however by default you only get 2 or 3 fields from the list/library. If you want any other fields, you will have to make them site columns and associate them to the workflow.
At the highest level we have Site workflows. These are likely used least and aren’t designed to run on a list or library directly, but you can read and write to them remotely. So for example, users could fill out a form where they enter certain information like for ideas or suggestions, and then the workflow takes that information and creates an item in a list. Instead of being triggered by item add or updates, it is started manually or by going to a URL or link.
So far you have noticed I haven’t mentioned any version of SharePoint. That’s because everything I’ve mentioned applies to every version. But there are some differences. For now I’ll just cover a couple of basics. All you need to know is there are potentially two platform types for workflow in SharePoint:
If you are on SharePoint 2010, you can only use the 2010 engine.
If you’re on SharePoint 2013/2016/Online, you can use the 2013 engine AND the 2010. Yea, they didn’t change a single thing with workflow from 2013 to 2016 or in Online. I’ll explain other differences in future blogs in our series.
Microsoft has provided some out of the box (OOTB) workflow templates for you to use. They are:
You can read more on these workflows on support.office.com and here.
Ready for more?
In our next installment, we’ll look at the workflow structure, how to use workflow and lots of other goodies. Stay tuned!
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