SharePoint Designer Workflow in a Nutshell

Microsoft released SharePoint Designer as a free download on April 2, 2009. One of the most powerful features of SharePoint Designer is the ability for non-programmers to easily create business tailored workflows to improve their business process management.

So, What Is a Workflow Anyway?

Workflows are just what their name implies, flows of work. Think of any process where some set of actions are performed, such as buying an item in a store, taking a shower, filing a letter, or even dating someone special. All of these tasks are composed of tasks or states where some action or event is expected.

Let’s take a look at one of them, buying an item in a store.

When you buy an item, you need to do the following:

1. Find the correct item.
2. Take the item to the counter.
3. Receive the price from the attendant.
4. Decide between using cash or using a credit card.

If using cash:
5a.1 Give appropriate amount to the attendant.
5a.2 Receive any change.
5a.3 Verify change.
5a.4 Pocket change.

If using a credit card:
5b.1 Give credit card to the attendant.
5b.2 Receive receipt for signature.
5b.3 Verify amount.
5b.4 Sign receipt.
5b.5 Return receipt to the attendant.

6. Put pen in pocket.
7. Retrieve item, and run before the attendant notices the missing pen.

Don’t be fooled. This task may seem simple, but that’s only because we do it so often it has become routine. Several of these steps require an amount of substeps, and any failure will need to be handled according to some set of rules.

A workflow structures such processes into manageable chunks called activities. Each activity performs one or more small operations, such as verifying an amount or stealing a pen, and the workflow makes sure that everything is done in order and handles exceptions to the regular flow.

Workflows in SharePoint

SharePoint integrates tightly with Windows Workflow Foundation, or WF, and workflow is an integral part of SharePoint.

By default, the free version of SharePoint, Windows SharePoint Services, include only a single simple workflow, the Three-state workflow. The more advanced, and for-purchase version of SharePoint, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, include more workflows, such as Approval workflow, Collect Signatures workflow, and Disposition Approval workflow.

However, the true power of workflow in SharePoint comes from being able to design specific workflows that can adapt to and support an organization’s needs.

Businesses Needs Workflow

Most, if not all, businesses have business specific processes that will benefit from having at least some degree of automation. If nothing else, workflow enables organization to include auditing of business processes.

However, most businesses and organizations are also unique. Creating generic workflows that can be applied to many different organizations is difficult and not even desirable, because each organization works in different ways.

Not just that, but business processes change. Even if a business invests in custom developed workflow solutions, chances are, those solutions will require massive re-design frequently. Having a workflow solution that allows businesses to adapt their business processes as requirements change will greatly increase organization flexibility.

SharePoint Designer Workflow to the Rescue!

Perhaps the biggest advantage of developing workflows in SharePoint Designer is the ease of development. Most end users can create tailored workflows with just basic training. When business needs change, the same end users can adapt the workflows to support the changing needs.

A SharePoint Designer workflow workflow is an easy, cheap, and somewhat limited entry point to workflow development.

They’re easy, because most end users and administrators can become workflow developers without too much training.

They’re cheap, because both SPD and SharePoint are now free, and the learning curve is gentle.

They’re somewhat limited, because, despite workarounds and extensibility, SharePoint Designer workflows are designed for ease of development and lack several of the more powerful options available in other workflow design products.

Despite these limitations, however, SharePoint Designer remains a very powerful option for:

– Organizations without specialized workflow programmers

– Organizations with frequently changing needs

– Organizations with limited budgets or high return on investment requirements

Where can I Learn SharePoint Designer Workflow

If you, or your organization, want to explore the powers of SharePoint Designer workflow, you have several options.

For online training, EndUserSharePoint.com provides a free 5-part series of SharePoint Designer workflow videos. These videos will introduce you to developing SPD workflows, but also show some advanced features, such as looping and iterative SPD workflows.

Understanding SharePoint Journal also has several resources available on the newly launched website http://www.sharepointdesignerworkflow.com/, including Issue 4 of the journal, titled SharePoint Designer Workflow and volume 2, issue 2, titled SharePoint Designer 2010 Workflows.

Besides these options, Microsoft also has several videos and tutorials available at their site. Woody Windischman has also recently released a book, titled Professional Microsoft Office SharePoint Designer 2007 that includes a very good chapter on workflow as well.

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Bjørn Furuknap

I previously did SharePoint. These days, I try new things to see where I can find the passion. If you have great ideas, cool projects, or is in general an awesome person, get in touch and we might find out together.

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