Simple ways to achieve better SharePoint workflows

As Manager of SharePoint Consultants at Rackspace Hosting, Laura Rogers works extensively with SharePoint Designer workflows, and building no-code business solutions. IDM asked Laura, who is presenting at the upcoming Digital Workplace Conference in Melbourne on “Seven Pro Tips to Become a Workflow Rock Star” How did you get started in SharePoint workflows?

Laura: I’ve always enjoyed building business forms and automating processes, so even before SharePoint Designer workflows existed, I was doing what I could within InfoPath 2003 as far as automation and logic.  Then, as soon as SharePoint Designer 2007 came out, with workflows, I was all over it.  I mostly figured it all out myself, since at that time there wasn’t much documentation.

IDM: What are the advantages of organisations moving to Automated workflows? 
When organizations start automating business processes, they save a lot of time, and make their jobs much more efficient.  Think about the common situation where employees email a document or spreadsheet around with a list of information, and each person adds to it.  The types of processes to automate can range from very simple like that one, where a SharePoint list with alerts may do the trick, to very complex processes where multiple parallel and serial tasks and even multiple systems are involved.  There’s never a lack of tasks to be made more efficient.

IDM: Should organisations be including workflow as a core part of their SharePoint strategy or is it is complicated and time-consuming?
I think that organizations should keep workflows in mind when the strategy is being planned, yes.  Usually the site structure and file collaboration are the main concerns when SharePoint is first implemented.  Once the business users are familiar with it, workflows typically come a little later.
There are a wide range of workflows, with varying degrees of complexity.  I think that for quick and simple approvals, business users can be shown basic concepts like content approval and out of box workflows.  Then, to answer your question, yes, workflows can get complicated and time consuming.  But, for the bigger, more complex workflows it’s about the ROI. When we dramatically improve an inefficient business process by automating it and building in accountability, the business benefits.  

IDM: How significant are the changes seen in workflow within SharePoint 2013?
: In SharePoint Designer, the 2013 workflows do have a few improvements.  In my experience, though, the changes are not that significant to most businesses and how typical workflows are created.  The improvements that were made are all fairly advanced, and include web service calls, looping, and some new string functions.  Most of these concepts are a bit too complex for most business users in my experience.

IDM: What's Different between SharePoint & Office 365 Workflows?
There is currently no difference.

IDM: In your session you are going to look at “several tricks of the trade when it comes to creating successful workflow solutions.” Can you give us a sneak preview of one of these ‘tricks of the trade’?  
Sure, one of my common tips is that I use logging as much as possible in the workflow.  I create “log to history list” actions throughout the workflow, because without it, you have no information and no way to troubleshoot.  To take that a step further, sometimes I even create a custom list, call it “change history”, and instead of using “log to history list” actions, which store information in the site’s generic workflow history list, I create “Create list item” actions to create items in my own list, logging everything that happens in the workflow.  These are much more easily digested or reported off of later, compared to the built in history list.

IDM: Your session will explore how to “create beautiful workflow emails” How does this help?
Sometimes you need to include images or more advanced formatting such as tables, to make an email look nicer and more professional.  There’s a way to directly edit the email’s HTML instead of using the fairly limited email editor in SharePoint Designer.

At the upcoming Digital Workplace Conference in Melbourne April 28-29, Laura, who has written several SharePoint books and is a Microsoft MVP, will be presenting the following sessions:

  • Day 1: Making the Most of the Out-Of-Box Web Parts
  • Day 2: Seven Pro Tips to Become a Workflow Rock Star

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