Business Process Automation Using SharePoint Workflows

Business process automation involves leveraging technology to transform and streamline a manual process so that it becomes more cost and time-efficient. It takes an everyday business process, such as filing documents or onboarding new employees, and moves all physical documents and related workflows from filing cabinets to one centralized, web-based system. One technology that can be utilized in business process automation is Microsoft SharePoint.  Learn how SharePoint utilizes workflows to improve operational efficiency by automating business processes below.

To begin, let’s make sure that you know what a workflow actually is. A workflow is the series of tasks that are performed to produce a result in a business process.  For example, consider the process Company A follows to purchase supplies:

  1. Employee creates supply list.
  2. Employee sources the supplies.
  3. Employee generates purchase order.
  4. Administrator reviews purchase order (approves or rejects order).
  5. Buyer places approved order or Employee starts back at stage 1.
  6. Company A receives the supplies.

Now, if the administrator at Company A did not approve the purchase order, then the order would need to be adjusted until it was approved.  One way to visualize this workflow is through a flowchart. A flowchart for Company A’s supply order process would look like this:

Example of a workflow flowchart

SharePoint workflows are like an automated flowcharts that help to standardize business processes.  SharePoint workflows automate standard processes by moving documents, lists, or libraries through a sequence of actions. In the case of Company A, a SharePoint workflow would notify the Administrator that the purchase order was ready to review. Subsequently, once the Administrator had reviewed the purchase order, the employee would be notified of the status of the purchase order (approved or rejected). By automating this workflow, Company A is able to improve consistency in the business process by attaching logic to the interaction.  The instructions for action are clearly defined and there is no guesswork as to what should happen next.

An important feature that makes SharePoint workflows especially useful is the tracking feature.  Whereas with a manual workflow the process can only be tracked by asking each individual involved in the process what the status is, with SharePoint an Administrator can see right where any bottlenecks are occurring and resolve the problem more efficiently.  Another way that SharePoint automation can help to streamline workflows is by making companies think purposefully about the steps that will be required to complete each workflow.  Often times, there are extra steps that can be removed to re-engineer the business process and allow the workflow to be completed more efficiently, thus saving the company time and money!

Now that you understand workflows, let’s explore how you can utilize SharePoint workflows to automate your business processes. There are 5 workflows pre-programmed into SharePoint: signature, approval, publishing, three-state, and feedback. Here are the basics about each type:

Signature Workflow:

A signature workflow requires a user to apply their digital signature to a Word document, Excel worksheet, or InfoPath form. In the example of the supply order for Company A, if the supply order required a signature in order for the supply order to be approved, a step could be added in which a signature is added to the document after it is approved and finalized.

Approval Workflow:

An approval workflow is the type of workflow that is depicted in the flowchart above.  The supply order travels from the employee to the administrator for approval before the order can be placed.  The route for the document is dependent upon the status of the approval. If the document is approved then it is sent to the buyer who places the order.  If the document is rejected then it is sent back to the employee to be adjusted. Approval logic can also be applied to a list or library depending on the business process that it is connected to.

Publishing Workflow:

A publishing workflow works well with a SharePoint intranet site in which users can submit documents, lists, and libraries to be posted for all users to see.  When a publishing workflow is created, it requires all items that are submitted to be published to be reviewed prior to having them go live on the site.  Reviewers on a publishing workflow are often managers or subject matter experts who have the authority or knowledge to determine if the content is suitable for the site.

Three-State Workflows:

A three-state workflow tracks the status of a document, list, or library through three states or phases. As the item advances through each state, the workflow owner is notified which allows him/her to track the progress of the workflow. The three-state workflow is helpful when dealing with business processes that require issue tracking such as sales or customer support.

Feedback Workflow:

Feedback workflows route documents, lists, and libraries to a pre-determined list of users who can add their questions, comments, and opinions to that item.  The workflow then aggregates the feedback into a single form and provides a record of the review for the workflow owner.  This workflow is especially useful for team projects that require collaboration amongst a group of users.

Although the pre-programmed workflows cover a lot, some business processes are particularly complicated and may require a custom workflow to be created. Custom workflows can be created using Workflow Designer to define the rules that associate conditions and actions with SharePoint documents, lists, and libraries.  Often times, it is helpful to have a SharePoint expert (like us!) to assist you with developing your custom workflows.

Do you have any questions about SharePoint workflows and how they can make your organization more efficient?

Talk to a consultant today and learn about the dynamic capabilities of Microsoft SharePoint!

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