Sharepoint 2010 : Making Business Processes Work - Getting Started with Workflow, Workflow Terminology

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1. Getting Started with Workflow

One of the challenges of network drive-based (or even e-mail-based) collaboration is the proper routing of content to the right people at the right time. Typically, coworkers are either blind to activity happening on shared drives or inundated with e-mail discussions about content that they are not actively monitoring. Automated workflows ease this burden by offering a structured means of transporting content, typically documents or forms, to the appropriate reviewers for comments, approval, or publishing. In some ways, think of workflow as a manageable business rules engine that allows administrators to predefine the routing of information across its life cycle. As an example, consider a standard employee reimbursement form. Typically, a manager or supervisor must review or approve the submitted claim before it is processed. This causes two problems: 1) the coordination among employee, reviewer, and finance representatives is sometimes clunky, and 2) there is no auditing maintained around the form activity (for example, who approved the submission? when? why haven’t I received my check?). Workflow solves both problems by allowing for the routing and auditing of content.

From a SharePoint perspective, workflow allows for the management of content movement (through a review or approval cycle), auditing of all activity associated with the content, and task list integration that allows users to see what items are pending their review or approval. This is all done in an interface that most employees interact with regularly. Notifications from workflow processes can be e-mailed so users do not have to monitor task lists. In addition, exceptions can be defined, so if unexpected delays in processing occur, someone is notified.

One of the biggest challenges in implementing a successful workflow strategy is not so much becoming an expert in the custom workflow creation process, but rather understanding how to define a clear and accurate business process. Before associating a workflow with a SharePoint list or document, ask

  • How do you define the life cycle of the associate business process (who should approve it first? how many people should we ask for feedback from? if this document should go to someone’s manager, does the system have that data?)

  • What is the current process? What are the benefits of automating this process?

  • How do you deal with exceptions (for instance, what if someone is away or sick)?

  • How important is it that we log all activity associated with this list item or document? Do we need to look back historically on previous content for insight into the approval process?

Whether it is a simple serial, single-person approval process or a complex workflow associated with many conditional layers and approvers, designing the business rules first will ensure that the right technology decisions are made later. As you see in the coming sections, SharePoint offers some native workflow processes as well as integration with SharePoint Designer custom workflows (and even Visio, .NET-based, or third-party created complex solutions). In every case, it is important to effectively manage the processes and expectations surrounding this business-critical content movement.

2. Workflow Terminology

SharePoint Server 2010 and SharePoint Foundation 2010 include the capability to use workflows within a list or document library as well as at the site level (that is, not associated with a list item). While both versions offer the same fundamental platform (Windows Workflow Foundation), the difference comes down to what default workflows are offered (see Table 1). Beyond the default workflows, custom workflows can be developed using SharePoint Designer 2010 or Visual Studio 2010.

Table 1. Default Workflow Templates That Allow You to Get Started with Your Workflow Immediately
NameDescriptionUse For ...Available in SharePoint Foundation 2010?
ApprovalRoutes a document (or list item) to one or more users for approval via a Web-based form.Generic approval processes in document libraries and publishing sites.N
Collect FeedbackRoutes a document (or list item) to one or more users for feedback. Reviewers can provide feedback, which is then compiled and sent to the person who initiated the workflow once the workflow has completed.Aggregating feedback on a document.N
Collect SignaturesRoutes an Office document to one or more users to collect approval via digital signatures. Note: This workflow must be manually started from within Office 2007 or 2010.Digital-signature-based approval processes for Office documents.N
Disposition ApprovalManages document expiration and retention by allowing participants to decide whether to retain or delete expired documents.Records Management (retaining or deleting expired documents and/or list items).N
Three-StateManages business processes and complex workflows. Lets you choose what happens (re: choice fields in a list and its initial, middle, and final states).Tracking items in a list—things like issues, tasks, and so on. Useful for adding to a task list as stage 2 of an approval workflow to track the actual task.Y
Publishing ApprovalRoutes a page for approval. Approvers can approve or reject the page, reassign the approval task, or request changes to the page.Use for approving Web pages as opposed to documents.N


After the 2003 Office System was released, Microsoft realized that it would be smart to consolidate workflow engines, so it developed Windows Workflow Foundation (WF), which ships as a free platform component of .NET 3.0. Starting with SharePoint and Office 2007, WF is automatically installed with either and is used as the foundation for SharePoint workflow.

Templates, Associations, and Instances

There are three ways to describe a workflow. A workflow template is the initial description of what should happen (steps, conditions, activities, and so on). When you take a template and bind it to a list or library, that linkage is called an association. When you add an item to a workflow-enabled list, the workflow that starts up and processes that item is called a workflow instance.

Let’s say you have a workflow template called Approval. You could associate the workflow template to three separate lists (list A, list B, and list C). Within each list, there are ten items, each in one of the various stages of workflow processing. In this scenario, there is a total of:

  • One workflow template

  • Three associations (one template x three lists)

  • Thirty workflow instances (three associations x ten items each)

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