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March 03
​ Effective Planning for SharePoint Workflows

One of the most powerful and useful features of SharePoint is the SharePoint Workflow Engine.  The native workflow capabilities of SharePoint make it a popular tool for automating business processes for organizations who have implemented SharePoint.  By leveraging these capabilities, you can quickly see a return on the investment in SharePoint.  Cumbersome processes that were once slowed by manual interoffice mail or even unmanaged email communications are streamlined and improved by workflow automation.  However, sometimes in our excitement to jump right in and start building workflows for these business processes we overlook or minimize the importance of properly planning.  As a result we may end up with an equally frustrating process that may have some individuals in the organization questioning the wisdom of investing in or utilizing SharePoint.  Let’s go over some ways that we can add some structure to planning our SharePoint workflows and ultimately increase the success rate of their deployment.

Phase I: Information Gathering

One of the first things you should do when planning your workflow is to make sure you have a really good understanding of the process you’re looking to automate.  Your best course of action at this point is to determine a group of key stakeholders who have a good collective knowledge of the entire process and meet with them to gather as much information about the workflow process as you can.  This may involve one meeting with an individual or small group for a simpler interdepartmental process. But it may also mean you have to schedule multiple meetings with different groups of people involved in a larger cross-departmental or even cross-organizational process.  This phase can be the most time consuming and as painful as this may seem at first, it is an important step that can save headaches down the road during the workflow building process or even once it is in production.

During these meetings try to gather as much information as possible about the process from a high level perspective then down to the details.  Having a good knowledge of the strengths as well as the limitations of SharePoint workflows is also important for this step because it will allow you to ask the right questions that can save you time later.  

At this point in you planning process it is critical to determine:

  • Who needs to be notified at certain points and when?
  • Is a certain step an actual approval process, a data collection point or just for review?

Questions to ask regarding Workflow Approvals:

  • Who needs to be included in an approval process?
  • If more than one approver, do all approvers need to agree on an outcome, or does the first response determine the outcome?
  • Can the approval task be delegated and should this process be automated after a certain amount of time?
  • Are there more outcomes than approve and reject?
  • If an outcome other than approve is chosen, how is that handled?
  • Is a particular part of the process going to be handled outside of the automated process or can it be automated?
  • Will we use the native SharePoint Designer workflow tools to build the workflow, or introduce a third-party tool that enhances the native capabilities?
  • Are there any forms that need to be created and used in the process?
  • Are there opportunities to streamline or improve the process?

Make sure to take good notes during this process in order to avoid wasting time afterward asking the same questions.  Another important consideration is to contemplate how the process will fit into and optimize SharePoint instead of trying to squeeze an established process into SharePoint as is.  Sometimes you can get yourself into trouble if you try to automate a process exactly as it has been done for years just to make the end users and stakeholders comfortable with the new process.  Trying to configure the workflow beyond its optimal and intended capabilities can cause performance issues with the automated workflow and lead to frustration.  Taking the time to streamline the process so that it works well with the capabilities of the SharePoint workflow engine and development tools will contribute to the overall success of your project.

Phase II: Process Evaluation and Diagramming

At this point you should have a really good understanding of the business process and have copious notes about it.  You can now start to evaluate exactly how you will build the workflow using existing tools.  I have found it beneficial to break the workflow down into steps based on previously gathered information.  Now is also a good time to plan any lists or libraries that will need to be created or modified in SharePoint.  Then you can use a tool such as Visio to create diagrams of each step on its own page.  If you have Visio 2010 or a more recently updated version, you actually have shapes included for diagraming SharePoint workflows that correspond to actions available in SharePoint Designer (I’m including a link at the bottom with more details on this).  On each page as you diagram the steps, include notes that describe in detail the actions of that step.  This phase of the process allows you to evaluate what actions will be best for you to use at any given point of the workflow.  You can change and rearrange your workflow as you see it visually laid out in front of you and evaluate how the process will flow logically.  Take time out now to plan on any variables that you may need to use and include them in your diagram notes.  All of these steps will save you time when you finally build the workflow and you will avoid starting to build the workflow only to have to change and rearrange on the fly.  It will also give you a really good documentation that you can use in reviewing with the stakeholders before building as well as once the workflow is in production.

Once you have a completed diagram of the workflow with detailed notes, you can have follow-up meetings with the original stakeholders.  During these meetings you can review the process with them, ensure that they know how the process will work in SharePoint and discuss expectations.  This phase of the process will also provide an opportunity to get feedback and make any necessary tweaks to the design of the workflow before you build it.

Implementing Your Plan

At this point your planning phase is complete.  Once you have gotten to this point you have put in a lot of work, but the good news is you’re more than halfway home!  You can now begin to build your workflow using whatever tool you have decided on.  If you are using SharePoint Designer to create the workflow, you can even import your Visio diagram into Designer to help cut down significantly on the time it takes to build (I’m including some links below with more details on this).  Even during the building and testing phases of the workflow development, you’ll want to keep your diagram and notes updated.  This will help you when troubleshooting any future issues or making changes to the workflow going forward.  Once you get to that point you’ll be glad you went through the added effort of effective planning.

 

Creating SharePoint Workflow Diagrams with Visio

http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/visio-help/create-import-and-export-sharepoint-workflows-in-visio-HA101888007.aspx

Importing Visio Diagrams into SharePoint Designer

http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/sharepoint-designer-help/transfer-workflows-between-sharepoint-designer-and-visio-HA101890958.aspx

http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/office/jj900126.aspx​

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