SharePoint Workflow: What Should We Use It For? What Are Other People Using It For?

by Richard Harbridge on April 18, 2013

We all know that we should always aim to automate and improve our business processes more. Many organizations reap enormous benefits from improving the way they work alone or with other people through enabling technologies like SharePoint. The big question is how do we start? Or perhaps which processes or workflows should we automate and improve first? This article dives into this issue and offers advice and recommendations based on successful experiences with many customers.

The Question (And Why It’s So Hard)

There is a challenge for many organizations starting to adopt SharePoint (or any similar systems) workflow automation models. Fortunately it doesn’t always come up, but when it does it can be difficult. The question that often comes up goes something like this…

Scenario 1:

  • Customer: We have SharePoint and would like to do workflows, which workflows should we do?

  • SharePoint Expert: Well what business processes are you struggling with and finding painful?

  • Customer:  Which ones are other organizations, or business units building workflows for? How are they using it?

  • SharePoint Expert: A number of ways, but they aren’t you and their needs might be quite a bit different…

  • Customer: Well why don’t we start there (because I don’t really know, or want to invest significant effort yet into understanding our needs).

 Scenario 2:

  • Customer: Tell me where SharePoint workflow might be useful for our business group.

  • SharePoint Expert: Before I can do that let’s talk about your processes and look for those that are most amenable to automation.

  • Customer: That’s going to take time, why don’t you start by telling me what has worked elsewhere, or what other people are doing with workflow?

We know that this is a challenge and often we begin explaining a business process that isn’t like their own, or give a list of potential processes but without a clear idea of what that customers processes are.

Another Challenge: The Types Of “Workflows” We Can Build

There are multiple options for building a SharePoint workflow varying in complexity.

  1. The simplest workflow is one where a single piece of metadata changes to indicate the workflow’s state; e.g. draft, in progress, pending, approved, etc.
  2. The more complex workflows use SharePoint’s out of the box (OOTB) workflow capabilities; three state workflows, approval workflows, document feedback workflows, etc.
  3. Then there are those that require custom notification messages, or specialized conditions/steps which might be able to be done with SharePoint Designer, or an appropriate 3rd party product (Nintex, K2, etc).
  4. Finally we have complex workflows that will need to be developed in Visual Studio due to their nature or a sufficiently powerful business process automation tool.

SharePoint Workflow Options and Complexity

So it’s critical you either iterate and slowly improve the workflow by making your way up this triangle of complexity, or that you use the appropriate solution set and approach for each ‘type’ of workflow you are automating and improving.

Authors Note: Ruven Gotz (a phenomenal Information Architecture and SharePoint leader) suggested that the simplest workflows can actually be accomplished/managed with no ‘workflow’ at all, but actually just metadata changes.

Rules For Automating Or Improving A Business Process

So if this is such a challenge what are the ‘rules’ for engaging a customer around workflow?

These are the most important rules for automating and improving business processes:

You need to understand the process and should have it mapped out fully.

  • I can’t tell you how many SOP’s or structured documents I have ‘mapped’ and discovered numerous exceptions, missing conditional paths, and lack of critical detail that would have come out later (with greater impact/cost) in the workflow process had I not mapped it originally.
  • If you have done this before you will find it easy to do quickly (depending on how many gaps in documentation/knowledge there are) and often will also help greatly accelerate the speed of developing the workflow itself (whether in SharePoint Designer, 3rd party tools, or Visual Studio).
  • This is the single biggest reason why many workflow automation projects fail. If you find it’s challenging to map the process then only map a part of it that you feel able to successfully map and automate or improve that part.
  • I recommend using Visio with swim lanes. Typically I don’t do this in front of a customer, but as an exercise on my own machine, or as a follow up/preparation for a customer process discussion.

In order to measure improvement (which is critical) you must first have a baseline or original understanding of key elements in the process.

  • Sarah Haase (a phenomenal ROI & SharePoint leader) has done some great stuff in this space.
  • Example of Baseline: [Time to Complete 1 Iteration] x [Number of Iterations] x [Hourly rate] = [Process Cost]
    • Example of ROI: The difference between the related cost before, and the related cost now, or the related revenue before and the related revenue now.
  • Example of Baseline: 30 Minutes x 52 times/year x $50/hour = $1,300.00. We then scale this by the number of people impacts (this is done by…) 50 people for a total potential cost of $65,000.00.
    • If we reduce this to 10 minutes for each iteration (keeping the rest the same) that means it now only costs approximately $21,666.67 and the changes resulted in a potential savings of approximately $43,333.33 per year.
  • Make certain to measure the impact over time (not immediately – but often a few months after to ensure adoption is there).

Always collect serious anecdotes from people impacted by the changes to the process (over time).

  • Susan Hanley (a phenomenal ROI & SharePoint leader) has done some great stuff in this space.
  • It is important when an incident is resolved or an enhancement is provided a follow up is done to identify what value it provides. In the persons own words – how does it make their job easier/better?

Understand The Process: What Questions Should We Ask?

So what should we know about a workflow at a minimum in order to be able to automate or improve it with SharePoint?

  • Process Details:
    • What is the name of the process?
    • Who are the actors of the process?
    • What are the systems involved in the process?
    • What are the pre-conditions for this process taking place?
    • What are the post conditions after this process has taken place?
    • How long does the process take right now?
      • If there are outliers or exceptions to the typical duration what are the causes for this?
    • How frequently does this process take place?
  • Process Deep Dive:
    • What are the existing pain points in the process?
      • Examples:
        • Tracking and Reporting
        • Exception Handling
        • Filling Out Forms
        • Notifying Participants
        • Etc
    • What are the ‘exceptions’ in the process?
    • Where in the process are there escalation paths?
      • What are these paths?
    • What are the existing documents or artifacts used/leveraged within the process?
    • What are the related processes?
      • Related tasks?
    • What is the process? (Process mapping activities.)
    • What are the permissions and privacy considerations throughout the process?
  • Potential Outcomes:
    • Process Map
      • All Steps
      • All Forms/Documents
      • All Exceptions
      • All Actors/Roles
      • All Reports
    • Form Wireframes
      • Key Forms/Documents Will Have Wireframes
    • Use Cases/Usage Scenarios/User Stories
      • Depending On Complexity

Good Workflow Candidates

What makes a good process candidate for workflow automation or improvement?

  • Approvals and reviews of any content or internal items make for good candidates.
  • Confirmation of completed steps (untracked processes that with visibility and tracking would be improved). Think of a process like tracking financial review by investment analysts and data analysts for key accounts where notification and visibility are critical when so many people are working together.
  • Automatic assignment of tasks/work (upon conditions being met) – think about document generation or things like proposal generation.
  • A process that is missing due date reminders or escalation, but where there are significant risks/challenges if things aren’t escalated. Think of longer running help desk or requisition processes, or even onboarding.
  • Look for anything that is a structured excel document people fill out/work on. Most of these are low hanging fruit not just for lists, but also for supportive workflow automation.
  • When there is provisioning (like SharePoint sites, but also for things like provisioning new equipment, software, etc) often there is a need for a better process – especially when this is paper based right now, or using extremely inflexible forms.
  • Lastly look for scenarios where an existing electronic form simply doesn’t auto populate things, and is a pain to fill out – often these are easy to rebuild in SharePoint and can simply be easier to process/fill out and maintain over time (the most IT driven scenario).

Named Workflow Examples

Still not sure and unable to identify a workflow process that might be ready for SharePoint workflow to help? Remember that whatever workflows you start with the ones that have the most meaningful impact are those that are key to the work people do every day. As an example while automating and improving absence reporting and vacation scheduling may be easy and a good way to learn how SharePoint workflows work – it won’t result in a sizable ROI or improvement in most people’s work.

Try taking a look at this list of generic ideas and see if one sparks some interest for you:

  • Absence Reporting and Vacation Scheduling
  • Expense Reimbursement
  • Equipment and Room Reservation and Management
  • Meeting Planning and Management
  • Policy Review and Approval
  • Booking Travel
  • Interview Management and Hiring Processes
  • Training Sign Up and Management
  • Event Planning
  • Change Request Management
  • Timecard/Time Tracking
  • Product Planning
  • Help Desk Ticket Management
  • Compliance Support
  • Investment/Account Management/Review
  • Contacts Management
  • Inventory Tracking
  • Lending Tracking
  • Sales Lead Pipeline Review
  • Sales Forecasting

Hope this helps and best of luck in automating your processes. If you have more questions please share them in the comments.

{ 3 trackbacks }

SharePoint Workflows Aren't Business Processes
April 18, 2013 at 8:48 pm
Richard Harbridge presents: Why use SharePoint workflow? | Sarah Haase
April 23, 2013 at 11:05 pm
What’s New with Workflows | cdsharepoint
April 25, 2013 at 6:28 am

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 LucidPiper April 18, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Great write-up Richard, I especially like the list of “What Questions Should We Ask?” – some things in here that are pertinent to any organization looking to develop workflows. This list should be used as a “checklist” when going thru workflow design to make sure you didn’t miss anything.

Also great points to consider about establishing a baseline for how things are done pre-workflow, which I think is something many people neglect to do (including myself in the past), but can really show it’s value especially as multiple workflows are developed around different processes over time.

At the end of the day, just don’t forget to keep the human factor in mind as it relates to actually interacting with the workflow (nice shout-out to Sue Hanley, but it’s a critical point – these are supposed to make people’s lives easier and our businesses more efficient). Capturing info on the direct impact to end-users will help – either by the users attesting to improvements or by having them call out issues (either with the workflow itself, or the actual process) – all of which can help you continue to streamline improvements in future iterations of the same workflow, or automating future processes by lessons learned.


2 Heng Wah May 7, 2013 at 5:37 am

Kudos to Richard. The “What Questions Should We Ask?” is helpful. 🙂


3 EllenvanAken April 20, 2013 at 11:19 am

I have inherited the maintenance of several over-engineered workflows where people have clearly NOT asked those questions. I am now going to use your list for every person that says they “need a workflow”. Many thanks for sharing.


4 ElleDmytryszyn April 22, 2013 at 12:55 pm

Great information! Knowing what questions to ask is definitely an important part of mapping processes. I’m just starting with workflows in SharePoint 2010 and this article was a huge help. Thanks for posting!


5 Nanskatoon April 29, 2013 at 11:45 am

Outstanding article.


6 dankreitz April 30, 2013 at 11:58 am

Great article, and I don’t mean to digress from the point of the article, but I think there’s a math error in your baseline example. Don’t you need to convert the minutes in the iteration to hours?

If so, then the equation becomes: 30 minutes/iteration (x 1 hour/60 minutes) x 52 iterations/year x $50/hour = $1,300/year.

Where shaving 10 minutes from each iteration becomes $867/year — saving you $433/year. Which means you shouldn’t spend more than 8.5 hours improving the process if you want to break even in one year.

Coincidentally, XKCD recently published a chart showing the break-even point over five years (


7 Richard Harbridge April 30, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Hah. Is my face red. Corrected (I think). I also added reference to the number of people involved (and I love your point on the amount of time suggested).


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