Workflows for Office 365 – What are your Options

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MVP

Last week, I created a post on Forms for SharePoint, where I compared the various Forms options available.  What about workflows?  Workflows often go hand in hand with forms and do all the heavy lifting with the information provided by the forms.  Typically, they can reduce the time it takes to complete a business process significantly while reducing the possibility of introducing manual errors.  Let's see what options are available to you when creating workflows in Office 365.  

 

Common Workflow Requirements

 

As with the forms, you will find that many of the requiremetns are shared amongst workflows.  Here are some of the key categories:

 

Multi-Stage Approvals

 

One of the most common workflows, especially when it comes to SharePoint, is approvals.  Those could be a single-stage, where the originator will request an approval and the approver will provide an approval or rejection or a multi-stage where there is a hierarchy of approvals being provided.  If at any stage a rejection is given, the entire workflow would normally stop. 

 

Create/Read/Update/Delete Data

 

Create/Read/Update/Delete, or CRUD in short is the bread and butter of SharePoint.  After all, it's the content management that SharePoint serves the main purpose for many organizations.  Workflows are often used in SharePoint to automate some of these CRUD operations.  Often though, some of the data you're dealing with may reside outside of SharePoint and you want to be able to manipulate it as well.

 

Provisioning

 

Whether a new employee is joining your organization or a current user is looking to get their own collaboration site for a project, provisioning workflows are used to streamline these operations as they often involve numerous systems.  Imagine the case where a new employee joins - you need to add them to AD, create an email address for them, give them access to a number of accounts and an Office 365 license, and possibly update some external system, such as your organization's HRIS.

 

Document Generation

 

Information stored in SharePoint lists sometimes needs to be used to generate documents out of them and share with users.  If there are many input sources to a document, it's a great time saver to have the document generated automatically.

 

Batch Processing

 

Batch processing workflows are used to perform the same action on many items to reduce time and the possibility of errors.

 

Text Manipulation

 

In some cases, data may be coming into your system in a certain format and needs to be processed before it can be used by SharePoint or other systems that are part of your specific business process.

 

Available Solutions

 

Depending on your workflow needs listed above, you have a few options to choose.  Here’s a quick summary of the various tools provided by Microsoft.

 

SharePoint Out-Of-The-Box Workflows

 

SharePoint Online offers you a number of workflows that are ready for consumption:

  • Approval - route documents or items for approval/rejection
  • Three-State Approval - track issues, tasks, or projects through three states/phases
  • Feedback - route a document or item to receive feedback on it
  • Disposition - manage expiration/retention of documents (related to records management)

Using the SharePoint native User Interface, you can configure the workflows, such as specifying fields for workflow state or email addresses for approvals/rejections. 

 

SharePoint Designer Workflows

 

SharePoint Designer provides you with a rich feature set that addresses many of the requirement categories listed above.  Using a combination of basic logic, such as loops, branching, and actions as well as lookups in other systems and and extensible API (through custom development), it has been the tool of choice for many developers in the past. 

 

 

Flow

 

Flow is a new new workflow app that lets you interact with data within SharePoint and numerous other apps from within the Office 365 apps family and outside (such as Salesforce, SQL, Dynamics CRM, OneDrive, Twitter, and more).  There are many templates provided for common actions, such as when an email arrives, when a new item is added to a SharePoint list, or when a new Tweet was received.  These templates greatly reduce the time required to create these workflows by providing a few configuration parameters.

 

 

3rd Party tools

 

There are also some 3rd party workflow tools available on the market.  Many of them are feature rich and interact with many systems.  They are often built using a visual interface and also allow for extensibility through custom development.  Such tools usually carry an additional cost with them, but before dismissing them as a viable option, you should assess your specific requirements around how many workflows you need and how long it would take to build them using some of the other available tools.

 

With all these requirements and tools available to you, which is the best option?  To derive the answer, you need to consider a few things for our organization, such as:

 

  • How many workflows will you need?
  • Are they simple workflows or complex requiring interaction with numerous systems?
  • How often do the workflows change?
  • Do you own any of these tools and have staff that knows how to use them? If you’re looking to procure new tools, do you have the budget for the licenses and training?
  • Is there staff in your organization that can build any necessary customizations?
  • How long will the forms be used?

If you’re thinking of using SharePoint Designer Workflows, then you need to consider that it is being phased out.  According to Microsoft, SharePoint Designer 2013 will be the last versions of those products. SharePoint Designer is not being re-released with SharePoint Server 2016, although we will continue to support custom workflows built with SharePoint Designer and hosted on SharePoint Server 2016 and Office 365. Support for SharePoint Designer 2013 will match the support lifecycle for SharePoint Server 2016, running until 2026.

 

Here’s a quick summary of the available options.

 

Requirement

SharePoint OOTB Workflows

SharePoint Designer

Microsoft Flow

Multi-Stage Approvals

YesYesYes

CRUD SharePoint Data

YesYesYes

CRUD External Data

NoYes*Yes

Provisioning

NoYes*Yes

Document Generation

NoNoNo

Batch Processing

No

Yes

No

Text Manipultion

NoYes*No

  

* Requires development

3 Replies

I'm looking for a workflow solution that utilises Outlook Tasks but Flow doesn't seem to recognise tasks within Outlook, only sharepoint. I need to create a workflow that can track processes across several departments that all use Outlook for email, so it would make sense to automate the tasks in Outlook - Why isn't that possible or am I missing something?

AFAIK, Flow does not provides support for Outlook Tasks and I doubt it will have such support. However, Flow already offers integration with Project Online, SharePoint Online (as you mention) and Planner is coming

@Shelley Breen, you could use a SP Task list, each user could sync that to their outlook, when they are assigned a task they can update its status directly from Outlook without going to the SP site. If you start with the provided Task Assignment feature, you could created simple SPD 2013 WFs that provide routing and branching.