Microsoft SharePoint 2010 Workflow User's Guide

Office 2010 can act as the front-end to a full-featured enterprise content management solution using the metadata and workflow capabilities of SharePoint 2010.

Ivan Schneider, Contributor

August 13, 2010

10 Min Read

Microsoft Office 2010 In Pictures

Microsoft Office 2010 In Pictures

(click image to view gallery)
Microsoft Office 2010 In Pictures

With SharePoint 2010 in combination with Office 2010, you can control precisely what happens to documents within your organization well after someone hits "Save." In this article, we'll explain the key building blocks of SharePoint, drill down on key capabilities for growing businesses, and outline the business case.

A Brief Primer On Sharepoint

Suppose you've painstakingly compiled an Excel workbook containing a list of retail outlets worldwide that sell your brand-new product. If you're a sole proprietor, you might stop there. If you're a small business with a few employees, you might pass the Excel workbook around via email as needed, or better yet, put it on a shared folder on an Internet server so that employees can access the data at any time. To ensure data quality, you could use Excel's data validation features to confirm that each retail outlet had an employee assigned as the customer's main contact. Then, if you want to create a "Where to Buy" web page, you can export the data from the spreadsheet into a format that can be uploaded onto a basic website.

But what happens when your company grows? Before you know it, you're managing multiple workbooks for each product, the employee assignments fall out of sync, and the process of manually uploading information to your website becomes a much bigger task than you had anticipated. And as your company grows, you'll have other lists, data and documents to manage, with each business requirement spawning a separate project on the IT to-do list. Ultimately, you'll face a motley collection of point solutions that add up to an expensive and hard-to-manage IT infrastructure.

The SharePoint approach anticipates and supports the spread of data within a growing enterprise through a comprehensive approach to storing, managing and sharing information. As companies grow, they need to capture a wide variety of content; provide access to employees and partners through intranet sites; serve customers, suppliers and other stakeholders through external-facing websites; and manage the workflows associated with the content. While the specifics vary, the fundamental data requirements of an enterprise are reasonably predictable, and SharePoint implements a technology stack and methodology to deal with all but the most specialized business needs.

Microsoft Office 2010 In Pictures

Microsoft Office 2010 In Pictures

(click image to view gallery)
Microsoft Office 2010 In Pictures

Let's revisit the aforementioned example with a deployment of SharePoint Foundation 2010, a free version of SharePoint that works with a licensed copy of Windows Server 2008 and Microsoft SQL Server. You'll start by installing a server farm containing a database server and a web server. Within the web server, which will have its own URL for use only within the company intranet, you'll set up what's called a "Site Collection," with its first site containing one item, your original list of retail outlets. That's five levels of hierarchy if you're keeping track (server farm -> web server -> site collection -> site -> list), just to replicate information that used to reside within a single Excel file.

But now, you'd have a scalable infrastructure that could easily incorporate other sources of data -- both structured and unstructured -- into a comprehensive enterprise repository. In SharePoint 2010, a list can contain not just text and numbers, but also multimedia elements including audio and video, Office 2010 documents, and other binary objects.

Out of the box, a SharePoint installation includes blogs, wikis, team workspaces and document libraries. You can set item-level permissions, enable employees to check documents in or out, and have the ability to retrieve previous versions of documents for auditing and revision control. From within Office 2010, your users would be able to create their own lists and store their own documents online, your department managers could create their own sites, and your IT department can deploy new site collections as needed. Although moving that first list to SharePoint may take significant effort, building successive lists and sites gets easier and easier.

Furthermore, because the underlying data is being stored on the enterprise server farm instead of on an isolated PC, you can easily point external and mobile users to versions of shared data. You'd be able to create a parallel list containing just the data elements that you want to make public. That list would be contained within a site collection on an externally-facing web server, tapping into the shared database server on the enterprise server farm.

However, this transition from the private intranet to the public internet does require an upgrade to SharePoint Server 2010. There's only so far you can go with the free version of SharePoint, and if you're truly taking an ECM (enterprise content management) approach you'll hit the limits soon enough (see the comparison chart for details).

Microsoft Office 2010 In Pictures

Microsoft Office 2010 In Pictures

(click image to view gallery)
Microsoft Office 2010 In Pictures

The power of SharePoint as an ECM tool stems from its ability to assign metadata to Office 2010 documents and other items, to trigger automatic actions based on that metadata, and to enforce approvals, sign-offs and other collaboration and workflow rules.

Metadata can be associated with a document in several ways:

-- Office documents include automatic metadata, such as the creator of the document, the time and date created.

-- Smart templates ensure that every document of a certain type contains metadata that describes exactly what it is.

-- You can require Office 2010 users to fill out metadata fields before submitting a document into a SharePoint folder.

-- Permitted values for metadata fields can be pulled from the "Managed Metadata" service application, a new feature in SharePoint 2010. Managed Metadata allows an enterprise to define and maintain taxonomies of allowable values for metadata fields across the enterprise.

-- In addition to a strict, top-down taxonomy, you can also implement a user-driven "folksonomy," letting people tag documents with terms that make sense to them. The centralized Managed Metadata service application will prompt users to reuse tags that other people have created, avoiding multiple spellings and duplicate entries to the extent possible.

-- "Location-Based Metadata Defaults" are assigned to documents based on where they're placed on the SharePoint server.

With these metadata elements assigned to documents in a reliable manner, SharePoint 2010 can initiate appropriate actions and workflows in response.

One such action is copying a file to one or more locations based on its metadata. A new feature in SharePoint 2010, "Content Organizer," allows an organization's content stewards to define rules that operate on documents based on their metadata as assigned through the methods described above. For example, you can set up a rule stating that a copy of every document tagged "Legal" gets automatically moved to a secure external SharePoint site to be reviewed by the company's attorneys.

Microsoft Office 2010 In Pictures

Microsoft Office 2010 In Pictures

(click image to view gallery)
Microsoft Office 2010 In Pictures

Several approval workflows have been built into SharePoint 2010 as pre-installed defaults:

-- Approval, for routing documents to a group of people. Approvals can be requested either in serial or in parallel, with the option to "stage" approvals. For example, approvals #1, #2, and #3 may be required in any order before seeking approval #4, and only then approval #5;

-- Collect Feedback, which works similarly to the Approval workflow, but instead requests comments from any number of people;

-- Collect Signatures, for gathering digital signatures from within Office 2010 documents;

-- Publishing, for documents headed to the web;

-- Three-State, primarily for issue tracking (e.g. "Active," "Ready for Review," "Complete") but reusable for similar applications;

-- Disposition Approval, for bulk deletion of expired or out-of-date content.

In addition to the built-in workflows, developers can create custom workflows either using a point-and-click interface in SharePoint Designer 2010, or a more traditional coding environment in Visual Studio 2010 Workflow Designer.

Evaluating SharePoint

Some advice for SMBs considering SharePoint 2010:

Get help. While it does provide easily modifiable workflow templates and other out-of-the-box functionality, SharePoint won't optimize your business processes for you. The ECM capabilities within SharePoint 2010 are powerful tools to achieve business process automation, but they're still just tools. Successful deployment requires both detailed knowledge of the existing business processes within your organization and a sophisticated level of understanding of what it would take to improve those processes. Reaching this understanding is, in itself, a major challenge for many SMBs. If the task of architecting an ECM and workflow solution using Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010 seems outside of the core competencies of your IT organization, hire someone to help. Also, invest in training so that your internal IT people can maintain and customize a SharePoint environment once it's in production.

Microsoft Office 2010 In Pictures

Microsoft Office 2010 In Pictures

(click image to view gallery)
Microsoft Office 2010 In Pictures

Learn to love lock-in. If you stay up nights wondering whether you can figure out a way to avoid the licensing fees associated with the upgrade to Office 2010 by switching to StarOffice or Google Docs, you may indeed hesitate to embed your fundamental workflows and business logic into the Microsoft platform. That's because once your core business processes are embedded into a SharePoint workflow, it'll take more than just a document converter to switch software suppliers. On the other hand, with Microsoft you can be fairly certain that there'll be an upgrade path, an active developer community and support resources for a long time to come. While you may be able to build an equivalent solution using non-Microsoft technologies, your ability to maintain it over the long-haul is a question worth asking.

Build a business case. The purchase decision is predominately a function of the maturity of the business processes within your organization. If you have already have a well-defined, automated and leak-proof system for managing documents within your organization, the business benefit from ECM may only be incremental. However, SMBs tend to fall on the opposite end of the spectrum, with proposals and contracts bouncing around several times before someone wrangles them into shape, with customer service suffering due to delays in finding the right documents, and with incorrect information sometimes leading to costly mistakes.

As with other automation projects, a business case for ECM can be built on the pillars of higher throughput, faster service delivery, lower training and on-boarding costs, lower project management expense, and greater productivity for higher-value employees. In addition, with carefully defined and vetted business processes, you can provide risk and compliance managers with greater assurance of data accuracy and approvals, which in a litigious society can drive budget approval for an ECM solution.

Investments in automation and productivity never go out of style, and the capabilities of SharePoint 2010 put powerful capabilities within reach of virtually any SMB. It may not be for everyone, but it's definitely worth a look.


-- Microsoft Office 2010 Collaboration User's Guide

-- Sharepoint Deployments Arise In An Ad-Hoc Manner

-- 12+ New Microsoft Office 2010 Features

-- 7 Biggest Microsoft Flops Ever

-- Review: Microsoft Office Web Apps

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