Introduction to SharePoint workflow

Workflows help people to collaborate on documents and to manage project tasks by implementing business processes on documents and items in a SharePoint site. Workflows help organizations to adhere to consistent business processes, and they also improve organizational efficiency and productivity by managing the tasks and steps involved in business processes. This enables the people who perform these tasks to concentrate on performing the work rather than managing the workflow.

In this article

What are workflows?

The two SharePoint workflow platforms

Built-in workflows

Support for custom workflows

Steps involved in using workflows

What are workflows?

Workflow is sometimes described as a series of tasks that produce an outcome. In the context of SharePoint Products and Technologies, workflow is defined more narrowly as the automated movement of documents or items through a sequence of actions or tasks that are related to a business process. Workflows can be used to consistently manage common business processes within an organization by enabling the organization to attach business logic to documents or items in a SharePoint list or library. Business logic is basically a set of instructions that specifies and controls the actions that happen to a document or item.

Workflows can streamline the cost and time required to coordinate common business processes, such as project approval or document review, by managing and tracking the human tasks involved with these processes. For example, in a SharePoint site, you can add a workflow to a document library that routes a document to a group of people for approval. When the document author starts this workflow on a document in that library, the workflow creates document approval tasks, assigns these tasks to the workflow participants, and then sends e-mail alerts to the participants with task instructions and a link to the document to be approved. While the workflow is in progress, the workflow owner (in this case, the document author) or the workflow participants can check the Workflow Status page to see which participants have completed their workflow tasks. When the workflow participants complete their workflow tasks, the workflow ends, and the workflow owner is automatically notified that the workflow has completed.

The actions in the Approval workflow in the previous example follow the process shown in the following illustration.

Flowchart of an Approval workflow

Workflows not only support existing human work processes but also extend the ways in which people can collaborate and work with documents, lists, and libraries. Site users can start and participate in workflows by using customizable forms that are accessible from the document or item in a SharePoint list or library. Additionally, the workflow functionality in SharePoint Products is tightly integrated with Microsoft Office 2013 so that the following workflow tasks can be performed in both products:

  • View the list of workflows that are available for a document or item.

  • Start a workflow on a document or item.

  • View, edit, or reassign a workflow task.

  • Complete a workflow task.

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The two SharePoint workflow platforms

The SharePoint 2010 workflow platform has been carried forward to Office 365 and SharePoint Server 2013, and so all of your workflows that were built on this platform continue to work. This platform is based on Windows Workflow Foundation 3.5 (WF3.5). The SharePoint 2013 workflow platform is based on Windows Workflow Foundation 4 (WF) and is substantially redesigned. Perhaps the most prominent feature of this new workflow platform is the use of Microsoft Azure as the workflow execution host. The workflow execution engine now lives outside of Office 365 and SharePoint Server 2013, in Microsoft Azure.

The end result is that there are two platform types to choose from when you build a workflow in SharePoint: SharePoint 2010 Workflow and SharePoint 2013 Workflow.

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Built-in workflows

A SharePoint site includes several built-in workflows that address common business scenarios:

  • Approval     This workflow routes a document or item to a group of people for approval. By default, the Approval workflow is associated with the Document content type, and thus it is automatically available in document libraries.

  • Collect Feedback     This workflow routes a document or item to a group of people for feedback. Reviewers can provide feedback, which is then compiled and sent to the person who initiated the workflow. By default, the Collect Feedback workflow is associated with the Document content type, and thus it is automatically available in document libraries.

  • Collect Signatures    This workflow routes a Microsoft Office document to a group of people to collect their digital signatures. This workflow must be started in an Office 2013 program. Participants must complete their signature tasks by adding their digital signature to the document in the relevant Office program. By default, the Collect Signatures workflow is associated with the Document content type, and thus it is automatically available in document libraries. However, the Collect Signatures workflow appears for a document in the document library only if that document contains one or more Microsoft Office Signature Lines.

  • Publishing Approval     This workflow is similar to the Approval workflow in that it automates the routing of content to subject matter experts and stakeholders for review and approval. What makes the publishing approval workflow unique is that it’s designed specifically for publishing sites where the publishing of new and updated web pages is tightly controlled.

  • Three-state     This workflow can be used to manage business processes that require organizations to track a high volume of issues or items, such as customer support issues, sales leads, or project tasks.

Each of the above workflows can be customized for your organization in several ways. For example, when you add a workflow to a list, library, or content type to make it available for use on documents or items, you can customize the tasks lists and history lists where information about the workflow is stored.

When a site user starts a workflow on a document or item, the user may have the option to further customize the workflow by specifying the list of participants, a due date, and task instructions.

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Support for custom workflows

Although the built-in workflows can be customized somewhat to meet different needs, your organization may choose to design and develop workflows that are unique to the business processes in the organization. Workflows can be as simple or complex as the business processes require. Developers can create workflows that are started by people who use a site, or they can create workflows that start automatically based on an event, such as when a list item is created or changed. If your organization has developed and deployed custom workflows, these workflows may be available in addition to or instead of the built-in workflows already described.

There are two ways in which custom workflows can be created:

  • Power users can design no-code workflows for use in a specific list or library by using Microsoft SharePoint Designer 2013 and Office Visio 2013      SharePoint Designer 2013 workflows are created from a list of available workflow activities, and the person who creates the workflow can deploy the workflows directly to the list or library where they will be used. SharePoint Designer 2013 also works hand-in-hand with Visio 2013 to provide a visual workflow development experience to build diagrams by using shapes and connectors. You can also import workflows from Visio 2013 into SharePoint Designer 2013, and vice versa.

  • Professional software developers can create workflows by using Visual Studio 2012 or later     These workflows contain custom code and workflow activities. After a professional developer creates custom workflows, a server administrator can deploy them across multiple sites.

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Steps involved in using workflows

There are several steps involved in using a workflow on a document or list item. Each step can be completed by individuals in different roles. For example, a site administrator can make a workflow available for use in a document library, a content creator can start a workflow or modify a workflow in progress, and a third person (for example, a document reviewer or an approver) can complete the workflow task.

Adding a workflow to a list, library, or content type

Before a workflow can be used, it must be added to a list, library, or content type to make it available for documents or items in a specific location. You must have the Manage Lists permission to add a workflow to a list, library, or content type. In most cases, the site administrators or individuals who manage specific lists or libraries perform this task.

The availability of a workflow within a site varies, depending on where it is added:

  • If you add a workflow directly to a list or library, it is available only for items in that list or library.

  • If you add a workflow to a list content type (an instance of a site content type that was added to a specific list or library), it is available only for items of that content type in the specific list or library with which that content type is associated.

  • If you add a workflow to a site content type, that workflow is available for any items of that content type in every list and library to which an instance of that site content type was added.

  • If you want a workflow to be widely available across lists or libraries in a site, you can create a site workflow.

When you add a workflow to a list, library, or content type, you can customize the workflow for its specific location by specifying various options:

  • The name for this instance of the workflow

  • The tasks list where workflow-related tasks are stored

  • The history list that records all of the events that are related to the workflow

  • The way that you want the workflow to be started

  • Additional options that are specific to the individual workflow, for example, how tasks are routed to participants, what circumstances complete the workflow, and what actions occur after the workflow is completed.

When you add a workflow to a list, library, or content type, you make it available for documents or items in a specific location; you do not start the actual workflow.

Starting a workflow on a document or item

After a workflow is added to a list, library, or content type and thereby made available for use, you can start this workflow on a document or item (if the workflow is configured to allow it to be started manually). To start a workflow, you select the workflow that you want from the list of workflows available for the document or item. If necessary, you may also need to fill out a form with the information that the workflow requires. Depending on how the workflow was designed and configured, you might have the option to further customize the workflow when you start it on a document or item by customizing such options as participants, due date, and task instructions.

Modifying a workflow in progress

After a workflow is started on an item, you may need to make changes to how the workflow behaves. For example, after a workflow starts, the person who started the workflow might need to add additional participants. Or a workflow participant might need to reassign his or her task to another person or request a change to the document or item that is the focus of the workflow. You can modify some of the built-in workflows while the workflow is in progress. If your organization has developed and deployed custom workflows, it is possible that changes to workflows in progress are allowed.

Completing workflow tasks

Any workflow event that requires human interaction is represented by a workflow task. When a workflow assigns a task to a workflow participant, the task recipient can either complete that task or request changes to the workflow itself by editing the workflow task form. Workflow participants can complete workflow tasks on the SharePoint site or directly within an Office 2013 program. When a workflow participant completes a workflow task or requests a change to the workflow, the workflow moves to the next relevant step.

Tracking the status of workflows

Workflow owners and participants can follow the progress of a workflow by checking the status page that is associated with the workflow. The status page includes status information about outstanding workflow tasks. It also includes history information that is relevant to the workflow.

Reporting tools can provide an aggregate analysis of workflow history. Organizations can use this analysis to locate bottlenecks in processes or to determine whether a group is meeting the performance targets for a given business process. Several predefined Microsoft Office Excel reports can be used with any workflow. Additionally, workflow history information is available as a SharePoint list data source that can be used and analyzed in other programs or custom business process monitoring solutions.

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See Also

Overview of workflows included with SharePoint

Workflows in SharePoint 2013

Workflow development in SharePoint Designer 2013 and Visio 2013

Getting started with SharePoint Server 2013 workflow

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