Collaboration means many different things to many different people. “Document sharing” is often quoted as an easy-to-understand example — two or more users editing a document online, either simultaneously or via check in/out. Collaboration can also be ad hoc and casual — an exchange on Yammer or, simply, a group-wide email. A good business analyst needs to try and help a company collaborate effectively. A good SharePoint business analyst needs to be able to use the features and functions of SharePoint to achieve this.
NB: This article focuses on SharePoint 2010, I’ve not yet had a lot of time to delve into SharePoint 2013.
Enterprise collaboration tends to be more formal, often requiring particular steps or processes to be followed and adhered to. Document approval is a good example of this. Once a document has been created, shared and collaborated online, it often needs formal sign-off before it can be used, such as a multi-user sign-off process occurring over an extended period of time, with different paths depending on the particular content being reviewed.
SharePoint, with its mature document management functionality, is ideally suited for automating this kind of document management workflow. In fact, “Windows workflow foundation” (WF), the workflow engine of SharePoint, can be used to build and deploy almost any kind of workflow process. Built on version 3.5 of the .NET framework, WF supports:
- Workflow scheduling and execution
- Persistent workflows
- Workflow activity tracking
- Extensibility in the form of workflow extensions
- Visual debugging capabilities
SharePoint workflows can be created in a number of ways:
- “Out of the box” workflows are provided with SharePoint 2010 to fulfill some basic processes, and can be modified in a limited way through the interface.
- SharePoint Designer, or Visual Studio, can be used to build bespoke workflows to fulfill specific requirements.
- Nintex, an add-on for SharePoint, can be used by power users to build bespoke workflows graphically without leaving the standard SharePoint interface.
A client has a requirement to make a set of documents externally accessible so they can be formally audited by a third-party company. The documents are stored on a SharePoint 2010 extranet, with a predefined set of metadata describing their content and current audit status. The audit process involves several auditors checking each document to ensure it fulfills five criteria.
To make matters slightly more complicated, the documents are added to the extranet by the client at different times during the auditing period. By the end of the audit period, each document has to have been checked against all five of the criteria.
A SharePoint workflow can automate much of the administration and coordination of this process, making the auditors collaborate more effectively. The final workflow carries out the following process every time a document is edited by one of the auditors:
A world of workflow
Workflow can help drive a wide range of collaboration tasks, not just those involving documents or document management. It can enforce rules and procedures to what can otherwise be unstructured activities and can also provide automated or triggered reporting and notification tools. So next time you are considering a collaboration process, think about the benefits workflow functionality could bring to your project.