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Why should organizations extend beyond SharePoint workflows?

Earlier this year Nintex VP Alex Burton looked at three limitations of out-of-the-box SharePoint Server workflows. In this blog, I’ll explore SharePoint workflows in more detail and discuss whether you should extend beyond SharePoint workflows altogether.

SharePoint workflows are used to automate processes within an on-premises SharePoint environment—an appealing addition to anyone already using the platform. But SharePoint-based workflow automation is limited to a certain set of out-of-the-box functions. So, how much can you actually get out of SharePoint Server workflows?

Templates for automated SharePoint workflows include:

  • Review and Approval: route a document or item for approval or rejection
  • Feedback: route a document for feedback
  • Collect Signatures: route a document, workbook, or form for digital signatures
  • Three-State: track an issue, project, or task through three states or phases

These templates cover the fundamental SharePoint tasks well, but problems arise when you try to push automation in the platform any further. The core existing problems to SharePoint Server workflows (as discussed in the previous article) are:

  • Limited scope: Out-of-the-box SharePoint workflows are limited to the aforementioned processes. More complex tasks require building workflows in SharePoint Designer.
  • One-dimensional: SharePoint workflows don’t communicate well with other platforms, making them one-dimensional and ill-equipped for processes that combine multiple tools and/or platforms.
  • Complex: SharePoint workflows are challenging to build, often requiring the experience of a developer team. With users potentially unable to automate the processes that matter most to them, this negates the benefit of having them on a platform as widely used as SharePoint.

Businesses today should look to automate more than just basic business processes if they want to establish a competitive advantage in their market.

Of course, Microsoft does offer automation capabilities beyond out-of-the-box SharePoint Server workflows, which we explore below:

1.  SharePoint Designer 2013

For businesses that require more flexibility in workflows, you can customize and create entirely new processes using SharePoint Designer 2013. The tool allows you to create rules that associate conditions with items in SharePoint lists and libraries to trigger actions in the workflow. For example, you could design a workflow that launches an additional approval workflow if the cost of an item exceeds a specific amount.

Despite its uses, SharePoint Designer is not a dedicated solution for process automation. The tool provides many other valuable features, including publishing websites, branding, and connecting external data sources to SharePoint.

SharePoint Designer works with SharePoint 2016 and SharePoint Online, but Microsoft has confirmed there is no new SharePoint Designer coming for SharePoint 2019. However, they will ensure that SharePoint Designer 2013 will work with SharePoint 2019 for the remainder of the support lifecycle (until 2026). In each of these cases, administrators need to manually install and connect SharePoint Designer 2013 to their SharePoint 2016, 2019, or SharePoint Online sites.

2.  SharePoint Server 2019

Like SharePoint Designer 2013, there are no substantial changes to how SharePoint Server workflows will perform in the new on-premises SharePoint—SharePoint Server 2019—beyond the fact that you will be able to use them. SharePoint workflows are the same for 2013, 2016, and 2019 Server environments, meaning SharePoint Designer remains your best Microsoft-based option for SharePoint workflows.

3.  SharePoint Online (Microsoft Flow)

Microsoft Flow can be used to set up workflows for SharePoint Online lists and libraries, allowing users to automate common tasks between SharePoint and other Office 365 services. Users can choose from a number of common ‘flows’ including:

  • Send a customized email when a SharePoint list item is added
  • Send an approval email when a new item is added
  • Create a new list item when an object is created in Dynamics 365
  • Save tweets that include a specific hashtag to a SharePoint list

With more functionality than standard SharePoint workflows, you may want to connect Microsoft Flow to SharePoint Server through an on-premises data gateway. This will require an existing Office 365 subscription, and also means more work for Office 365 administrators integrating data sources.

Why it’s time to move beyond SharePoint Workflows

While the return on investment in SharePoint workflow tools is appealing (seeing as the monetary investment is zero for businesses already using SharePoint), a real investment in state-of-the-art process automation technology can take your workflows (and your long-term ROI) a lot further.

Let’s use an example of a standard sales contract approval process to illustrate:

The approval process:

  1. A sales contract is drafted in Word 2016
  2. The contract is stored in a SharePoint document library
  3. The document is emailed around as a link for input and potential updates/changes
  4. The link is emailed to two managers for approval
  5. Managers make changes as they see fit and email back to say the contract is approved
    1. Feedback loop (if not approved, more changes have to be made)
  6. The approved contract is sent to the customer/client to sign

The approval process with SharePoint Server 2016:

  1. Download and install SharePoint Designer 2013
  2. The site administrator must activate the Approval workflow in the ‘Site Collection Features’ setting
  3. A sales contract is drafted
  4. The contract is stored in SharePoint library [triggers SharePoint Designer workflow]
  5. Admin must assign ‘manage’ and ‘edit’ permissions to anyone amending or approving the contract
  6. Workflow assigns tasks and sends email notifications to participants
  7. Participants review
    1. Feedback loop (if participants select ‘Reject’, ‘Request Change’ or ‘Reassign’)
  8. The final item status is set to ‘Approved’, ‘Rejected’, or ‘Pending’ [ends workflow]
  9. If approved, the contract is sent to the customer/client

The approval process with Nintex:

  1. A sales agreement is reached and posted in Salesforce CRM
  2. Salesforce CRM updates [triggers Nintex workflow]
  3. The system automatically creates a data-driven contract
  4. The contract is sent for review and approval
  5. Users compare versions of the document
    1. Feedback loop (until the final version of the contract is agreed upon)
    2. Legal team is added to the feedback loop if necessary
  6. The contract is sent to the customer
  7. The customer signs the contract electronically
  8. The signed contract is submitted to Salesforce CRM
  9. Salesforce CRM updates, archives executed contract [ends workflow]

Nintex for SharePoint provides end-users with more options for automation than out-of-the-box SharePoint workflows, while still operating in the secure and familiar environment of SharePoint. From SharePoint 2019 support to a range of connectors that integrate with the business applications and cloud services you already use is available with Nintex. It’s a way to move beyond SharePoint workflows without leaving SharePoint behind.

You can implement Nintex for SharePoint directly into your existing SharePoint environment, or, you can build into environments like the Nintex Workflow Cloud, Office 365, and Salesforce. So, wherever your fundamental business processes are rooted, Nintex can work with them.


For the next steps on how to improve process automation within SharePoint and beyond, start your free trial of Nintex today. Or get in touch with us – we’re happy to suggest the first steps your business can take to start taking full advantage of automated workflows. 



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