This is the first of two posts that discusses simple workflows creation in Office365.
It may be debatable if moving server loads to the Cloud is viable for SMB’s. There is no debate whatsoever over the benefit of leveraging O365 services to the max. If you are on a O365 Business plan (you have 90% of the O365 “goodness” that the big boys have available to you. It only makes sense to maximize the return on your monthly subscription fee. One of the best ways to maximize return is to leverage the workflow capabilities inside SharePoint Online. Microsoft Flow also provides workflow functions. Flow is the “replacement” for older workflow technologies incorporated into SharePoint Online. There is room for both in any SMB’s toolkit as you can do many different things between the two sets of technologies.
To illustrate my point I am going to look at two simple workflows I created for my work (Lekker Food Distributors Ltd.). Both automate a business process and make life easier for all concerned. One work flow is built inside SharePoint Online and the other is with Flow.
The first workflow is a simple Calendar (list) driven workflow that we use to track our “vendor demos”. We are a food distributor. We deal with food product vendors and many supermarkets and grocery stores. Many times we have to co-ordinate product demos. This involves many things! Making sure we have specific product available on prescribed dates. That vendors are in the loop, that sales reps are in the loop and that advertising is co-ordinated. All the pieces have to come together for a successful product demo. The workflow itself is simple. It tracks the date or dates for a product demo. It tracks the various people involved with the demo and ensures that everyone is kept in the loop.
I started with a Calendar (event) list which is a basic App built into SharePoint Online. From the Site Contents section of my site I picked New then App then picked Calendar:
In usual fashion SharePoint requested information to build the fields I required into the list. I created a large number of fields as well as the “standard” fields that are part of any Calendar:
There are a mixture of field types including many lookups. The lookup feature allows you to query information stored elsewhere in SharePoint. I ended up creating and populating a couple of simple tables in SharePoint to drive the lookups. I didn’t have the exact information I needed elsewhere in the system. If the information had existed as required I would have pulled from those sources rather than create new tables. It all came down to what was most expedient.
To this point everything has been “vanilla” SharePoint but now I make a departure from vanilla. When you create a list in SharePoint you also, by default, create an InfoPath form in the background. It is this form that displays to you whenever you add a record or lookup or change a record. Unfortunately, you have very little control over the form layout. Everything displays in the order you create the fields. There are no controls available to you to change the look or the action of the form in any way. Of course, if the default form layout works for you then there is no issue. In my case, it wouldn’t so I needed another tool for the job. Enter Virto Sotware and their bundle of add-in tools for O365.
The Virto Forms Designer App allows you to add a “custom” Virto form to your list. The app gives you a large amount of control over the layout and even what information is included in the form. When you install Virto tools in your site the tools “light up” in various places depending on what the tool does. So, on my Calendar list the Virto Forms app appears in the Ribbon when in Calendar view:
Clicking on the Virto Forms icon opens the tool:
For anyone who has worked with on-premise SharePoint the resemblance to InfoPath is pretty clear.
OK, at this point I have a Calendar built that has a lot of information contained within but it is still only a Calendar. Where is the “workflow” piece that I’ve been on about? Well, that is answered by clicking on the Edit List icon on the Ribbon. Clicking on Edit List will cause SharePoint Designer to open. (It must be installed on your local machine. SharePoint Designer 2013 is the most current version released. You can download it here.) Microsoft is making the change to handling workflows with Flow. But, SharePoint Designer is still supported as a way to manipulate workflows. it is still a viable way of doing things. Many third-party apps and tools such as those supplied by Virto rely on SharePoint Designer for configuration.
When I open SharePoint Designer from my Calendar page I see a screen like this:
In essence this is a “window” into everything in the SharePoint Online backend that is tied to my Calendar list. Under the Workflows section you can see that I have created an Alerts workflow. Clicking on the Workflow gives me this screen:
Clicking on the Edit Workflow link takes me into the workflow:
This is a very simple workflow as all it does is fire off email alerts whenever a calendar item is added or updated. That in itself is pretty awesome as it takes the drudgery out of the task of managing things. The system ensures that everyone who needs to know, knows! Anyone can go to the calendar at any time and see where things are. Users don’t have to remember who they have to email or if they have emailed the proper people, the system handles it all.
And, as this is a Calendar list inside SharePoint, I was able to create a number of different views that help to “scope” the displayed information down to a list that is specific to what a given user may be looking for:
Getting your head wrapped around the capabilities of SharePoint Online can be intimidating. But there is a lot gained by leveraging even simple workflow capabilities in SharePoint Online. A few simple workflows can provide a massive boost to productivity and efficiency. And you can look like a winner which is always a nice side benefit!
There are lots of resources on the Web and vendors such as Virto offer a lot of online tips, tricks and training to help you leverage your O365 investment. Go ahead and give it a try, you may be pleasantly surprised at what you can build.