Getting started with SharePoint workflowsWith most clients I’ve worked with over the years, I inevitably get asked the same thing sooner or later – “what’s workflow?"  Or it’s “teach me about workflow,” or “how do you customize a default workflow?”  

With this blog series I want to try to take explain some core concepts of workflow, then give some direction on creating them, the interface, customizing the default ones, some best practices and some ideas on extending them.  Sounds like a lot, and it is!  There are 2 and 3-day training courses just on workflow, but my goal is to give you some basics and direction to get you going with your adventure with SharePoint workflows.  I won’t go into many step by steps on building a sample workflow, but I want to help you get started.

What are SharePoint Workflows

Screenshot: Example Business Process for SharePoint Automation

SharePoint Workflows Defined


The short answer is workflows automate business or work processes.  More specifically, they provide rules, conditions and actions for automatic behavior and tasks on lists and libraries that generally produce an outcome.  Another way, a workflow will automate a flow chart of different decisions, conditions and sub processes so that you don’t have to remind yourself to ask Bob why he hasn’t signed that purchase order yet. 

What Can You Do With a SharePoint Workflow?

A lot!  Let’s look just a few:

  • Approvals
  • Reminders
  • Send emails
  • Update column data in lists or libraries
  • Create content / list items
  • Set permissions
  • Lookup user information
  • And more…

Ready to get started?  Not so fast!  Go ahead and close SharePoint Designer for a minute and keep reading. 

A Little Knowledge Goes a Long Way

Workflows are tightly integrated into lists and libraries (for the most part), so it’s important to have a good understand of those concepts.  If you’re going to be creating and editing workflows, I believe you should have a good comfort level with the following:

  • Creating lists and libraries
  • Creating editing columns
  • Concepts of content types and site columns

Those are bigger topics than I can explain in this article.  Microsoft published some decent videos on these topics back for 2010, and they still apply regardless of which version of SharePoint you use.  Specifically, look at ones like "document libraries I and II," and "lists I and II."  

Just know that workflows bind to and run in (mostly) the context of the item or document.  All of its properties (columns) will be accessible to the workflow.  Depending on your requirements and workflow design, you may need to create additional columns for tracking statuses, or providing dynamic input into a workflow.  You might need to use calculation columns to generate certain output that perhaps is too difficult to do in workflow.

SharePoint Workflow Types

There are three main types of workflows you can create with SharePoint

:Screenshot: SharePoint Workflow Types Menu

  • List Workflow
  • Reusable Workflow
  • Site Workflow

Table: Types of SharePoint Workflows and When to Use Each

By far the most common is the List workflow and sits at the lowest level – the list or library.  You have full access to all columns of the item properties, but it can’t be reused (without making copies), and isn’t meant to be exportable to other site collections. So I can apply this to a single list, but I can't reapply it to another list.

If we go up a level we have Reusable workflows.  With this workflow type, you create it at the site level, and then add it to any list or library in the site you want, all sharing the single template (hence its reusable).  These are meant to be exportable as a solution easily, however by default you only get 2 or 3 fields from the list/library.  If you want any other fields, you will have to make them site columns and associate them to the workflow.

At the highest level we have Site workflows. These are likely used least and aren’t designed to run on a list or library directly, but you can read and write to them remotely.  So for example, users could fill out a form where they enter certain information like for ideas or suggestions, and then the workflow takes that information and creates an item in a list.  Instead of being triggered by item add or updates, it is started manually or by going to a URL or link. 

SharePoint Workflow Platform

So far you have noticed I haven’t mentioned any version of SharePoint.  That’s because everything I’ve mentioned applies to every version.  But there are some differences.  For now I’ll just cover a couple of basics.  All you need to know is there are potentially two platform types for workflow in SharePoint:

  • SharePoint 2010 engine
  • SharePoint 2013 engine

SharePoint 2010 vs SharePoint 2013 Workflow Engine

If you are on SharePoint 2010, you can only use the 2010 engine. 

If you’re on SharePoint 2013/2016/Online, you can use the 2013 engine AND the 2010.  Yea, they didn’t change a single thing with workflow from 2013 to 2016 or in Online.  I’ll explain other differences in future blogs in our series.

Default SharePoint Workflows

Microsoft has provided some out of the box (OOTB) workflow templates for you to use.  They are:

Using the Default SharePoint Workflows

  • Approval – SharePoint 2010
    • Used to route a document for approval or rejection
  • Collect Feedback – SharePoint 2010
    • Same as the Approval, except it just collects feedback from participants, not approval
  • Collect Signatures – SharePoint 2010
    • Similar to Approval, except it wants a digital signature instead of clicking an Approve/Reject button
  • Disposition Approval
    • Used when you want to decide if content should be archived (helpful with ROT process) – Redundant, Out-of-date or Trivial
  • Three-State
    • Used to track an item through 3 different “phases”, like a helpdesk issue

You can read more on these workflows on and here

Next Time - Dive Deeper Into SharePoint Workflows

Ready for more?

In our next installment, we’ll look at the workflow structure, how to use workflow and lots of other goodies.  Stay tuned!