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. 

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.

So how can SharePoint be used to automate a collaboration process?

A Practical Example of Automated Collaboration

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:

  • When a document is checked out for editing, the username of the current user is checked against a list of predefined auditors
  • The current auditor begins to edit or view the document
  • At the same time, they are sent an email asking them to update the document metadata with the criteria currently being looked at, the current status of this criteria and any relevant comments
  • When the document is checked back in a email report is sent to all auditors updating them of the current status of the five criteria
  • When all five criteria are at "complete" status, the chief auditor is sent email asking them to formally "sign off" the audit process
  • Once signed off by the chief auditor, this document has completed the audit process

James Butler, of Program Framework, worked on this particular example and feels collaboration-driven workflow can also improve clients' financial bottom line:

Ultimately, what we are trying to do is connect the right people, with the right information when they need it. If we can do this in a structured way, not only do we support the employees in achieving their objectives but we can actively measure, manage and improve the underlying business processes. This can create a step change in the company's effectiveness and efficiency, which will lead to an improved bottom line.”

A Wide Range of Collaboration

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.

Editor's Note: Check out these additional articles on SharePoint tools for Collaboration: