SharePoint workflows in M365: Possible uses and limits – and how to master them!

In earlier SharePoint on-premises installations, such as SharePoint 2013, 2016, or 2019, SharePoint workflows were based on SharePoint Designer or Nintex workflows.

You can still create workflows using these tools. However, in Microsoft 365, Power Automate (also known as “Flow”) provides a new and popular option for workflow creation. This article shows the different ways you can use the tools. In addition, it describes where the workflows reach their limits and how you can reach your goals despite those limits by using holistic specialist solutions.

How do you create a SharePoint approval workflow?

SharePoint Designer workflows have existed as long as SharePoint Server 2007 has been around. SharePoint Server 2007 was the first version of SharePoint and caused a sensation on the market. This was because in addition to being able to work on documents in a web-based manner, key users could create workflows using SharePoint Designer. That essentially made Designer a SharePoint workflow manager for SharePoint approval workflows.

You can continue using SharePoint Designer workflows in SharePoint Online.
However, you need to install SharePoint Designer to create and edit workflows. You can obtain it from Microsoft. In addition to installing the basic software, we recommend that you configure Service Pack 1 (64-bit edition) and the patch from August 2016.

After installing and starting the software, you can create a new SharePoint approval workflow as follows:

  1. Select the relevant SharePoint website under “Open Site”:
  2. Select the relevant SharePoint list or document library, and click “List Workflow”:
  3. Enter the name of the workflow (e.g., “SharePoint approval workflow”) and select the relevant activities for the workflow under “Action”:

What is important when using SharePoint Designer workflows?

SharePoint Designer workflows have been in existence since SharePoint Server 2007 was released, which is a relatively long time. That means they are not necessarily up to date, technically speaking.

The advantage of creating workflows in SharePoint Designer is that you can get started quickly. However, you need to be aware of several issues:

  1. One main criticism concerning workflow creation with SharePoint Designer is that the connection to SharePoint is often interrupted, which destroys workflows. This happens because SharePoint Designer is executed locally, whereas the SharePoint workflow is located on the server or in SharePoint Online.
  2. The number of activities is limited. In the past, messages arrived on a regular basis stating that the number of activities available to key users for a SharePoint workflow was insufficient. You also need to note that you cannot use many new functions in SharePoint Online because the solution is no longer up to date, and the provider (Microsoft) has stopped developing the activities further.
  3. In some situations, appending a SharePoint workflow created on the basis of a certain list A to a list B can be helpful. However, you cannot do so without further ado because technical restrictions forbid this action. There is only one way to work around this problem: you need to take it into consideration in the planning phase and create a SharePoint workflow based on types of content.
  4. Furthermore, you are not able to edit SharePoint workflow forms.

For these reasons, I explicitly recommend not using Designer as a SharePoint workflow manager for creating new workflows for SharePoint Online. It is also a good idea to consider replacing existing SharePoint workflows with newer SharePoint Workflow Manager solutions.

Nintex workflows as an alternative to SharePoint workflows

The company Nintex established itself with its tools Nintex Workflow and Nintex Forms alongside SharePoint Designer workflows. Nintex deliberately takes up existing weaknesses in SharePoint Designer, which has allowed the company to establish itself as the de facto standard in the SharePoint On-Premises environment. Nintex is also successfully represented in SharePoint Online thanks to its SharePoint workflow solutions.

For example, Nintex Workflow is completely web-based and features a large number of activities that can be used in the workflow. That is a good foundation for a program to be considered a SharePoint workflow manager for SharePoint workflows. You can relatively easily export SharePoint workflows and thus append them to other lists. What is more, you can conveniently create and edit workflow forms using a web editor. This can be very useful, for example, if you want to link additional information to a workflow task or if there is conditional formatting (display field B only if field A has been filled in).

The proxy regulation in Nintex and the option of mobile approval editing are additional highlights.

Before you can create a SharePoint approval workflow using Nintex Workflow, the application needs to be configured in SharePoint Online. Once this is done, you can select the following entry in a SharePoint document library, for instance:

After assigning the name (SharePoint approval workflow), you can create the workflow as stipulated below:

Nintex has expanded its offer in the cloud environment considerably. This offer is now no longer limited to only creating SharePoint workflows. Instead, Nintex is an interesting option as a platform for managing and automating processes, as well as optimizing them based on data, across platforms.

What exactly does this mean?

  • Manage: Processes can be designed and edited in a web-based manner, similar to a BPM form that people can easily read. In addition, they can be shared throughout a company or among different companies and with partners. Collecting feedback about processes makes it possible to optimize them iteratively.
  • Automate: This encompasses the actual creation of the process using workflow components. Additionally, you can transfer the previously created process to the workflow notation.
  • Analyze: Every computer-supported process produces data, which Nintex tools can systematically collect and analyze. You can optimize processes based on facts and reduce costs on this basis.

d.velop is Nintex’s premium partner and, in the scope of DMS projects, frequently provides support during the introduction and implementation of complex corporate processes with tools from Nintex.

Microsoft Power Automate compared with Nintex and SharePoint Workflow

The product formerly known as MS Flow has been making a name for itself with the name MS Power Automate since it was renamed in 2019. The advantage of Power Automate is that, like SharePoint, it is already included in many Office licenses because Microsoft now bundles Office licenses. In addition to Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, Office packages often include additional important applications. You can see a precise overview of the common Office packages here. I have established that the E3 plan is very widespread, which is the case because Outlook and Word can be installed on PCs as on-premises variants with this plan.

When you create SharePoint workflows using Power Automate workflows, you need to note that the number of API calls is limited to 2,000 for Office 365 users. If you exchange lots of data between applications and the number of calls increases as a result, you will need a premium license. And while very many activities are available, not all of them are free.

The advantage of Power Automate lies in the creation of simple SharePoint workflows that users can also create themselves. Using the start address office.com, as a user I can open Power Automate and create a SharePoint approval workflow here:

To guarantee a quick start, it is often a good idea to work with the templates:

The search helps you quickly find the right template:

You can relatively easily configure the SharePoint approval workflow based on the template in the browser later on:

Here both IT and users frequently ask about Power Automate in projects. The fact that Power Automate is bundled with the Office 365 licenses and has an interface that is relatively easy to understand are two important reasons for that.

Advantages of Power Automate Workflows:

  • Fully web-based
  • Is contained in many Office 365 variants
  • You can relatively simply create SharePoint Workflows, even as a user
  • Many activities and good interaction with other Office applications, such as MS Teams, Power Apps, and Outlook

However, it has some disadvantages when compared with Nintex in particular:

  • It has no proxy regulation.
  • It features only sequential workflows. State machine workflows, in which I can also go back in the process, can be simulated only using workarounds.
  • After 30 days, workflows automatically terminate without issuing a notice. Microsoft has announced that it wants to increase this limit to 90 days.
  • As is the case with Nintex workflows, you cannot modify workflow forms.
  • Workflows always run in the context of a user. If many people create workflows, this may result in behavior that is not always comprehensible.
  • The exchange of data with third-party applications, such as ERP systems (SAP, Dynamics 365, proAlpha, SAGE, etc.), can be difficult.

What are the limits of classic SharePoint workflow tools?

What people frequently forget when using SharePoint workflow solutions is that operations in business processes often involve several documents and multiple pieces of information. They all bear relation to each other and are important for the process.

Examples:

1) Contract management

You can use a SharePoint approval workflow to approve a single contract document. However, you often also need to be able to quickly comprehend all the relevant documents and information, including deadlines, tasks, costs, etc. at the same time.

It is also important that you be informed in a timely manner before the effective cancellation date of a contract, which gives you security and transparency.

2) Creditor or customer record

In customer processes as well, it can be a good idea to start a SharePoint workflow based on a single document. That can be the case if an offer exceeds a certain amount and needs to be approved by a manager.
However:

  • How do the documents from ERP automatically enter SharePoint?
  • How can you also view e-mails from Outlook in the context of the process?
  • In case service is needed, how can people quickly tell which orders already existed with which order confirmations and other applicable correspondence?

The aforementioned SharePoint workflow tools can be a good approach when you need to map SharePoint approval processes based on individual documents. On the other hand, if you want to present several documents in a business process in relation to one another, workflows are an integral component of this, but they are only one element of an entire solution.

In addition, there are processes that relate to individual documents yet exceed the possibilities offered by a SharePoint workflow. A typical example is incoming invoice processing and approval. In a simple scenario, your goal might be to process an incoming invoice from different inbound channels such as e-mail, mail, etc. and to automatically read and classify their content. The found information should be used to automatically notify the approving parties via SharePoint workflow and ask them for their approval. In this case as well, it is a good idea to use a specialist solution, such as incoming invoice processing, that can be used to map the process.

And how can you still reach your goal? A summary.

At this point, it is perhaps important to mention how you definitely will no longer reach your goal in a future-oriented manner if you want to create SharePoint workflows using Designer. In my opinion, SharePoint Designer workflows are a thing of the past, which is why I would no longer use Designer as a SharePoint workflow manager.

The specific application case at hand provides further answers to the question we asked above. Let’s take the simple approval of a leave application as an example. It is a single document. In a department or in a medium-sized organization, Microsoft Power Automate is a very good option for creating this workflow. Simple approvals are often needed, meaning Power Automate can frequently offer the right solution.

On the other hand, if you need to plan many complex business processes in (distributed) teams, implement them, and then optimize them using an analysis, Nintex often has the solutions you need.

At d.velop, we often observe that users combine Power Automate or Nintex with finished solutions for contract management,digital process management, or incoming invoice processing, for example.

This is the case because more and more companies are recognizing the importance of consistent specialist procedures and processes and are adapting their digitalization strategy accordingly.

Examples of workflows combined with SharePoint specialist solutions

The order approval process is mapped using Power Automate or Nintex in a supplier record. Based on the order approval, the buyer then triggers the supplier order in ERP, and an order record is automatically created below the supplier record in SharePoint. All documents, such as correspondence, goods receipt documents, or incoming invoices, can now be stored in this record. Automatically processing incoming invoices exceeds the capabilities of the workflow tool, and this is where a specialist tool takes over: it reads the content from the invoice and informs the approving party completely automatically.

Another application example is applying for leave in a simple Power Automate workflow. The approved document is then directly sorted into the digital personnel file, which is located in SharePoint.