Hello and welcome to the AIIM micro course on “How to expand the use of SharePoint 2013 for more business processes”
My name is Amila Hendahewa. I am the lead consultant for Enterprise Information Management practice at N-Able (Private) Ltd. in Sri Lanka.
Please feel free to contact me at email@example.com if you have any questions, or follow me on twitter @DocuDude.
At the end of this course, you should be able to: Understand the need for “Business Process Automation” Identify what SharePoint is and it’s suitability as a business process automation tool Identify the different ways SharePoint can be used to automate business processes
Lets begin the course by identifying the need for business process automation.
To start with lets look at how todays organizations manage their business processes. Today’s organizations have several ways of managing their business processes starting from manual systems to advanced Business Process Automation tools.
1. Manual processes Despite all the technological advances, any organization will have at least few manual processes. Even if there are automated systems and tools to carryout a certain process, still sometimes we tend to prefer manual processes due to various reasons.
2. Email After manual processes, the second most preferred or the most widely used method is email. Email is an essential part of our work. As we all know it is a common practice to use email in many processes such as getting approvals, collecting feedback, collaborating on a document etc…
3. Business Applications Different organizations have different line of business applications. These vary from simple custom developed tools to sophisticated ERP systems. Over time most of these systems have evolved to provide certain level of additional BPM facilities other than its core functionality. Many organizations adopting these standard applications try to customize or use 3rd party plugins in order to provide some BPM functionality with these business applications.
4. BPM tools Then we have different types of BPM, workflow, collaborative solutions being used by more matured organizations. These vary from collaborative solutions such as SharePoint to advanced industry specific case management solutions.
Having such different ways of managing business processes, now lets look at the need for automating business processes.
As we all know an organization needs to continuously improve in order to remain competitive. So it needs to speed up business processes allowing it to respond to customer queries quickly, introduce new products early etc….. Being efficient is not a competitive advantage any more but an essential requirement.
Also in a manual process there is a possibility of getting errors due to the human involvement. Not only such errors but it is also possible to commit frauds easily in manual processes. Of course it may be possible to minimize such errors by having some controls in place which require additional time and effort. Automating business processes helps us to avoid human errors and also minimize the possibility of frauds.
Manual processes, due to their nature require more time and effort than automated processes. Therefore organizations can reduce their operational costs in long term by automating relevant business processes.
Also when a process is automated it brings in additional benefits such as accurate and quick reporting and auditing capabilities. When automated it is possible to quickly identify the status of a process and take actions accordingly. Also it is possible to monitor the progress in real time and identify any bottle necks so that process improvements can be done continuously.
Process automation also helps us to meet compliance and regulatory requirements.
Now let’s look at what SharePoint is and its suitability as a business process automation tool.
SharePoint is the collaboration platform of Microsoft. And it is very important to distinguish a platform from a product. SharePoint provides lot of different features and functionality in many areas so it is not a single product. According to Microsoft “SharePoint is the place to share ideas, content and the vision of your company. It’s scalable enough to organize and manage all your information assets but it’s also designed to organize and store documents to enable personal productivity, keep teams’ in sync, and projects on track. It’s where you go to discover experts, share knowledge and uncover connections to information and people. It’s a hub for developers to build and deploy modern apps and for designers to build eye-catching websites.“
So basically you can think of SharePoint as the Swiss army knife for information management.
At a higher level we can group SharePoint features and functionality in to few main areas. And it is important to understand each of these, in order to clearly define what SharePoint is.
Portals – SharePoint is a portal solution capable of creation and management of web sites in forms of Intranets, Extranets or Internet Sites.
ECM – SharePoint provides a rich set of content management tools.
Search – SharePoint comes with enterprise search capabilities.
Enterprise Social - SharePoint can be used as an Enterprise Social networking platform.
BI - SharePoint in combination with tools like Excel, provides Business Intelligence capabilities .
BPM - SharePoint workflow platform allows us to create workflows and applications that can be integrated with other systems.
Depending on the functionality being used, SharePoint can be perceived in different ways by different users. (One of the comments from a recent AIIM industry watch survey was “SharePoint is seen within our organization as a jack of all trades but master of none.”)
So what does this mean? It means that SharePoint is not a BPM product. SharePoint is a platform that also provides BPM functionality among its other uses.
Having identified what SharePoint is and its feature areas, lets now look at how SharePoint is being used as a BPM system
As explained earlier SharePoint is not a BPM product but a collaborative platform with BPM functionality also among its other uses. Due to its broad set of features that cover BPM functionality also, in most cases SharePoint is being considered as a BPM system.
Identifying suitable business processes to automate, and selecting the right BPM solution is anyway not an easy task. Selecting the best solution that will be able to cater for future requirements also with a minimum investment is difficult. This is more difficult for an organization where SharePoint is already being used for different purposes such as a file share, collaboration etc.. Having already made an investment on SharePoint, the IT decision makers first choice is to use SharePoint for whatever requirements as much as possible. It is a challenge to decide whether to use SharePoint for automating business processes or not.
SharePoint is not recommended to be used as a solution for complex business process automations due to its limitations. It is the ideal solution for simple business processes such as approval workflows, collecting feedback, issue tracking etc… These are simple business processes that do not require extensive integrations with other systems. Also these processes have a well defined logic without much exceptions. It is not because of SharePoint cannot be used to handle complex processes that integrates with other systems. As a platform SharePoint can be customized and complex applications can be built on top it. But it is not a recommended practice to do such extensive customizations. Extensive customizations are costly and also difficult to maintain. Here is the Microsoft recommendations on customizing SharePoint;
“Use SharePoint as an out-of-box application whenever possible - We designed the new SharePoint UI to be clean, simple and fast and work great out-of-box. We encourage you not to modify it which could add complexity, performance and upgradeability and to focus your energy on working with users and groups to understand how to use SharePoint to improve productivity and collaboration and identifying and promoting best practices in your organization.”
Therefore when you want to automate a business process using SharePoint, first try to cater for it using out of the box features. Of course it will not be possible to cover all the requirements using the built-in features. However if it covers majority then you need to make a decision whether to stick with the built-in features or whether it is essential to go for further customizations in order to cover 100% of the requirements. If customization is required then the next option is to look for a 3rd plugin that can be used on top of SharePoint. These tools will bring in additional functionality to SharePoint . We will discuss about such tools in details in another slide. If your requirements cannot be full filled with 3rd party tools also then it will require to go for customization of SharePoint. However as explained above extensive customization is not a recommended practice.
So lets summarize what you need to consider when planning to automate a business process with SharePoint ;
First try to use out of the box features. Then look for 3rd party plugins Consider customization as the last option.
Now that we have an understanding of SharePoint and it’s suitability as a BPM tool, lets look at how to extend the use of SharePoint for business processes.
Before extending SharePoint for more business processes, first we need to understand the present level of user adoption.
Usually an organization starts using SharePoint as a portal and a document repository. First you need to clearly identify how comfortable are the users of using SharePoint as the organization portal, as it is essential in order to expand SharePoint for business processes. You need to look out for any issues that the users are facing which prevents them from using SharePoint for basic tasks. These could include issues such as; Browser compatibility Slow response time Difficulty of integrating with desktop applications Difficulty of navigation
The first step of expanding SharePoint is to fix these issues and make sure users are comfortable.
Also you need to understand how different user groups are using SharePoint and the reasons for it. Some users may use SharePoint extensively while some groups use it very rarely due to various reasons. Understanding these will help to identify and prioritize potential business applications to expand SharePoint usage. Also it is better if you can identify power users or user champions so that you can get them involved at early stages to automate a process.
Unless it is managed carefully you may end up having documents stored in multiple locations such as file server, SharePoint, desktops etc.. If the documents are stored in SharePoint then it is very much easier to extend SharePoint usage for related business processes. On the other hand if your documents are stored in a file server then using SharePoint to automate a process related to such documents will not be easy. Most probably you may need to migrate the documents in to SharePoint. Therefore you need to identify how the documents are stored and take appropriate action.
Then in order to expand SharePoint usage, identify what are the business requirements as well as end user requirements. Of course it is not possible to cater for all these requirements but it would be a good starting point to prepare a list of possible business applications.
Before looking at expanding SharePoint usage, lets identify what the end users are expecting from an automated system. These expectations are not specific to SharePoint but are relevant for any system.
Simplicity - No user expects a solution to be complicated. We all would love to have a simple interface without unnecessary details or controls. Simplicity is a major expectation from any system.
Minimum change - Generally no one likes change. That is why there is so much of resistance from average users when a new system is being introduced. Obviously it will not be practical to avoid changes and some cases will require radical changes to improve.
Mobility - Mobility has become an essential component of todays knowledge workers. Everyone expects to access the information they want irrespective of where they are, using whatever the device they carry.
Speed of access - Due to ever-growing expectations, users today expect instant responses from whatever the systems they use. Therefore system response time is a critical success factor for user adoption.
Having an understanding of how SharePoint is being used and what the users and the business is expecting, now lets look at some applications to expand SharePoint usage in to business processes.
As we know lists and libraries are the building blocks of SharePoint. Document libraries act as the repository for organizational content. There are many applications that use lists such as;
Issue Tracking This is one of the most useful list templates in SharePoint. This offers a simple way of tracking the status of a particular item. A good example is a help desk system. It is possible to create a simple help desk application using the issue tracking list template without any coding. Another example is to use this for defects / bugs tracking.
2. Contacts This template allows us to create common contacts lists in SharePoint. Users can then sync this with their Outlook contacts lists. This is very useful as users need not enter / update the same contact in their individual PCs. If required you can create multiple such lists according to projects, teams etc…
3. Tasks This template creates a list for team or personal tasks. Suitable for simple task assignment and tracking.
4. Survey Surveys allow you to quickly create questions and view graphical summaries of the responses. As an example when you want to get some quick feedback regarding something you can use this instead of emails or excel sheets.
These are some of the built in simple list templates available in SharePoint. You can also create your own lists easily.
Power users who are familiar with Microsoft Office try to use Excel for data-centric applications as much as possible. As the next step, once they need more functionality, they consider using MS Access. Many organizations use such data centric applications built on Access. These applications use MS Access features such as tables, views, forms etc… However one limitation is how to share such applications with others as Access is a desktop client. SharePoint Access services allow users to publish Access databases to SharePoint and then share with others. Such Access aapplications published in to SharePoint are similar to client applications and can be easily accessed by other users.
So an organization can easily publish their existing MS Access applications to SharePoint. Since the users are already familiar with the application this would be a good starting point to expand SharePoint usage. Of course you can also create new data centric applications on SharePoint using Access services.
Workflows are a major functionality of SharePoint. These workflows vary from simple built in workflows to complex custom developed applications. There are 3 levels to consider;
SharePoint comes with several built in workflow templates such as Approval, Collect feedback, Three state etc.. Power users can easily configure these and create simple workflows instantly. Next level is to create workflows using SharePoint designer. This allows to create more complicated workflows without any coding by using the drag and drop controls in SharePoint designer. For highly complicated requirements you can also develop customized workflows from scratch using visual studio.
One interesting feature is that you can also use Microsoft Visio to map the workflow logic. Such Visio diagrams can be imported in to SharePoint designer for further developments.
There are two main types of workflows in SharePoint - document centric & form based (list based). Document centric workflows are related to one or more documents (word, excel file, scanned image etc..). A legal contract creation process is an example for a document centric workflow. Form based workflows need not have documents associated with it and the users will process electronic forms instead. A helpdesk system is an example for a forms based workflow.
It is important to understand these 2 types when planning to expand SharePoint in to more business processes. As explained above if you have the relevant documents stored in SharePoint then it would be easy to create document centric workflows.
Using SharePoint as the interface for organizational reporting is another way of expanding SharePoint usage.
All of us use Microsoft Excel to record and analyze data. Excel tables and charts have become an essential part of our day today work. In most of the cases we need to share such Excel files with other users as well. Most of the times we do this by sending the Excel file on email which may end up in multiple versions.
SharePoint Excel services allow you to create such reports in Excel and then publish them in to SharePoint so that other users can access the same using the browser. The ability to selectively publish gives more control to report authors / owners. As an example once you create a chart you can publish it to SharePoint so that other users are able to view the chart but not the source data table. You can also create multiple charts / views for the same table and the viewers can interactively view these in browser.
Using excel services for organizational reporting requirements is a quick and easy way of expanding SharePoint usage. Once get familiarized you can explore more advanced features such as dashboards, KPIs etc…
Another popular way of expanding SharePoint usage is capture enabled process automation.
As we know SharePoint does not have the capability to scan documents. By integrating a document capture application with SharePoint we can make it capture enabled. So that users can scan documents and save in to SharePoint easily. Once these scanned images are in SharePoint it is possible to invoke a workflow related to the scanned document. Some of the modern scanners come with a button so that you can directly “Scan to SharePoint”
Not only to capture scanned images, but you can also use SharePoint to capture emails and attachments. When incoming email is enabled, a SharePoint document library can receive and store email messages and attachments. This is very useful specially when dealing with external users. As an example you can configure a document library to receive vendor invoices. Vendors can email their invoices as an attachment to this specific email address which will save the invoice in the document library. Once it is there you can further process it with a workflow.
Once the adoption is high you can consider Integrating SharePoint with other business applications and databases. This will allow an organisation to extend the business application data to SharePoint users. This can be achieved by using BCS – Business connectivity services. Once you have external data populated in SharePoint, you can develop applications using that. This creates lot more opportunities to automate business processes.
Here is an example for a business connectivity services solution from Microsoft
“A sales dashboard application helps sales associates in an organization quickly find the information that they need and enter new data. Sales orders and customer information are managed in an external application, such as Salesforce.com, and integrated into the solution by using Business Connectivity Services. Depending on their roles, team members can view sales analytics information, individual team members’ sales performance data, sales leads, and a customer’s contact information and orders.”
Now lets briefly look at what are the different tools available for us to expand SharePoint in to business processes.
Browser Using a browser you can perform number of operations such as creating lists, creating different views in a list, configure an out of the box workflow for a library etc…
SharePoint Designer SharePoint Designer is the main tool for creating SharePoint workflows. SharePoint Designer allows you to create workflows without the need for any coding.
Visio You can use Microsoft Visio to design workflow diagrams. These diagrams can then be imported to SharePoint designer for further developments.
InfoPath InfoPath is the underlying technology used for developing and rendering electronic forms in SharePoint workflows. Recently Microsoft announced that InfoPath technology will be discontinued and be replaced with a new forms system. Therefore it would be better not to use InfoPath to create complex applications as it will require additional effort to migrate to new platform in the future.
Visual Studio Visual Studio is the development tool you can use to develop custom applications or complex workflows.
3rd party tools As discussed earlier there are many 3rd party tools that we can use to enhance SharePoint capabilities. There are applications or web parts which you can just install in SharePoint and use. These gives you a set of specific functionality which is not otherwise available in SharePoint. There are also other tools such as workflow designers which allows you to build complex workflows more easily.
In this course you Understood the need for “Business Process Automation” Identified what SharePoint is and it’s suitability as a business process automation tool. Identified the different ways SharePoint can be used to automate business processes
How to expand the use of share point 2013 for more business processes