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SharePoint approval workflow: The starting point of you BPM

Sandra Lupanava

Sandra Lupanava

Sandra Lupanava

Sandra Lupanava

Sandra is SharePoint Evangelist at ScienceSoft, a software development and consulting company headquartered in McKinney, Texas. With her 6+ years in marketing, Sandra voices SharePoint’s strengths to contribute to the platform’s positive image as well as raise user adoption and loyalty. Today Sandra advocates harnessing SharePoint’s non-trivial capabilities to create business-centric, industry-specific innovation and knowledge management solutions.


SharePoint is a universal soldier in an enterprise. Its mission goes far beyond collaboration and includes document management, project management, HR management and other business processes. To help companies automate these processes, SharePoint comes with out-of-the-box (OOTB) workflow management capabilities. SharePoint approval workflow is one of the most popular SharePoint workflows that help employees to fulfill everyday tasks.

In this article, we will show you how to benefit from this workflow. We will also suggest the steps to get the most of SharePoint as your BPM solution.

SharePoint approval workflow

Processes to power with the SharePoint approval workflow

By definition, the approval workflow enables users to send a SharePoint item (a document, a task, etc.) to specified people to get their approval or rejection. However simple this action is, it is one of the essential parts of various business processes, which makes the approval workflow fundamental in daily business activities.

  • Document Management. Many organizations use SharePoint as a document management system, so it’s the first natural area to apply approval workflows. All the departments, from procurement to office management, can benefit from this workflow to avoid manual document processing and speed up document circulation. You can also include external users to the workflow, which is necessary if you collaborate actively with your customers or partners. To see document approval in action, you can check our SharePoint DMS demo.

    A mobile DMS is used to approve a document.

  • HR Management. HRM is the domain that frequently requires approval workflows. Requesting a vacation, business trips or sick leaves, approving a contract, applying for a training session, starting an onboarding procedure are just a few daily HR needs that you can automate via the SharePoint approval workflow. To get a better idea of automated approval of HR requests, you can check our live demo of SharePoint HR portal.
  • Content Publishing. If SharePoint serves you as a content repository, you can use content approval workflows. When users add a new entry to a thematic blog or to an enterprise wiki, a moderator can either approve the publication or return it to the author for revision. Organizations that use SharePoint as the platform for their publishing site can also leverage a publishing approval workflow to keep control over new content items added to their site.
  • IT and Office Support. Companies can also use approval workflows to handle IT and office support issues, especially if they don’t want to invest in or just don’t need a specialized ticketing system. In this case, the SharePoint approval workflow can let employees request software they need or enable a team leader to order a new whiteboard for the department.

All in all, approval scenarios are multiple as every organization has their own specific needs. The SharePoint approval workflow will cover any cases that follow the logic of the processes described above. However, you should keep in mind a few peculiarities.

First of all, the OOTB approval workflow doesn’t allow signing items. Thus, if you need to enable digital signatures, please use the SharePoint Collect Signatures workflow.

Second, users can’t change the item that is a part of the approval workflow. So if you want to enable users to add their remarks to the item, you should apply the SharePoint Collect Feedback workflow.

How to start using approval workflows

If you run an on-premises solution, you can use the OOTB SharePoint approval workflow template to automate the simplest workflows. You can also create complex multistage workflow patterns involving numerous participants with SharePoint Designer. Custom SharePoint workflows, however, will require additional SharePoint development effort.

If you run a cloud solution in SharePoint Online, you also have your keys to workflow management. SharePoint Online supports all the workflow types available in SharePoint On-Premises. Custom workflows also come with SharePoint Designer. Moreover, there is a bunch of ready-made approval scenarios available in Microsoft Flow, which allows you to create workflows much easier and faster.

Full-fledged business process management

It’s clear that enterprise business processes can’t be managed with the approval workflow only. For this very reason, SharePoint offers 4 more OOTB workflows: Collect Feedback, Collect Signature, Three-State and Publishing approval. But are the native SharePoint capabilities enough to manage diversified workflows? Isn’t it more reasonable to implement a fully-fledged BPM solution instead?

Let’s start with a little statistics. The Impact of SharePoint 2016 report shows that more than 70% of organizations consider SharePoint as a suitable platform to manage simple workflows. At the same time, only a third of respondents would ever consider SharePoint appropriate for complex BPM challenges.

These numbers confirm two facts. First, OOTB SharePoint doesn’t have enough capabilities for BPM in full operation. Second, you need to put additional effort into adapting SharePoint to BPM needs. To succeed in this, you have at least 3 options.

Option 1. Customize your SharePoint solution

Extra SharePoint development will help you turn SharePoint into a powerful BPM solution. In the end, you will be able not just to handle particular workflows, but to manage all the stages of a business process and monitor its effectiveness.

Pros. You will have to manage only one platform, while your employees will be able to perform various activities within the same SharePoint portal.

Cons. Customization will be a challenge, especially if you don’t have a qualified in-house SharePoint team. You will need to look for the assistance of SharePoint developers to get a solution you want. The final system can require professional support, which will increase the cost of the solution ownership.

Option 2. Extending SharePoint with ready-made workflow management solutions

The market offers various solutions that can help you add complex workflows to SharePoint. Nintex, K2, Bamboo Solutions, HarePoint are just a few vendors that provide different tools and extensions for SharePoint to diversify its native workflow management capabilities and make it closer to a BPM solution.

Pros. You can save time and effort needed for SharePoint customization.

Cons. You will have to invest in third-party solutions and their support. Moreover, additional customization of these tools might be required.

Option 3. Couple SharePoint with specialized BPM solutions

Finally, you can always pair SharePoint with a specialized BPM solution. In this scenario, SharePoint will still serve as your content repository, while the BPM system will handle your business processes.

Pros. This option suits companies that use SharePoint actively but look for comprehensive BPM and don’t want to customize their SharePoint deployment for these purposes.

Cons. The project will include investment in a BPM solution as well as integration effort and cost.

Estimate SharePoint BPM capabilities rationally

As you can see, SharePoint can handle a variety of daily processes with only one approval workflow enabled. Other OOTB SharePoint workflows can cover even more business activities. However, don’t equate uncustomized SharePoint to a specialized BPM solution, as it was never considered to be such. So if you need to manage complex business processes, you are welcome to either customize your SharePoint solution or go for dedicated software.

Do you want to adapt SharePoint to your unique business context? Our developers will tune the platform in line with your specific requirements.