Round 1: Workflow Conductor vs. Out-of-the-Box SharePoint Workflows

So, you've heard about Workflow Conductor, and you're hoping it can help you automate some processes, but you want to know how it stacks up against Microsoft's workflow offerings in SharePoint? Well, you've come to the right place, because that is exactly what we've put together for you.

This is the first of three articles that will provide you with a quick overview for each of Microsoft's three tiers of workflow solutions, and explains how they each compare to Workflow Conductor. We'll cover SharePoint Designer and Visual Studio workflows in two upcoming articles, but right now, let's get started with Microsoft's most basic SharePoint workflow offering …

Out-of-the-Box SharePoint Workflows

Microsoft includes a handful of workflows with SharePoint depending on the version of SharePoint you are running. If you have WSS 3.0 you get one workflow. If you have MOSS 2007, you get six (or seven if you are in Eastern Asia). Here is a quick list of the OOTB workflows in SharePoint 2007:

  • Three-state Workflow (WSS & MOSS) – Tracks issues of an item with three possible states (ex. "Submitted", "Approved", or "Rejected")
  • Approval Workflow (MOSS) – Asks a list of users to approve or reject a document
  • Collect Feedback Workflow (MOSS) – Asks a list of users to comment on a document
  • Collect Signatures Workflow (MOSS) – Collects digital signatures from a list of users
  • Disposition Approval Workflow (MOSS) – Retains/Expires a document in SharePoint's Record Center
  • Translation Management Workflow (MOSS) – Assists in translation of content
  • Group Approval Workflow (East Asian versions of MOSS only) – Provides specialized group approval for East Asian cultures

I generally think of these workflows as being "one-step". While they each may do multiple things when run (ex. send emails, assign tasks, etc.), they generally perform a single business function, and are not pieces of a larger process (at least not an automated one). Don't get me wrong. This wasn't a mistake. They are simple for a good reason. You can't pre-build complex workflows, since processes differ greatly between (and within) organizations. Building anything more than the simplest function into an OOTB workflow would mean excluding users or forcing them to change their processes (which almost never works). Since most business processes involve multiple steps and more complex logic (ex. if "x", then do "y"), automating effectively means creating custom solutions. That's where Workflow Conductor comes in.

With Workflow Conductor, you can easily automate processes as they currently exist within you organization. They can have multiple steps, branch based off of events, and even grab data dynamically when they are run (ex. approver = workflow initiator's current manager). Since we think some of the OOTB workflows are helpful, we've added similar features in Workflow Conductor, so you can add an "Approval" or a "Feedback" step as part of larger workflow. We've also added other features to these that you can't get out-of-the-box, like different approval types (ex. All approvals, one approval, or "x" approvals are required). 

Also, when workflows are deployed with Workflow Conductor, they are installed as solutions that behave just like the native workflows do, so they can be configured the same way (ex. start workflow when an item is updated). On top of that, Workflow Conductor enhances the management of workflows in SharePoint through custom Web Parts for reporting, centralized workflow management, and several other features new features that get integrated into SharePoint. I'm not going to go into too much detail, since there is so much difference between a one-step workflow and a custom workflow set of tools, but here are the….

High-level advantages of Workflow Conductor over OOTB workflows in SharePoint:

  • Creation of multi-step, custom workflows (that's kind of a big one)
  • Complex branching and pathing within a workflow
  • Dynamic data lookups and references that pull data at run time
  • Request Approval and Request Feedback with additional features and usable in a larger process (MOSS and WSS)
  • Improved workflow reporting and management
  • Lots and lots of additional features (ex. read/update SharePoint data, query external sources such as databases, send email notifications, etc.)

Again, there is nothing wrong with using the built-in workflows if they meet all of your organization's needs, but in most cases, they can only handle one step in a larger process and can't always do the things you need in that step. To get the most benefit out of automating processes with workflows (cost savings, increased efficiency, improved reliability, etc.), you need to look at using custom workflows that can handle your business processes as they exist today. 

I know what you're thinking…

 "What about SharePoint Designer and Visual Studio? Can't I use those to build custom workflows?" 

Excellent questions! I'll be covering both of those products in short order, so stay tuned! While you're waiting, why not go ahead and take a Workflow Conductor for a spin? As always, you can download a free 30-day trial today and see what it has to offer.

Score all three rounds of the bout between Workflow Conductor and Microsoft's workflow offerings in SharePoint: