Thanks to Jessica Meats, Microsoft UK Partner Technology Advisor, for this fortnight’s TechNet Flash feature article. You can find out more about Jessica and what she gets up to on her TechNet blog.

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Microsoft SharePoint: Inside and Out

Whichever industry you’re in, you have processes to deal with. Some processes are similar regardless of industry; claiming expenses follows similar patterns even if there are variations from company to company. Other processes vary by industry or region. Some are unique to an individual organisation. A lot of these processes involve people outside of the organisation. An obvious example is the retail industry, where purchases start with a customer but then get processed by staff. There are examples for virtually all industries where someone outside of the business plays a part in a business process.

SharePoint is a great platform for handling business processes. You have SharePoint Designer for those simple, linear workflow and Visual Studio which can handle processes as complex as they come. SharePoint allows you to bring together document management, collaboration, BI, and task management in a single unified platform, with links to other systems in your organisation, so that your processes can flow smoothly into the operation of your business. If you’re running a SharePoint intranet, you can make use of the workflow capabilities to help speed up your internal business processes.

But what about those processes that have external factors? What about those situations where a process is kicked off by a form on a website?

There are all sorts of ways that this can be handled, with information being pulled into SharePoint via the Business Connectivity Services, or communicated via web services, or using technology such as BizTalk.

But wouldn’t it be so much simpler if everything was on the same foundation?

SharePoint is generally thought of as being a product for building intranets. People often forget that it can be used to produce rich websites. If you build your internal portals and external sites on the same, SharePoint platform, then suddenly it becomes much simpler to have your processes flow from external to internal people. If you’ve already invested in building up the skills to automate your internal processes, then those same skills can be applied to these external processes.

A basic example of this might be a process around requesting contact. In this scenario, the organisation has a SharePoint farm with (at least) two site collections. One site collection forms the intranet, with collaboration spaces, mysites and portal pages. The other site collection is the company’s internet site. On this site is a simple form for requesting contact, designed in InfoPath with data validation to ensure it is correctly filled out. When the user clicks on the submit button, the form updates a list in the internal site collection. A workflow automatically activates, adding a task to an appropriate member of staff, after performing some logic to determine who would be the best placed to respond. That staff member then has the details from the form in a SharePoint task list. When the task is completed, the list is updated by the workflow to remove this item. Throughout the whole process, a business intelligence portal uses the SharePoint lists as data sources to surface information about the number of contact request, speed with which they’re dealt and even which staff members respond most promptly. By having both sides build on the same platform, information can flow from website to intranet, meaning processes that can be completed quickly and are easy to maintain.

Through the whole procedure, you can make use of those features of SharePoint which make automating business processes so much simpler: rich web forms from InfoPath, workflow visualisation in Visio, data connections through BCS, as well as seamless integration to the wealth of other capabilities SharePoint provides.

If you want to know more about building workflows, both inside and outside the firewall, then there is reference reading, examples and planning guidance available in the TechNet libraries. You can also visit the SharePoint TechCentre for the latest information and comparisons of SharePoint products.

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