SharePoint for Business Automation: From Simple to Complex
Business Process Automation involves the conversion of manual, paper-based processes to an electronic system that removes most of their inherent lag times, variability and human errors. Most people already understand the benefits of automation, but they may not know what types of processes can be automated – or how to automate them.
In many cases, businesses can achieve a great deal of automation with the software they’re already using. This is where SharePoint and Office 365 come into play. In this blog, we’ll begin by discussing some of the simpler automation processes and progress to more complex solutions.
Surveys and Data Collection
We’re often asked to collect information from colleagues, team members and vendors, and that information may range from lunch orders to preferred meeting times. Collection is always a hassle. With manual and paper-based processes, someone’s got to type the survey, print multiple copies and drop them off on everyone’s desks. They also have to keep a written list of responders, so they know who has yet to reply. Email has improved this process, but manual data collection still requires a manual tally.
Fortunately, survey data can easily be captured and stored in a single SharePoint list. SharePoint and Office 365 also allow for automatic sorting, filtering and email notifications. Depending on the number of people involved and complexity of your survey, you might be able to accomplish this traditionally time-consuming task in under an hour.
Enterprises often struggle to collect time-based information from their employees. This type of data is the lifeblood of a company, yet it’s often managed manually with Excel spreadsheets or even on paper. To make this process easier and more reliable, SharePoint includes datasheet capabilities in every list. You can build custom forms to collect specific content from employees’ timesheets – when they clock in or log in, how long they work, when they leave and more. To ensure timely submission, SharePoint’s Workflows function can also remind employees that their timesheets are soon to be due.
The automation of time tracking process ranges from simple to extremely complex, depending upon the types of data you need to collect and the rules governing the relevant business processes. The more requirements you can list for your automated process, the better the resulting solution will be.
Specialized Document Tracking
Document approval is one of the most commonly automated business processes. Instead of sending emails with attachments to several parties – and then nagging them to reply – you can click a button and let SharePoint handle it all for you.
Once you’ve completed your document and need feedback or approval, you simply select the appropriate Workflow from the document library in SharePoint. That Workflow will have been pre-programmed to send the right types of documents, email instructions and links to the appropriate personnel. Those personnel are then reminded of their tasks at regular intervals until they’re completed. Changes, notes and updates are kept in one location for review, and all revisions and versions are consolidated into a clean, easy-to-edit presentation.
Given their focus on documents, forms and data collection, human resources departments are often the heaviest SharePoint users. Their multi-step, multifaceted projects can also be more complex than the simpler tasks other departments need to perform.
One example is employee onboarding, a process that typically requires the hiring manager, HR personnel and potential new hire to fill out several forms. These forms also need to be completed during several stages of the hiring and onboarding processes, and they all require multiple parties to be notified when their tasks need completion.
SharePoint really shines here because it allows non-technical owners – the HR department – to view document statuses, review submitted materials and learn which tasks have yet to be completed. With the right manipulation of permissions and access, all of this information can be made available to other interested stakeholders, as well. By the end of the onboarding process, HR has a history of all the information collected from specific personnel, as well as when it was received through SharePoint – not email.
Getting a little more complex still, project management tends to involve several layers of requirements based on company or PM policies. As with other complex tasks, it’s important to stop and think about those requirements before you beginning automating the process. Just like building a house, it’s much easier to make changes in the blueprint stage than when you’ve already begun construction. In most cases, back-to-front thinking is best. Determine which data you’ll need to report on each day, week, month, quarter and year, and then plan how you’re going to collect, calculate and aggregate that data once the process has been automated. Every company and every solution is different, but the following list of considerations will guide the process of project management automation:
- Project initiation: Resources, budgeting, vision alignment and kickoff.
- Information search and storage: Creating suitable locations and search functions for pertinent data.
- Accessibility: What parties inside and outside of your organization can view specific types of data?
- Planning: How can you use traditional project management tools to connect to a widely accessible location for updates and information?
- Communication: What alternatives to email will work for communicating and storing information about projects, problems, event calendars and tasks?
- Budgeting: Providing ongoing access to financial personnel.
- Closeout and Archive: Storing complete project data in an accessible, read-only location
SharePoint will streamline all of the aforementioned processes, but they can also be managed with a combination of Excel, Word, email and Microsoft Project – applications which simply produce content. Portfolio management, on the other hand, is a major undertaking which requires process, usability and reporting and really showcases the extensive capabilities of SharePoint and Office 365.
Even so, portfolio management doesn’t necessarily require you or an outside consultant to write new code. It’s really all about the metadata and management that surface from your projects. If your projects are your trees, so to speak, the portfolio is your forest. If you can’t see the forest through the trees, you’ll run into problems. This applies to tentative projects, as well, which may include internal initiatives and external tasks for your customers. Overall, some governing set of rules and information has to sit above all of your projects to provide the business intelligence and data to make good decisions.
Of course, good decisions require accurate, pertinent information. Automated portfolio management probably won’t automate these decisions, but it will help you to gather and present that information in a clear, non-subjective manner. For example, automatically identifying the availability of necessary resources allows you to determine the viability, timeframe and cost of certain projects. Automation may also help to compare individual projects to your organization’s overall objectives, possibly with the application of a weighted value. Higher value projects would then receive priority in the form of earlier start dates and greater resource allocation.
All in all, SharePoint and its associated platforms can help you collect and sift through a variety of details before you make critical business decisions. In fact, the availability and clean presentation of those details may lead you to think harder about each of those decisions. Major projects often require significant assessments and stakeholder interviews to get right, but careful planning yields the best results.
SharePoint is a powerful tool for business process automation, but it takes an experienced team to fully leverage its capabilities. To implement faster, more efficient professes in your enterprise, consider our Professional SharePoint Consulting and Development services.
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