One of Microsoft SharePoint's most important features is its ability to manage workflows. Workflows automate the movement of documents through a series of tasks related to a business process, thereby improving the efficiency and productivity of that process. SharePoint offers several generic workflows out of the box to help businesses get started using workflows, but often they don't meet the specific needs of a business. Microsoft provides a couple of options for developing custom workflow solutions: Users with little or no coding experience can use Office SharePoint Designer 2007, and experienced programmers can use Visual Studio to create code-driven workflows. There are also some third-party vendors that provide workflow capabilities for SharePoint. I recently talked with Mike Fitzmaurice, Vice President of Products and Technology for Nintex about what's going on in the world of workflow.

Nintex started as a consulting company focused on Microsoft Exchange and Outlook. When SharePoint first came on the scene, the company moved into that arena as well, helping customers not just to deploy SharePoint, but to start using it to solve actual business problems. The company noticed that certain customer pain points seemed to be repeating over and over again, so to address them, it developed a product called Smart Library, which enhanced document libraries to give them some workflow, recycle bin, and audit capabilities. The 2007 versions of SharePoint provided those capabilities, but Nintex wanted to enhance those workflow capabilities and make them available to everyone. Nintex Workflow 2007 was born out of the Smart Library effort.

"Nintex brings the workflow development experience closer to the user, as opposed to being fixated on the developer," said Fitzmaurice. "Our motto over the past couple of years has been 'workflows for everyone.'"  Workflow 2007 lets any business user design and deploy workflows to automate business processes--with no coding involved.

At the bottom end of the workflow continuum, the wizard-based approach that SharePoint Designer takes will be sufficient. At the top end of spectrum, Visual Studio, K2 BlackPearl, or a similar product is necessary. Nintex Workflows 2007 is built on the same declarative workflow platform that SharePoint Designer uses, but it provides a visual design environment and exposes more of the feature set offered by the Windows Workflow Foundation. Therefore, when SharePoint Designer might not offer enough functionality, or Visual Studio will be too complex, Nintex Workflows 2007 might be the best fit.

According to Fitzmaurice, a user-centric product in the middle of the workflow continuum will be able to handle the lion's share of the workflow activity. "It's important to get the workflow development finished and be as iterative as possible over a period of time," he said. "If it takes too long to design a workflow, processes are going to change before they finally get deployed. When a user can reuse a business process that has already been though through and approved, creating a workflow is as easy as choosing a template. All they have to do is publish it an away they go."

Another thing to consider is the impact on IT. For busy IT staff, a workflow product that doesn't place a large burden on IT is important. The Nintex solution installs in less than 15 minutes and doesn't require any extra infrastructure to manage. And there's no need to load-balance workflows because you aren't buying two engines; you're simply leveraging the native SharePoint engine.

To learn more, see Nintex Workflow 2007