SharePoint lists as workflow trackers

In March, I went to a presentation at Electronic Resources & Libraries by Trish Tlapak and Gail Stanton from University of Nevada, Reno on “Managing E-Resource Workflows Using SharePoint”.  They use custom lists in SharePoint (not the workflow option) quite effectively. Workflows are more complex to set up; a custom list takes little training to set up so works easily if you already have SharePoint. Since we use SharePoint here, I did a little experimentation to see how we could use the same concept for our workflows. The testing was in part due to the way we have implemented permissions. You need to have web designer permissions to create and modify a list. You need to have contributor permissions in order to be able to edit the items.

This SharePoint list is actually better than using Excel or Google Docs because people can simultaneously have different views of the data (without hiding columns, which will affect everyone).   You can set up check boxes easily in a SharePoint list. In Google Spreadsheets you can use validation to allow only a check or blank, which works, but isn’t as straightforward to set up. You can also set alerts to be updated only when specific fields have altered. You can do this in a Google spreadsheet, but the resulting emails from SharePoint are better. In Google I don’t seem to be able to edit the text so I have a clue what columns were edited and it doesn’t identify the cells that were modified.

The basics of how to create a list follow.

Create a spreadsheet and use it to create a custom list. If you want check boxes, use the values TRUE/FALSE on the spreadsheet.

As with most things in SharePoint, this isn’t intuitive, there are various ways to do things, and there is an element of frustration when initially setting it up.

  • Go to all site content (link in sidebar at the bottom)
  • Click create
  • Select import spreadsheet – create
  • Give it a name
  • Browse to the spreadsheet  & import
  • You now get this irritating popup that I haven’t really figured out (partly because it seemed to respond differently when testing)
    • Change to range of cells & type in range – select the range (if you can get it to work correctly – sometimes it hasn’t worked for me and I’ve needed to type something in like this A$1:$O$980)
    • It may turn the spreadsheet into a table (things will be colored differently) for you. On another occasion, I needed to do this myself and save the excel file with the table format.
  • It can take a bit of time if the spreadsheet is large. It also sometimes seems like I may need to click import again.

From here, you can rearrange and rename columns (go to list settings) and add additional columns. The Choice and Yes/No check boxes are especially useful for this type of list. Be sure to include columns indicating when the work is being passed to the next step. This check box is important because you can then use it to create an alert.

Next, create a view for various steps in the workflow. You probably will want to set it to display as list view (rather than standard view) so that boxes can be checked easily. Another option (which my colleague Bethany figured out) is to use the standard view, include the edit field and allow inline editing (available in the menu when creating/editing), which allows you to click on an icon to easily edit one item while viewing the whole list. You can filter the view so that only items appropriate for a specific step display (e.g. ready for step 2, not yet passed along to step 3). You may also want to sort a view in a specific way or add a count to column so that you can see you many items meet specific criteria. When using the view, you can easily resort or filter columns to add further flexibility.

Each individual can make/modify their own view. However, if multiple people will do a specific step (even as a backup) it can be helpful to have the views available as public views (i.e. made by someone who with designer permissions) . If you have students using the list, you will definitely want to make a view for them.

Each individual can set up alerts for a list.  It worked most consistently for me when I started on the view I was using as the basis for the alert, but you shouldn’t need to do that. You can have multiple alerts for the same list; because you can give them a title you should be able to tell which alert you are receiving.  Depending on your workflow, you may choose an immediate, daily or weekly alert. If you have views that filter results based on specific criteria, you have an option to be alerted specifically when someone changes an item that appears in a specific view. In this way, you can choose to be alert when new items have gotten to your specific step in the workflow.

Bethany has started using a list of this type to track one of our digitization projects and it seems to be working well, so thanks to Trish & Gail for their presentation!


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