Microsoft Flow a replacement for Designer Workflows
In this article, we will go over understanding, pros and cons as well as flow fundamentals of Microsoft Flow.
Microsoft announced the release of Flow - a new productivity app specific to SharePoint Online - that allows users to create cross application workflows. Since Microsoft introduced the Workflow Manager in SharePoint 2013, there has not been any additional enhancements to their workflow engine. It would make sense to assume that Flow is the replacement for SharePoint Workflows.
Specifically, for approval process, we have to use Flow for simple approvals, or approvals that involve multiple sites or external services. Use SPD for more complicated processes and customization options for approvals that involve a single site.
To understand if Microsoft Flow could be a replacement to SharePoint Designer, we will look into the pros and cons of Microsoft Flow and how it stacks up as compared to SharePoint Designer.
1. Why should you use Microsoft Flow?
- Microsoft Flow is a cloud-based software tool that allows employees to create and automate workflows across multiple applications and services without having to reach out to a developer for help. As stated by Microsoft, flow is known as the predecessor to SharePoint Designer, as stated.
- So why the change? Flow is specific to SharePoint Online and allows users to create cross application action-reaction scenarios. It is connector based which makes it integration friendly and works well with APIs. Customers can easily adopt, deploy and scale with Flow as compared to Designer.
- One additional theory for the change is that Microsoft want to reduce the number of customizations that existed in SharePoint. The amount of support that those customizations require was not going to be sustainable for the long-term and Flow is the way to avoid that moving forward.
2. When to use Microsoft Flow
- There’s a mobile app
- Get push notifications
- Approve or reject without leaving the app
- SPD doesn’t easily allow multiple-site or multiple-site collection workflows/approvals
- Flow does it with ease
- Involve multiple services like Twitter, Dropbox, Wunderlist, Google Docs, etc. in your approval process
Anyone can create their own Flows – it’s very individual-based:
- SPD workflows have to be built by someone with proper permissions
3. When to Use SharePoint Designer
Stages and Loops (2013)
• If rejected, go to a previous stage based on conditions to try again.
• Loops are more reliable.
Customize the approval form (2010 & 2013)
• Change “Approved” to “Acknowledged” or “Agree”.
• Add more than two options, like “return to sender with comment”.
Customize the message
• Flow’s message notification of an approval task is very restricted. You can only put one URL and a brief description. Of course, in approvals, that link would go to the important content/topic/request.
Delays and timer jobs tend to be more reliable
• Flow can time out or fail if asked to wait very long or do a loop until.
SPD is focused on the organization, where Flow is built more for individuals
• If a SPD workflow creator leaves, others still have access to the workflow. In Flow, you can export Flows and have someone else import it but there’s no ability yet to do a clean transfer of ownership when someone leaves an organization. Best to use a service account with Flow.
• Assign tasks to multiple people in a certain order (A approves before B) but within the same step. Flow will require multiple separate approval steps to do serial approvals.
• SPD makes it super easy to send overdue reminders and to utilize due dates.
4. The Pros Of Microsoft Flow
• The user friendly design makes creating business processes simple to create. Users can choose triggers from a pre-populated dropdown and create workflows quickly and easily. The simple design means the process of building out an entire workflow moves much faster.
• SharePoint Designer was designed to work within SharePoint on-prem and was limited to that space, Flow sits across the Microsoft cloud platform and is automatically connected to a wide array of outside cloud solutions (i.e. Twitter, Yammer, Slack, Facebook, Excel, MailChimp, Microsoft Translator, Salesforce, etc.). Users can build automated processes that cross technology boundaries that held them back in the past.
• As compared to the set of predefined templates offered in SharePoint Designer, Flow not only offers more out-of-the-box options, it also allows users to create their own custom templates that can be shared with the community.
Automating Social Media
• Social Media is a wonderful way for businesses to interact directly with customers. Not only can we get immediate feedback, but we can also respond instantly and start building a deeper relationship. In order to do this effectively, however, processes need to be put into place for managing this new communication channel. With Microsoft Flow, that stream can be fully automated, which your customers get the attention they need and you can scale accordingly.
For example, someone tags our business in a tweet on Twitter. Rather than having to assign a resource to monitor and respond manually, we can build a workflow to automatically start following that person, send them a thank you response, add them to a spreadsheet tracking activity and then enter them into the database.
Use of Conditions
• Flow still uses conditions and actions in the setup process, however, the options used in formulating those conditions have been reduced from what is available in SharePoint Designer. Instead of an “And/Or” logic appearing when multiple conditions are involved, Flow requires an action to be defined between conditions. This can be subverted by creating in Advanced Mode, however, that requires learning a new syntax and it also does not allow the user to revert out of Advanced Mode.
Microsoft flow helps even non-developers works smarter by automating workflows across apps and services, for example:
• Get Notification
o Every time a new file added to SharePoint you will get an email notification.
• Copy Files
o Suppose you uploaded one file in one drive then set up a flow so that the file will be copied to SharePoint & will be used by your team.
• Collect Data
o Set a flow to collect tweets /feedbacks.
• Automate Approvals
o Set up a flow to approve vacations by manager request.
• Microsoft Flow is connected to more than 200 connectors & it uses custom connectors to connect to any custom REST endpoint. Connect to on-premises data using gateways.
• It provides a graphical user interface to build workflows.
5. The Cons of Microsoft Flow
• Since it is a newer product, performing sophisticated actions in your business processes can be difficult. As time goes by, it can be expected that functionality will improve, but in this early phase, limitations are to be expected.
• A popular feature of SharePoint Designer was the ability to start a secondary flow based off an action of your primary flow. This means that every variation and exception within your logic process will need to be included in one main workflow. That unnecessarily increases the complexity of building out workflows.
• Flow still uses conditions and actions in the setup process, however the options used in formulating those conditions have been reduced from what is available in SharePoint Designer. Instead of an “And/Or” logic appearing when multiple conditions are involved, Flow requires an action to be defined between conditions. This can be subverted by creating in Advanced Mode, however that requires learning a new syntax and it also does not allow the user to revert out of Advanced Mode.
• When you create a flow with a lot of switch/case or parallel conditions, the graphical representation becomes quite wide (zooming in/out with your browser can help), and it becomes cumbersome to move horizontally between portions of the flows, also the browser doesn’t always get it right when to display the scroll bar.
• There is no way to copy paste, both within a flow, nor between flows, however can do a “save as” and continue working on a copy.
Lack of Guidance
• There is a lack of help or guidance when entering an expression, the documentation on this topic is rather basic, so you end up doing a mixture of searching on the web (check the links section) and some trial and error attempts.
Single Field Updating
• When updating an item in a list it is forced to provide all data for required fields, there is no action to update a single field.
No Item Level Permission
• Flow doesn’t yet modify item-level permissions, as you can in SharePoint Designer 2010 workflows. You can’t call an HTTPS Web Service or perform impersonation steps with Flow, either.
• As we initially used the “Create” trigger, at some point we needed to change it into the “Create and update” trigger. In SPD 2013 we can simply check or uncheck the different startup options (manual, on create, on update). A current limitation of MS Flow is it can’t easily change a trigger. As soon as we are using data from the trigger in flow, the trigger is implicitly attached to the flow and it can’t be removed and replaced.
• MS Flow has no “go to” or “go back” so need to capture the “on update” event as well. So, in the case of a resubmit, the request gets updated by the flow and a this triggers a new execution of the flow on the request.
• Capturing a larger scope of events (both creates AND updates) has an impact on the quota of runs allowed in your MS Flow plan. Till now, the free plan of Flow that comes with O365 enterprise licenses allows up to 750 runs per user or 2000 per tenant. Also there is currently no way to detect the number of runs in the free plan (other than by noticing when a run fails, or by downloading the run history)
• SharePoint workflows are enterprise-focused solutions while Microsoft Flow is targeted towards the individual. SharePoint workflows are associated with SharePoint lists and libraries or to the site itself. SharePoint workflows are targeted to perform actions on objects within the SharePoint environment for all users accessing the system.
6. Flow Fundamentals Triggers
Triggers can be defined as a component which starts the workflow. It can be a manual trigger or automatic trigger. In the automatic trigger, the flow will start automatically from within another application whereas manual trigger is initiated by the user.
An action is like copying a file, sending an email, creating a task in a planner, starting an approval, updating an item which occurs as a result of the workflow.
A condition is something like “IF” statement. If this happens – do this, if that happens – do something else. For example, if the user approves an item or a document – send an email with approval, if a user rejects – send an email with rejection.
Microsoft will still support SharePoint Designer until 2026 at least, so it’s not going away any time soon. SharePoint Designer workflow is only confined to SharePoint while Microsoft Flow has the ability to interface with other applications.
There are endless benefits that come with migrating to a completely online environment (Flow). One of those benefits is the ability to seamlessly update and integrate with new products as they are developed.
Flow is not necessarily a "replacement" for SharePoint Designer, it is more of an "evolution". Microsoft Flow is the evolution of business process management allowing to build elegant solutions which have the ability to orchestrate data across the various line of business applications leveraging “clicks” and not code.
If you need additional assistance with Microsoft Flow or just want to learn more about SharePoint, contact us by filling out the form below.