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Watch out: the Citizen Developers are coming! They are armed with easy to approach GUI tools like Flow, PowerApps and PowerBI, and they aren’t afraid to connect to any of the 160+ cloud apps that you may or may not know your organization is using to solve everyday business problems that the traditional IT projects have failed to serve.
This is the common story you hear when Microsoft talks about this new generation Business Platform and how it powers the hottest of the hot buzzwords: digital transformation. While it certainly represents a big shift in the capability to deliver new business apps, there is at least an equally significant impact these tools can have to the more centralized efforts of building organization wide solutions for managing business processes and data – meaning CRM system deployment and development. With this in mind, I set out to explore the current state of Microsoft Flow in regards to how it can be used together with Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement. The results of this study and some of my personal thoughts on how Flow changes the way we deliver CRM projects can be found in the following presentation:
Microsoft Flow and Dynamics 365 – Jukka Niiranen at CRM Saturday Oslo, 2017-08-26 from Jukka Niiranen
In these slides you’ll find information about topics such as:
- How does Flow relate to other MS technologies like Common Data Service (CDS)
- What traditional CRM process automation scenarios could Flow be leveraged in
- Is the new Dynamics 365 V9 capability of embedded Flows the replacement to now deprecated Dialogs
- Why Dynamics workflows are still easier to work with than Flows
- What licensing and administration considerations do you need to keep in mind with Flow
- Microsoft Flow vs. Azure Logic Apps, what should you use where
The actual presentation took place last weekend in Oslo, Norway, where I was invited to speak at the CRM Saturday event. It was the first such event that I had the opportunity to participate in and found it to an awesome experience! I had a great time meeting both the local Dynamics 365 community members as well as spending time with the very knowledgeable speakers and fellow MVPs. A big thanks to Microsoft Norway for graciously hosting us and to the community hero Marius Agur Pedersen for making the event possible in the first place!
If you aren’t yet familiar with the CRM Saturday concept, I suggest you go check it out and keep an eye for future events where Dynamics 365 community members can get together and exchange ideas on how to make the world a better place for CRM professionals and customers alike. Do also keep an eye on the #CRMSaturday hashtag on Twitter for the latest buzz around the events and information shared from the presentations. At least Mohamed Mostafa and Jonas Rapp have also made their sessions’ slide decks available and I’m sure there’s plenty of other blog posts out there that have been inspired by these events.
The next major release of Microsoft Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement, the July 2017 Update, has been called “the biggest release to date” by the product team. If you look at the number of features that a single release now touches, with the product offering being further divided into Enterprise Edition and Business Edition, the number of work streams sure is massive. It’s amazing to think how much wider the scope of Dynamics 365 is today compared to “just” five years ago when it was still Dynamics CRM and the primary target seemed to be making the traditional sales-service-marketing CRM package to work with modern browsers (non-IE), devices (mobile) and infrastructure (cloud). Here’s the roadmap presented in WPC 2012:
Times change and even the Worldwide Partner Conference has evolved into Microsoft Inspire now – which I think is far too close to Microsoft Ignite as a name, since I’ve found myself mixing #MSInspire with #MSIgnite all the time. Anyway, this annual MS partner conference launched on July 10th with a keynote led by Satya Nadella. The recording of this is naturally already available, but you could also check out my Storify collection of the most interesting tweets from the event:
One of the announcements that didn’t get much space on the big stage but certainly has big potential implications for the Dynamics ecosystem was the announcement of a new ISV Cloud Embed program for partners. With a reference to their earlier success with offering Azure IaaS and PaaS services as the foundation for ISV applications, Microsoft now states that it will offer also higher level services available as building blocks for ISV apps. The list shown below includes “Dynamics 365 Embedded”.
Yes, it shows a number of other embeddable products too, like PowerApps and Flow, but c’mon – those are newcomers to the Microsoft product portfolio. Dynamics as in CRM and later Customer Engagement has been around for a decade and a half now! One does not simply rip the CRM roots out of the platform (assuming that it even is the CRM part and not AX/NAV) and then use the remaining parts as a building block for an ISV app. Except that it might just be happening soon.
This is not a brand new concept of course. Since I have a tendency of documenting the platform evolution of Dynamics CRM/XRM/365/CE/etc. onto my blog posts, all I have to do is search and reference my earlier writings these days. Back in 2010 when Office 365 was launched, I posted the first reference to the concept of “Dynamics CRM Services”. This is turned out to be pure slideware in the end, as the early illustrations of what the high level Azure services architecture was planned to be never quite materialized in that format. Read this post from Simon Hutson for a great overview of the buzz and confusion around CRM Services.
The statement in 2008 was:
“In the future, developers will have access to SharePoint & CRM functionality for collaboration and building stronger customer relationships. With the flexibility to use familiar developer tools like Visual Studio, developers will be able to rapidly build applications that utilize SharePoint and CRM capabilities as developer services for their own applications. Developers can expect a breadth of SharePoint & CRM capabilities across the spectrum of on-premises, online & the Azure Services Platform.”
With this week’s statement on Dynamics 365 Embedded, could the “future” referenced in the original text actually arrive ten years later? We don’t know for sure yet, but there are a lot of signs pointing towards that direction. If you followed the V9 Preview Executive Briefing or skimmed through my collected tweets from it, then you might already be aware of the concept of App/Plat Separation that’s taking place right this very moment. The earlier built-in application functionality of sales, marketing and services that you always got preinstalled with a CRM instance are now being moved into solutions like the newer Field Service etc. already are. Not only that, but also the built-in ASPX controls for data presentation components like grids and dialogs are now being rewritten with the new Custom Control Framework.
And what about Azure? Well, it’s everywhere you look now with the new features built for Dynamics 365. Then there’s also… something that will become more clear as the GA of V9 approaches. With all of this technical architecture being lined up for the next generation XRM, it looks like the only thing missing really is a commercial model for selling Dynamics 365 without the CRM. Now that we have the ISV Cloud Embed program announced at Inspire 2017, I would say the time has come to give the people what they want:
That Twitter poll ain’t open anymore, but please feel free to place your bets in the comments section of this post! What might the Embedded future of Dynamics 365 be and what still needs to happen in your opinion?
On June 20th Microsoft started taking the cover off its next major release of Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement (formerly known as CRM): v9.0. The biggest announcements in the first day of the Dynamics 365 Preview Executive Briefing were around the client story. With the new Unified Interface (sometimes also referred to as “UCI” for Unified Client Interface/Infrastructure) the plan is to bring a single client technology to cover all the different UI’s across devices. Web, Outlook, Mobile, Tablet.
This is very exciting news, but there’s a lot of details and footnotes that people in the Dynamics ecosystem need to be aware of. Let’s dive right in!
The Client Fragmentation of Dynamics CRM
Most of you will have probably been around when the previous big UX refresh took place with CRM 2013. We then received the MoCA Framework based tablet app with Windows 8 style tile UI and later saw this framework being used in many other places. We even received a brand new client to be used on the (desktop) web, the Interactive Service Hub (ISH). In fact, one year ago it almost looked like MoCA would be eating the world:
The only problem with this strategy seemed to be that all of these individual parts never formed a sensible whole. Instead, there were so many “seams” visible everywhere you looked in the Dynamics CRM client landscape that many times you just wanted to keep your focus on the traditional web client and wait for things to clear up in these newer areas of the platform. A few examples:
- Knowledge Articles were introduced only on ISH, but at the same time ISH was too limited/buggy to be used in most of the existing customer service scenarios with customizations in place.
- Visual Controls were introduced in the phone and tablet, but the main web app forms just kept getting more and more white with nothing but text fields.
- Dashboards with filters were made available on ISH, but much of the entities (i.e. sales) that typically are analyzed with dashboards were not allowed on the ISH side.
MoCA was born for the mobile first era of touch UI and understandably it didn’t have all of the traditional capabilities from the web client. However, there were plenty of gaps that didn’t make it ideal for mobile use either. One of the biggest issues I had with MoCA was the “configure once, deploy everywhere” principle, which tried to force the same full CRM configuration onto the mobile device screens. MoCA brought the CRM into your pocket, but most of the time what a user would need in their pocket is a simplified app focused on a limited set of tasks. The limitations with MoCA meant that Microsoft had to rely on a Resco based client for their Field Service app in which the use cases are primarily mobile only.
This Time It’s Different
The promise of Unified Interface is that the era of web vs. mobile is over and now we’ll see a UI that’ll both adapt to the device or screen in use, as well as offer the same customization options in each of them. Content will be presented in a way that will reflow into different states of the control as the space available to it changes.
Unlike with MoCA, this time there can be multiple different apps also accessed on a mobile device. Also web-only features like form switching are now available on all devices which makes it far less challenging for the system customizer to design a solution when all the exceptions and limitations of specific client types are (in theory) no longer in the way. It’s important to set the expectations on a realistic level, though, since I’m quite sure we’ll need to make some more compromises on the web side of the house with this new Unified Interface, but hopefully it’ll be a price worth paying for true mobility of Dynamics 365 business apps.
For an even more customized experience, the Custom Control Framework that has been gradually introduced as part of the application (like the Editable Grid, for example) is going to introduce a design surface for developers to extend Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement apps in exciting new ways. Not only that, the existing ASPX based UI controls that have been in the core CRM application since forever are now also being transformed into Custom Controls. This is a part of the larger application/platform separation initiative that’s a whole topic of its own. On a high level, the developers should soon have access to basically the same tools for building new UI controls as what Microsoft is using to build their business apps.
All of this should help in removing many of the gaps that have currently stopped the rolling out of the individual application features in earlier releases for real life business scenarios. There are plenty of promises that MS is making on performance improvements of this new client technology, too. That’s an important aspect to keep in mind and realistically evaluate as the Unified Interface becomes available, since all of the eye candy in the world won’t be of much value if the actual user experience of working with the application isn’t meeting the ever growing expectations of fluid interaction with the data stored in and managed via Dynamics 365.
Are We There Yet?
So, all of this looks great – now can we have it by tomorrow, please? The short answer is “no” and the expanded one is “it depends”. As mentioned in my earlier blog post, much of the new features in Dynamics 365 will now be rolled out via Private Previews and Preview programs before general availability. Hopping on to the preview train will shorten the time it takes for gaining hands on experience with the new UI. However, there’s more to it.
Earlier I mentioned the previous UI refresh of CRM 2013 release (“Orion”), but some of you might still remember the intermediate release of “Polaris” (whereas the official name December 2012 Service Update isn’t something even I remembered anymore). That was perhaps the first Online-only release that Microsoft developed, with a target of not even trying to upgrade all of the application features into the new UI concept but instead just a selected few entities (“COLAC”) received the refreshed forms and Business Process Flow. You could build a simple CRM demo for a new customer with it, but trying to upgrade existing systems into Polaris or building anything with more customization requirements was a no-no. They had to wait until the full CRM 2013 release became available.
The reason I’m bringing up this is that initially the Unified Interface is likely to be a bit like Polaris. It’s going to be made available only to brand new instances with the Business Edition licensing, or for new Apps that are either built by Microsoft (Customer Service Hub, a.k.a. ISH v2) or by the customer. It will also be available on the Phone and Tablet apps as well as in the lightweight Dynamics 365 App for Outlook (which officially replaces Outlook Client that’s now deprecated). Everywhere else, though, it’s not going to be the time for Unified Interface yet, but instead a refresh of the web client that’ll look something like this:
Starting to get confused? I don’t blame you! There’s a hint of irony in the fact that the “Unified” Interface will initially be yet another interface variation for the Dynamics 365 application. I’m sure it’s not the way Microsoft would prefer to have these things introduced but reality is usually a bit more messy than PowerPoint presentations. The new client technology simply represents such a major shift in how Dynamics 365 works that upgrading all the complex customizations of existing Enterprise customers into it in one go would not be a smart move. Remember that “everyone’s an enterprise customer” until the Business Edition finally is out the door.
To truly understand the client strategy that Microsoft is pursuing, you simply have to look at the Business Edition now, regardless of your deployment’s size. It is the dreamy wonderland in which MS can cut back on unnecessary complexity of application features and not worry about breaking any existing deployments, since there is hardly any legacy there. A fresh start that doesn’t need to carry all of the overlapping functionality (like Contracts vs. Entitlements) or provide all the admin options necessary for hybrid environments. It’s not all pure bliss in the sense that all of this will eventually have to live in harmony with the more complex custom UI’s and business logic of big corporations with “non-simplified” CRM systems running on the Dynamics platform. Still, right now we’re seeing a move from “cloud first” to “Business Edition first” when it comes to client innovation.
Just because the Business Edition is targeting the lower end of the product licensing fees doesn’t mean you should dismiss the functionality that is being introduced in it. If the Sales app mainly streamlines many of the unnecessary complexities of current opportunity management in Dynamics 365 Enterprise, then the Marketing app will bring advanced logic like Customer Journey management that many existing larger customers would surely love to get their hands on. Unified Interface is the big story here that’s driving the release policy. I suspect that it’s the primary reason why the new XRM based Marketing app is only available for Business Edition customers initially, since features like integration with Customer Insights based segmentation and scoring mechanisms are not a feature anyone would build solely with the SMB segment in mind.
It will all make sense in the end (hopefully), but in the near future both the customers as well as Microsoft will have some work ahead of them before the new promised land of Unification is reached. This is of course not all that different from what other business application platforms with a long market presence must go through every once in a while. Some may claim that Microsoft is following the Salesforce Lightning UI concept here with their Unified Interface and the similarities are surely there to be found. In fact, what I wrote about this the last time when Salesforce was following Microsoft’s lead is still pretty relevant when it comes to user experience evolution, so why not revisit that blog post for some perspective: The Irresistible Force of Great User Experience in CRM Applications.