The CRM 2013 Quick Start is a first look at Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2013 and all the new features that have been included. In the CRM 2013 Quick Start you will find details that can help … Get the book
In case you missed the announcement last week, Microsoft has acquired Adxstudio. This is simply wonderful news for anyone working with Microsoft Dynamics CRM, for a number of reasons. First of all, the Adxstudio Portals product brings in a critical piece of functionality that has so far been missing from Microsoft’s own portfolio, which is surfacing the information and processes of CRM to external parties via integrated web portals. Second, the amount of knowledge and real-life experience that will be brought into the Dynamics CRM product team on topics like solution management, ALM practices and in general the life of an ISV partner in the Dynamics ecosystem is bound to make Microsoft’s product offering even better in the future.
The third point, and the main topic of this blog post, is that in my eyes this acquistion validates one very important aspect when it comes to Dynamics CRM as a business application platform: XRM is alive and kicking. In order to understand why I think that way & why it makes a big difference to the Dynamics CRM ecosystem, we need to look back a bit and understand what’s been happening on the acquisitions front during the past few years.
Let’s Go Shopping
It is not that uncommon for enterprise software vendors to grow their solution portfolio by acquiring companies rather than organically developing new products and features. This timeline from a few years ago demonstrated how Oracle and Salesforce were buying companies related to Social CRM technology. (Funnily enough, the company who posted the timeline was first acquired by ExactTarget, which then got sold to Salesforce within 1 year from that post.) Microsoft hasn’t been quite as active in this shopping spree as some of its competitors, but they do seem to have picked up the pace during the past few years.
Are acquisitions a smart way to spend cash then? Back in the days when Microsoft bought Yammer, the price of $1.2 billion was questioned by many. Three years later the valuation of Slack, which you could call “the Yammer of 2015″, is set at $2.8 billion. Once you get to the “three commas” level, the traditional laws of physics no longer apply, meaning it’s not about technology underneath the product or anything else tangible that sets the price tag for a company. So, instead of handing out investment tips to the big boys in the “,,,” club, let’s discuss a more down to earth aspect of software company acquisitions: integrating the new technology with the old.
In these days of cloud based services with open API’s, it’s really not that difficult to develop a bit of code that will allow you add a bullet into your marketing materials, claiming “X now integrates with Z”! Heck, with services like Zapier or IFTTT, even a code illiterate geek like me could take two applications from the consumer or business space and make them talk with one another, just by setting up the business logic via point & click configuration in a browser window. If I’d want to push tweets with a negative sentiment into Dynamics CRM as support tickets, all I really need is to watch a video from Azuqua, sign up for their subscription service and click my way through the process shown below.
In the marketing speak, any software integration will always described as “seamless”. The reality of what you can actually achieve via the integration (if anything) may not become apparent until it is validated in a real-life use case that takes into consideration the variations in configuration & data contents found in live systems, executing an end-to-end business process rather than a simple data exchange between two IT systems. In practice, a cloud application vendor that promises to integrate with 20 different CRM platforms is unlikely to understand very much at all about the built-in logic of each target system, nor the specific use cases in which organizations wish to leverage such integrated features.
Integrating pieces of software together isn’t a very unique task. After all, that’s the origin behind the term “systems integrator” that’s sometimes used when referring to consulting companies that deploy enterprise IT systems like CRM software and stitch it together with other systems. Integrating actual products, on the other hand, is a much more challenging task than just integrating software. Not only do you need to deliver a solution that adapts to the needs of many customers instead of one, but you also must be able to align the capabilities of all the related products in your portfolio in such a way that makes sense to the customers and end users. Avoiding redundancy and overlap while still smoothly transitioning the old & new users towards the new, truly seamless experience that delivers on the promises made regarding the integration – yeah, I can imagine that being a bit of a product management challenge for sure.
Microsoft’s Acquisition & Integration Track Record
The list of acquisitions Microsoft has made in the recent years that involved product functionality related to Dynamics CRM includes the following notable examples:
- Skype (2011) – At $8.5B, this was the biggest MSFT acquisition to date and the Skype brand has since then replaced Lync as the telephony/messaging brand for consumers and businesses alike.
- Yammer (2012) – Another big one. The whole social revolution in information work meant MSFT needed to make both their products as well as product development processes more like that startup & viral model of Yammer and less like that traditional enterprise software world of Office & co.
- MarketingPilot (2012) – Although not primarily a marketing automation solution for digital channels originally, the MP acquisition was transformed into Microsoft Dynamics Marketing (MDM) to attract the CMO’s with an technology budget that would soon pass that of the CIO.
- Netbreeze (2013) – While Yammer targeted the internal social collaboration scenarios in organizations, monitoring the public social media channels needed a separate channel. Enter Netbreeze with it’s initial Microsoft Social Listening brand and the later reincarnation as Social Engagement (MSE).
- Parature (2014) – Along with marketing resources targeted to social channels at a growing pace, the customer service work also moved away from call centers into online support portals and customer reps communicating via services like Facebook. Parature was the answer to meeting the market demand on this front.
For each of these products it was easy to come up with numerous scenarios in which the organizations using Dynamics CRM could benefit from embedding this new technology into being a part of the sales, marketing and service processes managed via CRM, linked directly into the account & contact records, thus promising to deliver that a true 360 view of the customer relationship. Of course the mere change of ownership for the IPR behind these acquired technologies didn’t yet change anything in the physical world that would make such scenarios become reality. How would these new pieces of the puzzle in practice be fitted together with the existing big picture was the important question to ask. Would 1 and 1 be 2+, or closer to “one point something”?
At the time of acquisition, there were some existing integrations to Dynamics CRM available for Yammer and Parature. If we take the former as an example, then there was obvious overlap between Yammer and CRM’s own Activity Feeds feature that was introduced to the platform on the year before. While Yammer of course has far more end user functionality available in its own application, on the Dynamics CRM side there’s actually quite a lot less that we can do with these type of social posts in the business process context than with the native Activity Feeds feature of CRM. Since the posts are now split into two different feeds (Yammer and “System Posts”) inside two different databases with two different security models and several different client application UI’s, it’s not so obvious that this new integrated world is a better fit for all Dynamics CRM customer organizations. (For a discussion on the future of Yammer & CRM, check out this blog post from Gustaf Westerlund.)
Looking at a larger integration effort, Microsoft took the foundation of MarketingPilot and rebuilt much of it to create Dynamics Marketing, but they still decided to keep it as a separate application that can be used with or without Dynamics CRM. So, what does this mean for CRM customers then? Looking at the surface, the main application navigation is identical between MDM and CRM, but the form and view controls presented to the end user have different logic in each application. The system administrator cannot perform similar UI and data model customization on MDM than what the CRM platform provides. Microsoft offers a connector service hosted on Azure that synchronizes data between CRM and MDM databases, but the scope is limited to a set of predefined record types. As an end result, while you get a wealth of marketing resource management functionality via MDM, there will be limitations on how you can integrate the solution to act as part of you specific business processes and data model configured into Dynamics CRM.
Doing It The XRM Way
If as an independent application architect it was clear to you from day one that the product you’ve set out to build should work in the most seamless way for Dynamics CRM customers, you probably wouldn’t first develop a separate application and then start thinking about how to connect it with the CRM database. In such a scenario your architecture design would most likely start from the core of the customer data and business processes that CRM is typically used for managing, as you would want to ensure that your solution is well aligned with the installed base of Dynamics CRM organizations out there. Next you would take a look at what functionality the XRM platform offers that could be leveraged as the building blocks of your own solution, to avoid time spent on developing the “plumbing” already available in each CRM deployment where your application would operate. Only after this would you go and build the external services needed in delivering your application’s functionality, by connecting to other systems, presenting data in non-CRM user interfaces where needed, enforcing licensing policies for your product etc.
The XRM way of developing products has clear benefits not only to the solution provider but most importantly to the organization using the product. The user identities and access rights have a single administration point, the user experience is likely more familiar to your CRM users, you have no application interfaces to configure or manage and the data will (mostly) sit inside the same database as your existing customer account and contact information. Most importantly, from a functional perspective, you can keep on building your business specific processes and reporting for the XRM applications in the same way as you would customize your Dynamics CRM application. If you’re seriously investing in CRM as your business process hub, doesn’t that all sound quite tempting?
Also Microsoft appears to have understood the temptation behind such a model, since the Dynamics related acquisitions it has made during this year for the most part have XRM written all over them:
- Mojo Surveys: Design surveys inside CRM, by modeling the questionnaires as CRM entities and tracking the detailed response data back to the customer records. Will be include in CRM 2016 release as a Survey Designer / “Voice of The Customer” feature. Pure XRM ISV solution from Fusion Software, who still continue to work on similar non-MS products like CRM SalesFlow.
- FieldOne: Field service solution that started out in 2001 with a bit more classic approach for their “Terra” product, then bet the farm on XRM and rewrote it as “Sky”. Built on top of Dynamics CRM and also leverages other leading ISV solutions like Resco for mobility and Scribe for integration. Oh, and coincidentally, Adxstudio for their service portals.
- FantasySalesTeam: The only non-XRM product on this acquisition list. Well, I guess it doesn’t hurt MS to have some apps in their portfolio that integrate with Oracle Sales Cloud and the likes…
- Adxstudio: If there ever was a prime example of an XRM application, it would have to be Adxstudio Portals. Their solution was already included as a part of CRM 2011 SDK to replace the earlier Portal Accelerator, and now the circle is complete. With up to 128 custom entities, Adx hasn’t been afraid to use Dynamics as a true XRM platform, all the while offering the critical missing piece that would connect the internal facing business applications with the customer facing websites.
Depending on what’s the position of your application in relation to CRM, it’s of course not mandatory for it to be fully baked into the XRM platform for it to deliver great value to end users. Also, if Microsoft were to just keep on buying more and more ISV solutions into their product portfolio and assimilating them all into one big CRM suite, there’s a potential risk of ending up with a SAP-esque enterprise monolith that’s no longer serving the needs of the customers (by the way, for anyone interested on some insights on the current state of the “SAP nation”, I recommend reading the book by the same name).
Still, I for one am much more optimistic about the recent XRM based acquisitions when it comes to the expected time to value for customers and partners, as there shouldn’t be a pressing need for MS to rearchitect these solutions to try and integrate them with the existing Dynamics CRM product offering. From our perspective, they’ve been done right from the start. In a couple of years time I think we should reflect back on these different acquisitions made, to see if XRM truly got its revenge or not.
Those who have worked with Dynamics CRM for a longer period of time will remember how the user experience delivered by the platform has evolved over time: from an Office style, data entry focused, Internet Explorer popup window application into the clean and modern Dynamics CRM 2015 application that works on any device and aims to present the maximum amount of relevant information to the user with the minimum amount of clicks. There was a time when CRM didn’t exactly seem like something that was designed with the needs of the end user in mind, but this direction changed quite drastically from the CRM Online December 2012 Service Update onwards, as Microsoft started to redesign the experiences they wanted to deliver for the users of their business applications in the new era where mobile, social and cloud were quickly becoming the most dominating forces in the world of enterprise software. Not forgetting the consumerization of IT, which had shown people that not every app used in a work context needed to look like a 90’s ERP system.
I have covered this transition in quite a bit of detail in my four part article series titled “Dynamics CRM Platform Evolution”, which I’d recommend you to read through for understanding the practical impact of moving from the “first era” of MS CRM v1-v5 onto the current era of largely CRM Online focused rapid product iterations. One of the points I raised in the article was that not all the CRM software providers in the market had chosen to follow a similar path of introducing a big bang revolution to their application. Unlike Microsoft, Salesforce.com had instead opted for an evolutionary path that had seen their application UI remain almost unchanged for the main components and layout, as depicted in the image below.
While being wildly successful in becoming the “next CRM application” after the 90’s generation of Siebel style, on-premises enterprise CRM suites had began to slide out of the limelight, Salesforce also began to receive a growing amount of criticism over the legacy that its user interface had accumulated over its history. The question of “Why doesn’t Salesforce upgrade the UI/UX of its core CRM web app?” did seem more and more valid, especially when competing products like Dynamics CRM were transforming the user experience that one could expect from a customer relationship management application. Well, finally in late August 2015, Salesforce announced that their next era of CRM UX would arrive in the form of the new Salesforce Lightning UI.
Welcome to the Future of CRM, Salesforce!
First of all, congratulations to the product team behind the Lightning UI on the launch! Pulling off a major redesign like this is bound to be a massive task and I’m sure in many ways the work has only begun now, but it’s still definitely an achievement worth celebrating. As many of you may have noticed, in my day job I work exclusively with Microsoft Dynamics CRM, so whatever I write here about a competing CRM solution is not going to be 100% objective. For that I apologize, but the point of my post isn’t to bash Salesforce but rather to analyze some of the trends in CRM software in general and also reflect back a bit on what has taken place in the world of Dynamics CRM during the past few years.
But first, I need to just get something out of the way. Damn how these two apps look alike! Here’s the brand new opportunity form on Salesforce Lightning UI, a.k.a. Opportunity Workspace:
…And here’s how the opportunity form on Dynamics CRM has looked like pretty much since the 2013 version:
Notice any resemblance? Let me help you out a bit by listing the first five things that come to my mind from the Salesforce screenshot:
- Sales Path for visualizing the sales process stages and related fields, known as Business Process Flow in Dynamics CRM
- Tabs for switching between related activities and social posts, known as the Social Pane in Dynamics CRM
- Composer for adding new tasks, phone calls and events to the opportunity, which simply is an inline activity quick create form in Dynamics CRM
- Related information on Contact Roles, essentially the Stakeholders editable grid in Dynamics CRM
- Persistent four header fields at the top of the form, ditto for Dynamics CRM
Yeah, of course these both are applications for managing your typical sales opportunity information with activities and contacts, so its understandable that the concepts used in the default screens would be unlikely to radically differ from one another. Still, contrasting Lighting UI with the traditional Salesforce UI and looking at how close to the now familiar Dynamics CRM form layout, UI controls and especially the Business Process Flow feature the Salesforce product team has ended up with their design is, well… Quite remarkable in my opinion. Not a bad choice by any means, and also serves in validating the direction that Microsoft’s team took when overhauling their application’s UI a couple of years ago.
Aside from the similarity to Dynamics CRM, there are plenty of nice looking designs and features included in the Salesforce Winter ’16 release notes. Some of them are about filling the functional gaps to Dynamics CRM (list view charts known from CRM 2011 make an appearance here), others are borrowing concepts from the more recent CRM apps out there (Kanban style opportunity board used in Pipedrive, Pipeliner et al., as well as SalesFlow for Dynamics CRM), but many of the release items seem to be focused on fine tuning the application usability and removing unnecessary friction from common tasks that sales people need to perform on a daily basis. Rather than just slapping on a new field layout and updating the icons, it does seem like the user experience of Salesforce will change quite dramatically with Lightning. Of course the true UX can only be evaluated once a live version of the application is available for testing how it truly feels like to use the app, but at this point it looks like a major step forward.
The Price of Revolution
Introducing a new application user experience to new users who don’t have prior experience of the product will always be far easier than forcing it upon the existing user base. While few people would say that they don’t want a nice & easy UI, the reality is that resistance to change is always a factor when dealing with human beings. When it comes to business software especially, disruptive changes are at the very bottom of the want list for the majority of people who are responsible for ensuring that information systems deployed for managing the core business processes of their organization keep on churning out the expected results. What’s going to happen when a CRM system jumps from evolutionary releases to revolutionary changes instead?
The one important thing to keep in mind is that changes like this never take place overnight. Migrating over all the functionality that vast application platforms like Salesforce of Dynamics CRM have accumulated over time isn’t something you can get away with a single big bang release. With Microsoft there was a preview version of the new UX introduced with the Online only Polaris release, launched almost one year ahead of the actual major release of CRM 2013 (v6.0). Initially only five core entities were updated to the new “refreshed” forms, and even today the latest v7.1 still contains lots and lots of entities and menus that follow the old Ribbon based user experience. So, three years later the work isn’t even done for the Dynamics CRM product team in renewing the platform, which means that the end users and system customizers need to cope with a somewhat mixed application environment. The platform legacy becomes most apparent with the new mobile client applications that don’t support the old product architecture, resulting in features like marketing lists or connections not being available on the modern client versions. Sure, life is much, much better with the new UX, but it has also introduced some new complexities into the product.
In the case of Salesforce, the story sounds to be somewhat similar, as not every area of their platform will be Lightning enabled right from the start. The Service Cloud will not yet be updated, nor will features like forecasting, orders or person accounts. In moments like these it’s always interesting to see how companies prioritize their development efforts, as they are likely to indicate either the observed level of usage for certain features of their products, or alternatively possible future plans to scrap something old and rebuild it from the ground up. If you’re working as a consultant that advises customers on what features they should take into use or invest in developing for their CRM systems, the messages conveyed by the application vendors via the frequency of updates to certain functional areas of their products are signals you’ll most certainly take into consideration when deciding on what strategy to recommend to your client base.
With 150k customers and millions of users, it’s going to take a while before Salesforce will have safely moved each and every one into the Lightning world. In fact, based on the statement by Sara Varni, senior VP of marketing for SFDC Sales Cloud, this milestone may never even be reached, since Salesforce will support the classic experience “indefinitely”. In the oldskool settings of on-premises servers, the way this could have been handled would be for the customers just sticking to an older version of the software and not deploying any updates. When you’re the grandaddy of SaaS platforms, things are obviously a bit different and supporting older versions will require more than just accepting support tickets for ancients releases of your software. With CRM Online, Microsoft has previously been pretty strict on getting every customer to move on to the latest version via the CDU (Customer Driven Update) program, but lately they’ve also changed their update policy to allow skipping the bi-annual releases and updating only once per year. As SaaS products become a more mature market, I bet we’ll be seeing a growing number of options for customers to choose which versions to use, which features to activate and when to schedule these changes to take place.
The way Salesforce chose to build their next generation UI is different from the path that Microsoft took. While Dynamics CRM 2013 introduced both the new web client experience as well as the “MoCA” tablet client application as separate experiences (followed by the refreshed mobile app in CRM 2015 Update 1), Salesforce decided to first build the Lightning framework for their Salesforce1 mobile app and then scale it out to the PC screens. As a result, the screenshots that we see in the Winter ’16 release notes look very much like a mobile app placed onto the screen of an iMac. While you could in theory also use the Dynamics CRM for Tablets app on a Windows 8/10 laptop, the users will certainly almost always end up choosing the Dynamics CRM web client designed for interaction with mouse & keyboard rather than touch optimized “Metro” experience.
I think this will be one of the most interesting design choices to keep an eye on when it comes to user reactions to the new Salesforce Lightning UI. Regardless of all the recent Universal Apps hype that Microsoft has been building up alongside the Windows 10 release, I’m personally not quite convinced yet that you can deliver a great UX with a single app that needs to scale from 5″ touch screens to 27″ desktop monitors. As a result, I’m also not a big proponent of the “configure once, deploy everywhere” slogan used in reference to the Dynamics CRM mobile apps, since I’d rather see CRM applications truly optimized for the device and use case in question. However, if Salesforce can pull this off with Lightning, then perhaps Microsoft has been right all along with their OS strategy and the application teams should now move faster towards unifying the client side of things.
Applification of Platforms?
When it comes to products like Dynamics CRM or Salesforce, one of the key reasons why they are being so widely deployed across enterprises today is the ability to customize them to align with the business processes specific to the customer organization. They are not only replacing legacy CRM suites but also capturing an ever larger share of the market that used to belong to custom developed business software, since using a customizable application platform delivered from the public cloud can really drive down the TCO quite significantly. But if the CRM applications are now reaching towards an even more polished user experience in performing common tasks with sales, marketing and service records, what will happen to supporting the business specific scenarios that are more unique than what pre-built application features can cover?
When Microsoft launched the Dynamics CRM 2013 version with the refreshed UI, they didn’t only add more features into the already crammed product, but rather they took away some configuration options that had been previously expected from the platform. As the saying goes about the goal of design work, “perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” That may very well be true when designing a product to serve a specific set of tasks, but it may not resonate so well with a toolkit used for crafting these end products. Limiting the options shown to an end users is different from limiting the options available to the designer of the final solution that the user will be exposed to.
How do such limitations show up in everyday life with the latest Dynamics CRM version? Today we have inline quick create forms for effortlessly adding activities for records, but we can no longer choose if we want to record a future phone call activity instead of a completed one. We can use an editable grid for adding line items into opportunities, quotes and orders, but we can’t configure these grids to contain those fields that the business logic would require to be recorded onto these line items. The price of added convenience for some is therefore resulting in the reduced usefulness to others. Looking at the Salesforce Winter ’16 release, it’s apparent that also here the polished UX will be come at the cost of reduced options. For example, there will be a brand new, great looking Home screen offered for sales users, but the components shown in it cannot be customized at this time.
Is there an inherent conflict between the needs of the application end user and the platform customizer? I don’t believe this is necessarily the case, but it is obvious that there are trade offs in building something that works great and building something configurable when it comes to the allocation of development resources for these software products. As the release cycles get faster and faster, the pressure for getting a new feature out there can mean there’s no time to perfect the first version into something that will meet the needs of all user groups and align with the rest of the platform functionality. The real question is, will the features be made more customizable in the subsequent releases, or will the requirements be pushed down in the backlog when the demand for more new features arises?
When discussing the user experience of applications that are not commodity services like email but highly business specific process management tools (at least when properly deployed), it’s very important to understand what the final UX really consists of. It’s not only about having the slickest UI controls for working with the data, the flashiest graphics for visualizing the sales pipeline or most creative layouts for presenting different data sources on one screen. At the end of the day, the users need to feel like they can easily accomplish the tasks they are responsible for, with the help of the application – not despite of it. Understanding what exactly those tasks are and what pieces of information are relevant to the process of their completion is something that requires careful analysis conducted at the organization deploying a new CRM solution. Failure to do this will quickly wash away any value that the software features could have potentially delivered to the organization.
As today’s CRM platforms become more and more sophisticated with the functionality and data presentation options available, the design work of those who configure the customer specific solutions also needs to be aligned with the increasing expectation levels for application usability. It’s still not rocket science, but it does require a greater attention to detail than the earlier, more primitive business applications where the UI was essentially a reflection of the data model. I’ve illustrated some of these design aspects in my 10 Tips for Designing A Great User Experience presentation, which hopefully can give an idea of how the system customizers can do their part in building CRM systems that the business users will find great value in – a Useful Experience, if you will.
There’s been a lot going on in the world of Microsoft Dynamics during the past few months. As the summer vacation period is now here for many of us (hopefully), this feels like a good moment to reflect back a bit, discuss how the world has turned and share some thoughts on what I think it potentially means for people working with Dynamics CRM. The topics I’ll explore in this post are:
- Practical impact of the cloud for Dynamics CRM customers
- Dynamics as a business for Microsoft
- The intersection of CRM and Azure
- The platform aspects in the Dynamics CRM product
CRM at The Speed of Cloud
For a long time Microsoft had to work hard in convincing customers that their CRM Online cloud offering was functionally on par with the on-premises version, instead of it being a “Lite Edition”. After all, how could a public cloud service ever offer the same level of customer specific customization as the application bits sitting on your very own server’s hard drive? “The power of choice” as a unique selling point for the Dynamics CRM platform has certainly played a central role in reducing the perceived risk of choosing Microsoft over some other cloud-only vendors or traditional enterprise software rooted heavily in the isolated server environments. While this still remains an advantage, it’s less strategic these days when the cloud is the clear default in the minds of most customers.
During the past couple of years MS has been applying a policy where many of the new CRM features become available first in the cloud. Not only does this make logistic sense for MS as they can control the application delivery more tightly and reduce the time it takes to get a feature from design to deployment stage. It also caters for the kind of audience that is likely to be more receptive to application updates in general, meaning the organizations who have already made their leap to the cloud – or who have never known any other way. This crowd won’t get so easily paralyzed with changes that affect how their tools work and they’re also more likely to adopt new services and features. This in turn helps Microsoft gather user feedback much faster, collect telemetry data from application usage, author case studies highlighting the business benefits from latest product releases, and so on.
Now, since the cloud has become the default deployment option, it does still mean that not everyone who’s “up there” will want to immediately deploy the latest version once it becomes available. Luckily Microsoft has made some great improvements on how CRM Online customers can manage their environments, effectively building the capabilities for the next generation “power of choice”. For starters, the latest update policy now states that “in Spring of 2015, customers will have the choice to take the two updates as they become available, or take only one update per year.” Thanks to the features available for non-production (sandbox) instance management it’s also easy for customers to create copies of the CRM Online production org and test the upgrades as many times as needed before go-live. What used to be a scary leap of faith into a cloud platform where MS decides what happens to your precious CRM is changing more and more into the “on demand” type of service that you’d expect from the cloud, also in the deployment administration side of things.
The latest CRM Online 2015 Update 1 (a.k.a. Spring ’15 Release, codename “Carina”, version 7.1) has made it very clear how the cloud accelerates also interoperability between different applications. Being an Online only release, v7.1 has allowed MS to introduce a great number of new features that don’t live purely within Dynamics CRM but rather Office 365. OneNote integration leverages the SharePoint Online server-side sync, similarly as Folder-based Email Tracking relies on Exchange Online sync. The new CRM App for Outlook is also delivered via Exchange Online into OWA and Outlook 2013. The ability to open views in Excel Online for editing right inside the browser window and submit back the changes is naturally all thanks to Office Online. The brand new Office 365 Groups collaboration feature is, you guessed it, all orchestrated by the O365 platform. So, even though there are many important enhancements in CRM v7.1 application itself, this release really does highlight the fact that if you’re using CRM Online but not taking advantage of other Office 365 applications yet, then… Well, perhaps you should consider if your strategy with productivity tools is giving the best return on your investment.
Another thing that has also become more apparent is that it’s not just a single batch of CRM application bits that gets delivered in a release. The dependencies to related systems have meant that some of the new features announced for Spring ’15 have rolled out only after the CRM v7.1 application and DB updates became available. Certain features like the CRM App for Outlook or the new CRM for Phones still aren’t available, even though we’re in CY15 (calendar year) H2 already. As the cloud service starts to consist of a growing number of separate components and each product has rapid release cadence instead of a 3 year plan, we’re bound to see more of a continuous stream of updated functionality instead of big bang launches.
MS Business Applications Reorganized
This leads us conveniently to the hot topics related to the organization around Microsoft Dynamics. As many of you must have noticed, Satya Nadella announced a major reorganization of MSFT leadership team in mid-June. For the Dynamics folks, here’s a quote of the most relevant part of the press release:
“Executive Vice President Scott Guthrie will continue to lead the Cloud and Enterprise (C+E) team focused on building the intelligent cloud platform that powers any application on any device. The C+E team will also focus on building high-value infrastructure and business services that are key to managing business processes, especially in the areas of data and analytics, security and management, and development tools. As a part of this announcement, the company will move the Dynamics development teams to the C+E team, enabling the company to accelerate ERP and CRM work and bring it into the mainstream C+E engineering and innovation efforts.”
In short, MBS is no more and its leader Kirill Tatarinov will “explore what’s next for him”. Microsoft Business Solutions unit was always a bit of an island at MS when observed from the outside, and I’m sure people inside will have run into plenty of invisible walls that haven’t exactly helped in delivering the very finest business applications that seamlessly connect with everything else Microsoft builds. Now the engineering, sales and marketing functions for Dynamics CRM and ERP products will be consolidated into the broader MS organization, with Scott Guthrie (C+E leader), Kevin Turner (COO) and Chris Capossela (CMO) taking care of the Dynamics business. There’s an excellent piece written on the reorg from Dynamics perspective by Frank Scavo, which I encourage you to read for further details: Microsoft Unbundles Its Dynamics Business Unit.
Throughout the history of Microsoft’s ERP and CRM product lines, there’s pretty much always been speculation about whether MS would spin off the MBS business if the right amount of money was offered for it. Being an island of its own certainly helped in envisioning how such a transaction could take place, since the bidder would have gotten not just a piece of source code but the whole organization and partner network around the products. When you put your Dynamics CRM glasses on (hey, even I don’t wear them all the time!) such idea never seemed like a very happy path for neither MS nor the potential buyer. There’s hardly any other product in the MS portfolio that pulls in such a broad range of the Microsoft technology stack when deployed for a customer organization, so trying to untangle it from these roots would be potentially disastrous for the product, in addition to causing MS to lose far more revenue than direct CRM license sales. I can’t speculate much about the Dynamics ERP products due to lack of hands-on experience in deploying them, but spinning off Dynamics CRM after the most recent move seems even less likely than it was to begin with.
Then again, we should keep in mind that just a while ago Nadella was seriously considering to acquire its nr. 1 competitor, Salesforce, if we are to believe the reports about the $55 billion offer made. If the results of these talks would have been different, we might have been now talking about Microsoft with not just 1 CRM and 4 ERP products but with two huge CRM platforms in its pocket. Not to mention all the underlying infrastructure and technology with which Salesforce competes with Azure, the world’s largest developer conference Dreamforce etc. This would have surely been a very different “State of Dynamics” post in that alternate reality. So, it’s good for us to keep in mind that at the end of the day it’s really just business, not software, and strange things can happen when the big boys are competing with one another.
The Dynamics of Azure
Back to the present day, what we now know for sure to be the near term agenda for Microsoft is to move the Dynamics CRM and ERP engineering teams to the Cloud + Enterprise group. So, what do they actually build there in C+E? Well, obviously anything to do with Azure, for starters. Then there’s the server & tools side of things, like SQL Server and Visual Studio. Power BI and BizTalk must also be familiar names for anyone who’s worked in Dynamics CRM projects. What doesn’t fall under C+E is all things Office, meaning products like SharePoint, Exchange, Skype, OneDrive and other productivity tools commonly found from Office 365 subscriptions – and naturally used alongside Dynamics CRM. So why is Dynamics being grouped together with the platform tech and not the productivity apps?
C+E is actually the group that Nadella used to run before being appointed as MSFT CEO. In case you’ve forgotten, Nadella was also leading MBS up until spring 2007 (at which point Kirill Tatarinov was appointed as his successor). For old times sake, here’s a snippet from his farewell post on the “Frontiers of Business Applications” blog:
“We made tremendous progress with Dynamics ERP, CRM and Office Small Business product lines. Six years ago we were not a player in biz apps… the acquisitions in ERP got us to leadership position in mid market and now we are contender in Enterprise. CRM has helped us grow the fastest server product line in Microsoft’s history and now poised to offer “choice” of LIVE service.”
I think it’s safe to say that Nadella understand a fair bit about not just the Dynamics of Microsoft’s CRM & ERP but also the general market dynamics behind how organizations today are deploying, extending and integrating their business applications. If we look at all the shiny new things that C+E has been launching into their cloud back-end portfolio, like Azure App Services or the Azure IoT (Internet of Things) Suite, then it’s not so difficult to envision that technology like this will also need front-end services for organizations to adopt them as part of their core business processes. If these processes happen to be managed with Dynamics applications today, then hey, perhaps Microsoft could do something on this front to speed up the adoption, right? Reading this blog post from C+E Chief Strategist James Staten sure seems to indicate that Redmond is well aware of the business opportunity.
How soon will we see concrete evidence from Scott Guthrie and his team that being part of the C+E organization means Dynamics “C&E” (as in CRM & ERP) customers will gain new some next generation capabilities into their own business applications? Knowing the current release cadence with MS products, I hope this reorg would have already started to show up as new priorities being reflected in the backlogs of various product teams in C+E. The thing is, we don’t even need any brand new product features for Dynamics specifically, but we sure could use some higher visibility for Dynamics as the go-to solution for demonstrating how the MS cloud stack can be put into use in practical terms.
For example, the Power BI story has been unraveling far too slowly for any Dynamics CRM Online customer that would have been interested in leveraging MS products for some cloud based data analytics. Commercial offerings like the Sales Productivity license promotion have been bundling these products for a long time, yet there’s been very little you’ve actually been able to do with the two together, due to lack of support for CRM Online as an automatically refreshable data source. Another example could be Azure Logic Apps, which were announced back in March, but as of today Dynamics CRM or ERP connectors are still unavailable for anyone wanting to configure these workflows to connect with their cloud business applications. Fine, you can support Salesforce and other partner solutions at launch time by all means, but punishing customers for choosing Microsoft is something I hope the new C+E family will put an end to.
Platforms and Products
Back in the early days of XRM a.k.a. “Any Relationship Management” the concept of having Dynamics CRM serve as the foundation on top of which organizations could build their own relational business applications and potentially replace legacy LoB systems sounded perfectly valid. The XRM idea was conceived in the on-premises days, though, where the business owners couldn’t just go and subscribe to a cloud app of their choice to solve their problem with a bit of shadow IT. Sure, they could have also requested an XRM org to be customized for this purpose, but 99% of them probably weren’t familiar with the concept. Oh well. The capability is nevertheless there in the platform that all Dynamics CRM applications run on today, and MS even hinted at more emphasis being put onto the XRM toolkit during Convergence 2015 presentations.
These days when we think of business application platforms, the image in our minds isn’t probably limited to just a relational database with a few entities and forms for data entry. Thanks to the aforementioned explosion of cloud apps and our many mobile devices, the modern platform concept is, in my humble opinion, a network of connected services that allow you to get your job done, no matter where you are or in which particular app you are. So, rather than looking at how the business application itself is implemented on a technical level (as an XRM solution package deployed to your company’s CRM Online org, for example), in practice more important questions are how does it relate to the other apps the business is using, how it communicates with the outside world and how it fits with the workflow of the end-to-end business process? When observed from this perspective, some might argue that Office 365 with its growing collection of integrated apps is actually more of a business application platform than CRM is.
Do I see CRM turning into just another icon in the O365 app launcher then – becoming a packaged, ready-to-use product like OneNote or Sway? No, and I think the new organization structure at Microsoft also highlights the fundamental difference between such products. Sure, MS is investing more and more resources in making Dynamics CRM more easily approachable as a “mainstream” product, by creating sites like the new Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online Onboarding Success Center (for comparison, check out the Office 365 Onboarding Center). We’ll surely see increasing effort put into lowering the entry barrier for especially SMB customers as MS tries to become less reliant on their Dynamics partner network to acquire and retain customers for CRM. The way I see it, turning Dynamics CRM into a packaged application that you can just sign up for and start using for common tasks that businesses tend to perform with their customer and sales data sounds both like a low hanging fruit and mission impossible at the same time. Sure, in terms of application features Dynamics CRM is ready to cater for a whole variety of different types of guests, but just like people do not prefer dining with a Swiss knife, I think there will remain the need for experts to plan the correct eating utensils for the meals, present them on the table and if needed, instruct how to operate them in the most elegant manner. Anyway, making the whole process of attending this grand CRM dinner more straightforward and educating the guests on what they can expect to find on the menu will surely benefit all the parties, so hopefully this type of mainstreaming will be done for Dynamics CRM.
If we accept the fact that Dynamics CRM is still very much a platform in itself (although delivered under the broader O365 platform), then we must also acknowledge that the platform part doesn’t means just building customer specific XRM deployments. Strategically an even more important factor for Microsoft is the number of partners that develop solutions for connecting Dynamics CRM with their services and apps. Although there are a number of established ISV’s operating in the Dynamics ecosystem that offer the kind of add-ons and integrations that are essential ingredients in today’s CRM implementations, I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to the amount of apps available for Dynamics CRM customers to buy, we’re nowhere near the level that could have been expected back in 2011 when the current solution framework and the Dynamics Marketplace were introduced. It’s also far too common to see vendors develop a v.1 app and then not invest sufficiently in maintaining it as the CRM platform evolves (at an ever growing speed, thanks to the cloud era).
Broadening Microsoft’s own offering to marketing automation, social channels, customer service and other recent additions in the Dynamics product family has surely helped in improving the credibility of Dynamics CRM as an enterprise level player (that has a distinct Enterprise licensing tier now, compared to many years of “all you can eat” pricing model). We’ve also seen announcements from the Dynamics team about partnerships formed with established players like Adobe and Lithium, with the promise of more announcements to follow in the near future. I’m sure these are all beneficial moves for Microsoft in their broader strategy for CRM, validated by evidence like the CRM Watchlist 2015 Elite award from Paul Greenberg (a.k.a. Mr. CRM himself) where he’s confident in stating that “Microsoft gets ecosystems”. This just isn’t quite enough, in my humble opinion, if MS isn’t able to attract and grow the kinds of ISVs that will help the Dynamics CRM customers to connect with the latest services that the “cool kids” out there are using, or affordably bridge the smaller functional gaps that aren’t strategic for MS in terms of the Dynamics CRM product roadmap. As Greenberg also states in his Watchlist results analysis:
“Microsoft has to be much more cognizant, consistent and proactive about seeing their Dynamics product portfolio as an end to end platform – which will make them competitive in the 21st century.”
This is the area where I place my biggest expectations from the new MS organization structure to make some visible changes. If we observe what Scott Guthrie and the numerous product teams under Cloud + Enterprise have managed to do to Microsoft’s image in the eyes of the broader developer community in the past couple of years, by open-sourcing their work as well as embracing existing standards rather than inventing their own, then that’s certainly the kind of whole new appeal and earned good will the Dynamics ecosystem could use, too. Making Dynamics CRM more accessible for new vendors to connect with and build their IP on, while at the same time increasing its financial attractiveness by better driving customers to explore the add-on market offering is the kind of virtuous cycle that a thriving business application platform truly needs. If the new “mainstream” position of Dynamics in MS’s portfolio means that the CRM & ERP products would be considered as the de facto tools for solving the business agility challenges that MS talks about when pitching its Azure technologies, this would also help a lot in solidifying Dynamics as the premier platform to build your business processes on.