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Whenever a new version of Dynamics CRM and now Dynamics 365 (the XRM part) are released, the first thing you should review is the “what’s new” documentation that Microsoft produces for three different audiences: users, admins/customizers and developers. For the “December 2016 update for Dynamics 365” a.k.a version 8.2 of what used to be called CRM, these articles can be found from the following links:
- Dynamics 365 Help & Training: What’s new
- What’s new for administrators and customizers in Microsoft Dynamics 365
- What’s new for developers: Microsoft Dynamics 365
As always, there’s way more goodies in there that a single blog article could ever hope to cover in meaningful level of detail. One area that deserves a mention in terms of the core XRM platform enhancements is the way activities can now be presented in the UI, so let’s focus on those in this here post.
Display the associated activities of the related entities
If you’ve happened to read my ancient CRM 2011 era blog post about how subgrids ain’t what associated views used to be, then the concept of activity rollup may be familiar to you. The way Dynamics CRM has worked up to this point is that for out-of-the-box core entities like Account and Opportunity the activities from under the child entity were presented also under the parent entity’s Associated Activities View. If you created a custom entity under the Account, though, then none of the activities linked to it would show up in the rollup view. A major inconvenience for any XRM scenarios where you then had to instruct the users not to track their activities against any of the child entity records but rather put them all to the Account level.
In v8.2 this limitation has now been addressed by the product team:
“We added a new flag called Rollup View in the customization user interface, on the Relationship Behavior form. It lets customizers indicate that associated activities of the related entity should be included in the Activity Associated View for the primary entity.”
Woo-hoo! Let’s go and try this one out in an example scenario with a custom entity called “Account Plan” that we’ve linked to the standard Account entity via N:1 relationship. Meaning: there can be several Account Plans (per year, for example) for a single Account. Being the “plan” and all, you’d find it pretty natural to track tasks and other upcoming activities against this record, but also would probably prefer to have access to them from under the parent Account of this plan.
When we open up the relationship configuration screen and have a look at the Relationship Behavior section, we find our usual list of actions where cascading behavior can be configured. Down at the bottom there’s a new option: Rollup View. This is where the magic will happen for activity rollup between the two entities.
With the Rollup View behavior set to “Cascade All”, we can now go and do some activity entry on the Account Plan form. Let’s use the Social Pane to add some tasks that are set regarding this particular plan. Normally this would be the only place where we’d see them (aside from the owner’s My Activities view and their task list synced to Outlook, of course), but thanks to our cascading relationship behavior this will no longer be the case. Let’s navigate up in the hierarchy towards the Account record.
Now, in addition to the activities that have been either directly set regarding the Account or one of the built-in roll-u enabled child entities, we also see those activities created from the Account Plan form listed in the Social Pane of the Account record. A tiny step towards the mythical “Customer 360”, but a major improvement nonetheless for ensuring the complete communication history for a particular customer account is easily accessible for the Dynamics 365 end user. In case you were wondering: yes, these child entity activities also roll up the account hierarchy, so a global group’s top account may end up having a BIG list of emails in its Social Pane.
As for another follow-up question related to the article from five years ago: no, the activity subgrid still won’t show any of these “special” relationships. The feature is specific to the Activity Associated View, which is also a “special” thing in the XRM platform, supported by another “special” component called the Social Pane. The implications from this are laid out bare in the feature documentation:
“The primary entity for the relationship must be Account, Contact, or Opportunity. This is because these are the only entity forms in the system where the Activity Associated View appears. You can’t specify any other primary entity for activity rollups.”
So, this is not a generic Holy Grail to presenting activity data in XRM just the way we’d want to, but one big rock rolled in the ditch from that long road at least.
Control how activities are sorted by date
Another new feature in v8.2 that touches upon the same functional area is related to the Social Pane configuration options. Traditionally, these words would not have existed anywhere near each other – aside from the countless feature requests on
MS Connect CRM Ideas forum. Everybody liked the CRM 2013 feature in terms of rich presentation and inline editing capabilities, and simultaneously loathed it for being a completely uncustomizable component placed smack in the middle of most XRM entity forms.
The past couple of months leading to the Microsoft Dynamics 365 commercial launch have been interesting, to say the least. A lot of things happening, but in a way that hasn’t been all too easy to grasp. I’ve started a lot of draft blog articles around the topic yet I haven’t written that much about Dynamics 365 – because I haven’t really known what to say about it. After visiting Redmond last week for the annual MVP Summit and talking to all the awesome Dynamics C… sorry, Business Solutions MVPs, I’ve decided that it’s time to just start putting my thoughts out there. I believe this is the best way to gain more clarity on the topic, rather than trying to come up with the ultimate, complete definition on what Dynamics 365 is and how it will impact different parties.
In Loving Memory of CRM
First, let’s get this thing out of the way: CRM is dead. Yes, believe it or not, but from a Microsoft product marketing perspective this is absolute the truth. There isn’t a single SKU available now after November 1st that would carry the three letter acronym we’ve come to know from the Microsoft business software offering during the past 13 years. I wrote an article on this change in branding and why I think it makes sense, so go and have a look at it if you’re interested in the details: “Why is Microsoft dropping ‘CRM’ from its Dynamics branding?”
Second, Dynamics CRM as a technology is totally alive and kicking. It’s bigger than it’s ever been and about to get even more massive with the road ahead that is Dynamics 365. XRM remains the backbone on top of which most of the new Apps in Dynamics 365 will be built. In fact, it’s the non-XRM products in the portfolio that are being axed, with Dynamics Marketing being replaced by a new XRM based Marketing app for Dynamics 365 Business Edition, and Parature being discontinued as the features mostly already exist in the XRM service. So, the real reason why Dynamics CRM isn’t called “CRM” anymore is because it’s grown so far beyond what the humble beginnings of the product were back in 2003.
Third(ly), all of this means we’ve ended up deep in the enterprise territory. The number of different applications included in the Dynamics “customer engagement” portfolio (which appears to be the unofficial new term for the CRM platform) is now so big that no single individual in the world can claim to be fluent in all those areas. As a result, fully deploying these applications into real life business processes is a task that will require significant investments from the customer organization – even if they are configurable cloud apps rather than custom software. The current offering + the new features are now sold under the Dynamics 365 Enterprise Plan for a good reason and the pricing of the whole package has been increased to reflect the potential value that can be derived from it. The SMB story around Dynamics 365 remains unclear as of now and we’ll need to wait a while before the dust settles. To get an understanding of what’s going on there, I recommend you to subscribe to the writings of one Dynamics 365 Fighter Pilot to keep up with the latest news.
A Bigger Picture
The whole story of Dynamics 365 isn’t just about taking two products, formerly known as Dynamics CRM and Dynamics AX, then offering them as a single subscription service. Yes, that ease of acquiring a full business application platform from Microsoft cloud is already a major step forward and a big competitive advantage. However, CRM + ERP <> 365. Don’t settle for that explanation if a Microsoft partner gives it to you, because there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.
The timing of Dynamics 365 commercial launch coincided with the general availability of two new Microsoft products, PowerApps and Flow. These two cloud services are so intertwined that I don’t actually think they are separate entities, but rather components of a single “thing”. What that thing is exactly is not so easy for even Microsoft to articulate, but I’m expecting the story to evolve quite rapidly on this front. Just recently, the Common Data Model that I covered in a past blog post during its first preview was renamed to Common Data Service, to better reflect the true nature of this piece of the cloud business apps puzzle that Microsoft is putting together.
Since both PowerApps and Flow have been advertised not only as parts of the Dynamics story but also the broader productivity offering of Office, they’ve received far more attention in the blogs than a more recent entrant to the scene: Dynamics 365 for Customer Insights. Also known as “Azure Customer Insights”, or “Cortana Intelligence Customer Insights”, it is something that sits outside of the CRM platform, but when viewed from the perspective of business strategy, is definitely very much about CRM. You see, the purpose of Customer Insights is to deliver on the mythical “customer 360” promise that countless customer relationship management initiatives throughout the past two decades have aimed for – and often missed. It is the analytical CRM, where the traditional systems that some of us have spent their whole professional lives developing and deploying are firmly in the operational CRM territory.
Rise of the Machines
This leads us to the bigger vision that Microsoft has around more intelligent computing. While the existing business applications both in the Office and Dynamics product lines are being developed at a more rapid pace than ever before, they alone don’t reflect what the future of business software will be like. The term “transactional platform” has been used by Microsoft in reference to what XRM as we know it represents. This platform is not going away, rather it is becoming increasingly integrated into the direct interactions with customers via different channels, rather than the oldskool salesforce automation scenarios where a sales rep recorded information manually into the CRM system about these interactions. Alongside this platform, a new pillar is being built: the analytical platform.
“What’s so special about that? We’ve had data warehouses and BI tools integrated into our CRM systems for years and years already.” A fair question to ask, my dear fictional reader voice. Data analysis systems are of course nothing new in the realm of CRM, but they have often focused on reporting on the old world of business data coming from CRM and ERP databases. What’s different this time around is that both the sources of data and the quantity of the actual data, which are growing faster than the traditional BI solutions can cope with. You don’t need a new platform to build an even fancier opportunity pipeline chart from the data your sales reps are entering. You do, however need a whole different approach once you start automating your business processes based on the IoT device data that millions of sensors will be sending in a million times a day.
Although it may not seem like an everyday scenario just yet for most Dynamics customers out there, this is the future that Microsoft is very seriously preparing for. As one data point, the newly established Microsoft AI and Research Group has (or will shortly have) 5000+ computer scientists and engineers working on “democratizing AI”. What this means is that machine learning algorithms will be embedded into each and every service that Microsoft offers, to crunch the data inputs from various sources inside and outside your company, in an attempt to make the applications more intelligent. In Dynamics 365, Relationship Insights are the first taste of what added value Microsoft’s data cloud can provide when the algorithms get to work on the communication network data from both XRM as well as your Exchange Online.
This new form of intelligence will become both a built-in feature of the common business applications as well as a capability that the business application platform allows you to build on top of your customer data, business process data and, increasingly, sensor data. The first examples we’ll see might not be so glorious in practice yet (I’m totally expecting to see some less intelligent recommendations from Dynamics 365 Relationship Assistant), but the machines may well learn faster than many of us would predict. Also, even if your business wouldn’t be manufacturing any smart IoT devices to generate endless streams of data, there’s bound to be other valuable data sources out there that can be connected with your business processes. Microsoft didn’t spend $26B on LinkedIn just to get an excuse to spam you with email every day, so I bet we’re going to see some pretty compelling B2B insights being offered from this treasure trove of professional network data.
Welcome All Species
Back in the days of oldskool CRM things used to be simple: on one specific date a new package of bits would become available, people would find a server to install it on by following the deployment guide steps and… TA-DAA! Here was your business application! People would start entering letters and numbers into the system via their keyboards, to be later viewed by different people sitting in front of their own keyboards. Now we’ve got cloud software we can’t really touch, rolling out into our virtual subscription containers at an unspecified date, containing new functionality that we’ve barely seen for a few seconds in video stream broadcast online. New cloud apps keep popping up like mushrooms and they form a fungus-like network beneath the surface, communicating with one another in ways we can’t easily observe. They gradually find their way into new business processes and, thanks to the evolving AI capabilities, pretty soon start actively altering the behavior of us mere mortals who interact with these apps via any screen, keyboard not required.
The future isn’t scary, but it’s different. There isn’t anything specifically forcing you to work differently than you did a decade ago with your CRM software, thanks to the backward compatibility of core features and the underlying stack of MS technology. If you’re paying attention, though, you’ll see everything around you being gradually replaced with something else, expanded beyond the borders that used to be there just a moment ago. Close your eyes for too long in this environment and when you open the curtains you might be shocked to see that your cozy lil’ cabin has been surrounded by an urban metropolis that grew around you while you were sleeping. That hectic new lifestyle out there is going to take some getting used to.
It’s not a single thing like the Dynamics 365 commercial launch or the deprecation of CRM as a product name that’s responsible for the change. They are simply logical steps on the way towards a much broader set of tools for a universe of use cases that keeps expanding a lot like our physical one – at an increasing rate. Which means that unless you want to remain stuck on Planet CRM, there’s a lot of space exploration ahead for all of us.
The first new component of the upcoming Dynamics 365 platform that has reached a stage of public preview is the Microsoft Common Data Model (CDM). Available via PowerApps, CDM can be provisioned in your Office 365 tenant with only a few clicks, so there’s little reason for not having a look an early look at it. In fact, you only need to sit back and relax while watching CRM MVP Scott Durow walk you through a first look at the Common Data Model:
So, there you have it! That’s what CDM looks like when accessed via the PowerApps web management UI. Any questions?
Yeah, I actually do have a couple.
How will this work with CRM and AX?
What we have available in the preview is pretty much the most straightforward part of the very big puzzle to put together, meaning a database on Azure with some preconfigured tables and data model management tools. We do not yet know much about how the Dynamics CRM and Dynamics AX functionality will be linked to CDM as part of the Dynamics 365 cloud platform, so there’s plenty room for speculation, which honestly is mostly what I’m about to do here. In a way I’m just continuing on the theme of my previous post about Dynamics 365 and its potential implications for XRM, to pass the time as we wait for Microsoft’s plans to be revealed in more detail.
Right now the only way to push data into CDM is a Flow. If you’ve ever played with automation tools like IFTTT or Zapier, then you’ll quickly grasp the idea of Microsoft Flow. The application itself shouldn’t be underestimated just because of its current simplistic demo scenarios that usually are along the lines of “when a new row is added to a SharePoint list, send an email to this address”. Built on top of Azure Logic Apps, there’s actually a next generation BizTalk type of cloud integration platform under the hood, which should provide plenty of future potential for advanced messaging solutions to orchestrate business processes across a number of different systems.
Once Dynamics 365 Enterprise arrives and gives us the features of CRM and AX in one seamless cloud environment, there’s naturally going to be a need for something a lot more than a “build your own” type of Flow integration. Keeping the Sales and Operations apps of D365 in sync with the customer and transaction data managed in the process of making an delivering a sale involves a fair amount of business logic. If you’ve ever designed and developed a custom integration for this type of a scenario, you’ll know the requirements can quickly grow a bit hairy. Assuming Microsoft can come along and say “we’ll take care of that hairy part, don’t you worry about it” then who could resist it?
The reason CDM exists is that there will be more than one physical database in the Dynamics 365 suite. It’s not all XRM, which means you can’t find the Operations app entities inside your CRM solution files. For the business processes to work seamlessly, someone needs to keep those database closely in sync with one another. From reading through the Common Data Model tutorials, we can see that at least as of now, Flow is not the system that can handle it:
“Today, when you use Microsoft Flow to import data or export data, it is not a full synchronization service. Whenever an object is added to one service, it will be imported into the other system. However, that means if an object is deleted from one system it will not be deleted in the other system.”
So, the sync part is still in the “To Be Implemented” bucket. So is security, since the passing of a record from CRM to CDM via Flow will not carry over any details about who should have the rights to do some CRUD work on it. Again, it may not sound like such a mission impossible to build. However, if you’ve ever faced the requirement in a Dynamics CRM project to implement SharePoint document library integration with account records that includes not just linking the folders but also enforcing the account access rights on the documents, you’ll know the struggle is real. Sure, a collaboration solution like SharePoint has very different security concepts than a system designed for structured business records management like CRM or ERP. But if Microsoft hasn’t been able to offer OoB synchronization of access rights across Dynamics CRM and SharePoint despite of the clear business demand for it, maybe we’d be foolish to expect that it will all be seamless inside the Dynamics 365 world either.
The thing here is that unless the solution provided by Microsoft is going to be fairly advanced, it might not be an actual solution. It’s like the old saying from the dawn of the internet:
Some people, when confronted with a problem, think “I know, I’ll use regular expressions.” Now they have two problems.
When confronted with the need to integrate processes across two different cloud business applications, there’s always the danger of someone rushing into thinking “I know, I’ll build a database in the middle to unify the process data”. So we end up with three cloud business applications… Now, I’m not saying that Microsoft wouldn’t have the type of application architecture masterminds working on the Dynamics 365 platform that can solve these complex problems when developing a new product. I’m just afraid that things may still turn out a bit more complex in reality than the marketing pitch for the new product launch might lead people to believe.
What limitations will this impose on customization?