Dynamics CRM has had a built-in auditing feature since the 2011 version, which provides a really handy tool for situations where someone needs to investigate the changes that have taken place on field values of a specific record. By default auditing is not enabled, but I recommend you to seriously consider enabling it for all business critical entities like accounts and contacts, since without it there’s not much to go by if you ever need to track down any intentional or unintentional updates made to your CRM data.
Auditing is a great tool for capturing the “fire hose” of data updates that are taking place in CRM. However, since the audit data is not stored in actual CRM records but rather in a denormalized state inside the audit database tables, it’s not accessible for any type of reporting or business process logic. If you know what record to look for, the related Audit menu will give you the information. If you are an administrator and have access to the Audit Summary View, you can also use filters to narrow down the audit data stream and hunt down the events that are relevant to your investigation. Very useful for resolving issues in the data, but not so practical for simply staying informed about updates that are of interest to your role in the organization.
Workflow processes can also be used for tracking specific changes made on the CRM records, just by setting the workflow to start when a particular field or a set of fields change. You can then perform any notification action you see appropriate, such as sending an email, creating an Activity Feed post, adding a note, appending a description field etc. Almost like auditing, but on a much more granular level, and also something that you can report on if necessary. One limitation compared to auditing, though, is that you can only see the new value of each field but not the previous one. So, you can’t produce a similar view that auditing provides, with the old and new values side by side.
Or can you? With the launch of the CRM 2013 version we gained a whole new category of workflow processes, called real-time workflows. These behave much in the same way as custom plugins, as they are executed synchronously as part of the event pipeline of the CRM platform rather than via the asynchronous service that the traditional workflows use. The extra benefit we gain from this, aside from the fact that the workflow logic is executed immediately, is that we now also have the ability to choose whether the real-time workflow should be started before or after the event. This allows us to actually read the data that was in a field before the update took place. Sounds like a cool little feature? Well why don’t we take it our for a spin then and see what we can achieve with it.
Tracking Account Name Changes
Let’s consider a scenario where we would be interested in tracking the changes performed on the account name field. We have decided to leverage the Activity Feeds feature to post a message on the record wall every time an existing account has its name field updated. As a part of this post, we need to provide both the old name and the new name, so that the users can easily associate this particular account as a customer they’ve previously done business with under a different name.
Since we need a place to store the old name of the account for the purposes of formulating the post’s content, first we’ll add a new custom text field for the account entity, called “Old Name”. Then we’ll open up the workflow editor and create a new real-time workflow process for the account entity, called “Account Name Change: Store Old Name”. The important part here is that we’ll set this workflow to be run when “Record fields change” with a box ticked for the “Account Name” field and change the “Start when” value to “Before”. The actual workflow actions only need to do one thing, which is to copy the value of the standard “Account Name” field to the new “Old Name” field. Nothing else.
Next we’ll create a second workflow, called “Account Name Change: Post Old & New Name”. We’ll set it to run in real time for the account entity, just like the first one. We’ll even associate it with the very same event, meaning the change of the “Account Name” field. The difference will be that we’ll run this workflow “After” the event. Again, the actions that the workflow will perform are very simple, as we’ll only need it to create a new Activity Feed post record. Here’s how the message will be configured with the dynamic field values from the account record:
So, we now have two real-time workflows running for the same entity, for the same field change event. Is this a smart thing to do? Will the universe by any chance collapse onto itself as a result of this reckless twin workflow configuration that we’ve built? Well, there’s only one way to find out! Let’s activate these two workflow processes, go to an account record and change it’s name.
After the name is changed, we can click onto the Activity Feed’s auto posts column to refresh the post view. There we discover a post created by our second workflow process, containing both the “before” and “after” names for this account. Success! If we keep feeding further update events to this workflow duo, we can see that the post message is always updated to contain the last two names for this account in search of its true identity.
If our second workflow process would have been an asynchronous process instead of real-time, the results might be different, though. As I’ve experimented in a previous post, “Auto-Numbering with CRM Workflows: Real-Time vs. Asynchronous”, the record data and execution order for traditional background workflow processes may not always be consistent, due to their asynchronous nature. By using a real-time workflow we are guaranteed to receive a ticket to the front row seats of CRM’s event execution pipeline. In practice this means the following:
- “Account Name Change: Store Old Name” – this workflow is executed at the pre-operation stage, which means that it sees the record as it was before the update event took place. Therefore when it reads the account name field it still has the old value stored. Furthermore, because the workflow is completed before the actual platform event for the account update takes place, it can inject a new value into the “Old Name” field and have it committed to the database as a part of the original transaction.
- “Account Name Change: Post Old & New Name” – this workflow is executed at the post-operation stage, meaning after the update has already taken place, but before the transaction is completely over. It receives an image of the account record where the standard “Account Name” field is populated with the new value the user has entered and the “Old Name” contains the value updated by the first workflow in the pre-operation stage.
As this example scenario demonstrates, while a workflow can’t directly compare the “before” and “after” values of a record, there is actually a workaround available where you could pass the old value from the pre-operation workflow to the post-operation workflow. You could then perform a comparison of the values with the tools that the workflow editor offers (or extend it via custom workflow activities) and alter the outcome of the transaction based on the business logic. If needed, you could even cancel the operation and show an error message to the user if the old & new values are violating the rules of your business processes.
To close things off, it’s important to keep in mind that just because you can do something with a workflow instead of custom code, it doesn’t mean it would always be the right tool for the job. Aside from the greater level of flexibility that a plugin will give you for comparing and manipulating the data during the update event, there are also performance considerations you should be aware of before pushing a ton of real-time workflows into your production CRM system. I recommend reading this post by CRM MVP Scott Durow: Real Time Workflow or Plugin?