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TechnologySep 22, 2010

First Impressions – Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011

Chris Griswold

To say that Microsoft is excited about the new version of CRM would be a significant understatement, and this was very evident today as Microsoft introduced CRM 2011 to its partners at the Dallas area Partner Roadshow. After 3 long years of research and development, Microsoft has finally released the beta version of its new CRM offering and has begun the process of readiness and introduction to those of us who are responsible for bringing it to the marketplace and extolling its virtues to our clients. As a CRM implementer, integrator, and customizer, my interests lie not only with the improvements made to the various abilities to customize and extend CRM, but also with answering the question of whether Microsoft added all those features and capabilities that we have been sorely missing from the previous version.

As Bryan Nielson, Director – Product Management, and Nikhil Hasija, Senior Product Manager, began to demonstrate the product to the audience I have to admit that I was completely blown away. It was as if they had read my mind and concentrated solely on those areas which I found to be some of the biggest hindrances to delivering the functionality that clients have been asking about for years. Now, don’t get me wrong, CRM 4.0 was an excellent product and has been utilized and extended successfully by many, many organizations, but 2011 is a complete game changer. 2011 offers more functionality, extensibility, and “Cloud” compatibility than anything else on the market.

CRM & Outlook, Unbeatable

Probably the most significant improvement that end users will see is the even tighter, absolutely seamless integration with Office Outlook. Microsoft took what was probably one of their biggest selling points and a feature that already worked very well, and improved it greatly. If you have been using Office 2007 for a while then you are already aware of the “ribbon”, and you will continue to see it with CRM 2011. Within Outlook, the CRM ribbon allows the user to quickly manage CRM related communication, activities and event management as well as giving customizers and ISVs plenty of room to add custom navigation and functionality. For 2011 Microsoft completely rewrote the CRM Application for Outlook from the ground up so that it is now a fully integrated application within Outlook instead of a loosely fitting bolt on. Microsoft took the HTML rendering engine from IE and built it directly into Outlook, so that now all buttons and links are handled within Outlook thankfully eliminating the scourge of IE pop-up windows which was so prolific in CRM 4.0. All CRM pages and forms are rendered within Outlook making it truly integrated and allowing you to choose a default browser other than IE for your non-CRM related internet browsing (if you so choose). In 2011 Microsoft also made significant changes to the entity form look and feel to make it more web-like and easier for individual users to tweak according to their preference. Features such as conditional formatting, reading pane view positions, and configurable navigation give each user the ability to customize Outlook to facilitate easy and quick access to the information they desire most. Microsoft also eliminated the tabbed form view and replaced it with a collapsible set of vertical spaces which can be reordered up and down by the user based on their preference. The left hand navigation provides a table-of-contents-like menu which provides quick access to any section of the form.

Finally, True Dashboards

One of the biggest shortcomings of CRM 4.0 was the inability to create true dashboards and place those dashboards in areas other than the reports menu of the application. With 2011 Microsoft has taken dash-boarding to a whole new level. With a few clicks you can have a very rich set of diverse user specific dashboards available with full capability to click through each pie chart or bar graph down to the most minute detail. Any particular view can be customized to show limitless combinations of charts, grids, or frames displaying external data, websites, or applications. As you click through on any given dashboard you can choose how to aggregate or segregate the results and that data displays within that section of the grid without disrupting the other sections of the view. Or, you can link a dashboard to a grid of results that will pare down as you click through to greater and greater detail. And don’t forget, you’ve done all of this and you still haven’t even left Outlook. The dashboard and data visualization tools proved by 2011 allow you to quickly and intuitively gain business and market intelligence from your CRM data.

Microsoft Remembered Us Too

All too often in enterprise class applications the customizer and developer is an afterthought when it comes to ease of use and navigation, but that is certainly not the case with CRM 2011. Microsoft has made significant changes to the way in which you customize and extend CRM most likely due to the relentless groaning of customizers such as myself who don’t understand why it takes fifty clicks to add one attribute to a form. For 2011, CRM now provides a virtual one-stop-shop for making customizations and extension of existing or custom entities which should increase the productivity of developers ten-fold. If your user role has the ability to perform customizations then every time you navigate to a particular entity, you will have the option of customizing it directly from the form. No more navigating to the Settings area, clicking on Customize Entities, finding the desired entity, opening it, clicking on attributes, add the attribute, now go back and open the form, add the attribute to the form and then use the green arrows to move the attribute around the form. Three words… drag and drop. With CRM 2011 all of your customization options are on one screen. You can create an attribute and then drag and drop it into the desired part of your form without ever leaving that single screen. You can also create new relationships, new views, and now, finally, role based forms, again all from that single screen. From the company which brought us Visual Studio and virtually invented the use of drag and drop development I am shocked it took this long to make its way into CRM, but I am nonetheless relieved and excited at the thought of customizing and extending on this new platform.

A Pleasant Surprise, Guided Processes

One of the new features for 2011 which surprised me and which I think will be immensely useful is the addition of Guided Processes. Microsoft scrapped the incredibly temperamental 4.0 era workflow model and replaced it with a new .NET4 based workflow engine which can facilitate a greater level of complexity and flexibility for managing processes and business rules. One feature of this new workflow engine which stood out to me is the addition of guided processes. Essentially, this feature allows you to explicitly control or guide a user through a process with custom dialog windows which the user interacts with and is directed toward the desired outcome. For example, in 4.0 when you close an opportunity you are presented with a dialog window which asks you for some information about the closing of that opportunity, close date, win or loss, actual revenue, etc. However, this dialog window was not customizable and if you needed additional information from the user which would then kick off certain other processes based on decisions and business rules you would have to do a significant amount of custom development and risk breaking your upgradability. With guided process you can now throw out Microsoft’s standard Opportunity closing dialog and replace it with a custom set of guided dialogs specific to your sales process and business needs. Or, you could delicately guide the user through the conversion of Lead into an Opportunity, or provide verbose instructions on the next steps in a sales cycle. With Guided Process, Microsoft has taken workflow to a whole new level and provided the CRM community with a powerful new tool with seemingly endless possibilities.

What’s Missing

Well, we can’t expect it to be perfect, and although Microsoft has completely hit it out of the park with this one, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a few of the shortcomings I noticed from my brief introduction to this new version. With 2011, Microsoft has finally addressed the age old desire by all CRM application owners and implementers to have field level security; however it has a few limitations. Primarily, the field level security can only be applied to newly created attributes in CRM and not attributes on entities which come out of the box. For example, if you wanted to make the contact business phone number editable only by the sales manager, you would have to create a new attribute and replace the out of the box attribute with your new one. Only then would you be able to apply field level security within the form, however you would lose the ability for that phone number field to sync to your Outlook contacts. As an alternative you could create two separate role based forms, however they would be almost identical and require you to maintain both as changes were made or attributes added. Another curious move by Microsoft is the deprecation of SQL Server Reporting Services reports in favor of FetchXML reports. FetchXML is essentially the language used by the API layer of CRM to execute queries on the CRM application server. You will still be able to use the Business Intelligence Design Studio to create your reports but instead of writing SQL to query the necessary data you would write FetchXML. Of course, this change assumes that we know what FetchXML is and how to write it. Personally I’ve been writing SQL queries for the better part of my career so I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it and having to learn a whole new query structure is, well, annoying. Microsoft claims that the performance is better but I find that hard to believe considering the FetchXML executes on the application server and my SSRS reports execute directly on the database, but I will let Microsoft speak to that.

Wrap Up

These are just a few of the observations I made during today’s Partner Roadshow and judging by the applause and reactions of those around me I was not the only one extremely pleased with what I saw. With CRM 2011 Microsoft has successfully addressed countless areas where version 4 fell short as well as adding valuable new functionality and extensibility.

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