Saturday, October 22, 2011

CRM Things To Come: The Release Preview Guide For Q4 2011

This came out a few weeks ago but is worth a going over because there is a fair amount of stuff coming. For those that have not seen it, here is the link. This is Microsoft’s vision for Dynamics CRM as at August 2011.

The Executive Summary

It is good to see they are still going with the ‘familiar, intelligent and connected’ line. As CRM becomes more social and collaborative these will become more and more relevant. They also introduce the idea of ‘waves’ which seems to be the term they will be using for the major updates. The only other observation is a linguistic one. The summary uses the word “you’ll”. They could have used ‘you will’ but went with the less formal version. The piece wants you to be a friend, not a cold analyst (I rarely contract in my blog because I want to pretend I am, at least, a little bit formal).

Background

They mention this is the fifth major release. By my reckoning it is the fourth (v1.2, v3.0, v4.0 and v2011). There was v1.0 as well so maybe they are including this one.

Improved Agility

Here they again confirm the twice yearly cycle for major releases. If you are thinking that every six months you will get the same kind of bang we got when CRM 2011 came out you will be disappointed but, hopefully, there will be a few goodies to look forward to each time.

Key New Capabilities

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There is a lot of love for online here. Stuff either works online only or for both online and on-premise. No features for on-premise only. In terms of what all this means we have the next few sections.

Unified Office 365 Experience

While Microsoft lay it on thick with how awesome Dynamics CRM and Office 365 are together, the fact is these two products will be getting closer and closer together as time goes on. The Q4 release is the start of this. Sign up for one and you will be able to get the other. Rather than get two charges it will be one or, at least, that is how I am interpreting ‘Unified Provisioning’ and ‘Unified Billing’. The administration bit I think refers to Microsoft’s internal administration simplifying as the products come together.

Enterprise Cloud

Identity Federation

Today, you can log onto CRM Online any way you like as long as it is with a Live ID. This is a little annoying, especially if, like me, you have a Live ID for IM, Live ID for forums and then Live IDs for CRM logins. Q4 will allow people to use Active Directory, much like Lync does today. No more Live ID logins (hooray!)

Enhanced Data Recovery

I am a little underwhelmed by this one. They will be doing backups in the same region as the data centre. What I want is the ability for CRM Online customers to do their own backups. I do not really see this adding value but just achieving expectation.

Feature Enhancements

Enhancements to Dialogs

Dialogs have the shortcoming that, while you can input values into a dialog, the types of values you can enter are limited. This will be addressed in the Q4 update, meaning that lookups and dates can now be entered as input. Again, not so much raising the bar but achieving a baseline level of functionality.

The ability to generate dynamic hyperlinks is great. One of the common uses of workflows is for ‘reminder’ or ‘escalation’ notifications. The problem is that while you could tell someone about a new record or a record that has not progressed, you could not give them a link to click on to get them to that record. They still had to open up CRM, navigate, go to quick search etc. Being able to generate a dynamic hyperlink fixes this for dialogs and, hopefully, for workflows. I am not sure what is meant by “hyperlinks that guide users to…content in…external applications but I am intrigued.

Additional Business Intelligence Capabilities

We are getting multi-series charts! The new charting capability of CRM 2011 can already produce multi-series charts but you have to export the chart, hack the XML and then re-import. With the Q4 update it will be possible to configure such charts directly through the application; no more XML hacking. The sky is the limit with CRM Charting because the underlying tools are so feature-rich. I imagine each major release will give us a little more each time.

Extended De-duplication Rule Processing

Another shortcoming removed from the product. To understand the problem, try de-duplicating a contact on an e-mail address. You will see that any contact with a blank e-mail field is labelled a duplicate with any other contact without an e-mail address. The new enhancements fix this. If only they would also give us SOUNDEX matching…

Social Investments – Wave 1

While many of the improvements up until now have been ‘fixes’ in the sense that they bring functionality to the table that a general user would expect to begin with, the social investments are the meat in the Q4 update sandwich.

Microsoft introduces its social model of three communities:

  • Internal: communities within the organisation e.g. a company Yammer group
  • External Managed: communities involving the organisation and external parties in an environment controlled by the organisation e.g. a corporate Facebook page
  • External Unmanaged: communities in an environment not controlled by the organisation e.g.a fan page

Microsoft also suggest Dynamics CRM is the hub at the centre of these communities.

Activity Feeds

Essentially Chatter for Dynamics CRM. The way they describe it I am guessing the ‘Activity Feed’ is another entity with a special summary page akin to a Facebook wall called ‘Your Wall’.

Mobile Activity Feeds

Similar to the mobile express client (only hopefully a bit more graphically rich), Windows Phone 7 users will be able to check their wall via their phone and perform related actions. While I understand Microsoft want to leverage ‘the stack’, I think it is fair to say that there are at least a couple of CRM customers who use phones with different OSes in them. Maybe the mobile activity feed will make it to the iPhone and iPad some time in the future.

Leon’s Conclusions

There are some good ‘fixes’ in here. I am especially happy about the ability to generate links in dialogs and, hopefully, workflows. Also, the improvements to graphs is great and is very practical.

In terms of the social stuff, it is a good start and, while not necessarily a healthy slab of steak, it is a good quality piece of ham in the CRM sandwich. This is because I can see how the internal needs are considered in the activity feed but it is not clear to me how it addresses external managed and unmanaged requirements. Hopefully, the Microsoft team have seen Parrot and can take some tips from this for the external components.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Extending Dashboards Without Code

If you have played with the new dashboard feature of CRM 2011 you will find that it is one of the jewels of the product. The ability to codelessly create a dashboard of graphs, grids and iframes, which show real time data, and allow for drilldown is simply fantastic.

However, the tool does have its limitations. One of the key ones is the limitation of only being able to display six panels. This can be circumvented with a little code for on premise. Here is an example from Amreek Singh’s blog.

Another more subtle one is with limitations to layouts. For example, if you want three squares on the top (maybe three graphs) and two rectangles on the bottom (maybe two grids). The closest you can get is the three-column multi-focused dashboard.

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But if you want the three on the top to be equal in size it does not work. Your choice is boxes of quarter size or half size. Similarly, if you pick the three-column regular dashboard.

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Your choices are columns of 1/3 or 2/3 but not of quarter and half.

The Solution: Loving The Iframe

This is a handy tip passed onto me by Microsoft’s Craig Steere. His official title is Dynamics Solutions Specialist but I know him as a guy to go for excellent Dynamics CRM information (he is also a pretty good source for information on competitors).

The trick is to display a secondary dashboard in an Iframe. So, say we pick the three-column regular dashboard and combine the bottom three windows into one window the width of the screen. We get this:

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We now create a second two-column regular dashboard to embed via an iframe. This one we use only one row of blocks.

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Getting The Child Dashboard’s URL

To embed the Child Dashboard in a URL we need to know its web address. Practically every form in Dynamics CRM has a unique web address and the trick we use with normal views and records also works for dashboards. However, for dashboards, we have to do it in a slightly different way.

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From the left navigation bar we click the black arrow and find our child dashboard. We then right-click and have the option of opening in a new window. When it pops up we can copy the address straight from the address bar. We then add this to the iframe on the parent dashboard.

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You will notice I turned off the cross-frame scripting restriction. When I initially tried to do this, I did not use system dashboards but personal ones. For some reason the embedded dashboard was stopped from showing. For personal dashboards the cross-frame tickbox is not editable. I tried with system dashboards, turning off the restriction and it seems to work.

The result is this:

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You can get rid of the embedded scroll bar by increasing the height on the iframe, but the ‘Child Dashboard System’ title I could not get rid of.

Conclusions

If you have a specific format in mind or, if the grids you are working with lend themselves to a specific format, but the dashboard formatting is causing you some grief, this might get you out of it. Also, this will work online whereas the coded solutions, as far as I know, do not.

Finally, in theory, this opens up the possibility for a 36 box grid (six boxes, each showing a six box dashboard). If, and I have not tried this, you can embed dashboards another layer down, the number of boxes is only really limited by the screen resolution and size.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Being An MVP

This week Microsoft renewed my MVP status meaning I am an MVP for another 12 months. This is my third year of being an MVP so I thought it might be a good opportunity to write about my experiences with the programme and the kinds of things I do to stay within the programme.

What Is An MVP?

An MVP (Most Valuable Professional) takes its name from the US sporting accolade of Most Valuable Player. For those of us outside of the USA, this is broadly equivalent to a ‘Man/Player of the Match’ or a ‘Best and Fairest’ award. The Wikipedia article sums it up pretty well:

The Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) is the highest award given by Microsoft to those it considers "the best and brightest from technology communities around the world" who "actively share their ... technical expertise with the community and with Microsoft".

The key thing to note is the reference to community contribution. What the award does not recognise is elite programming skills. As some of you may know I am not a programmer. I used to code C++ a long time ago but I am not a .Net programmer and yet I am an MVP for Dynamics CRM; a program built on .Net and extended using .Net .

Also, the award does NOT recognise those that exclusively drink the Microsoft Kool Aid. MVPs are often the most outspoken critics of the flaws in the products they work with. Microsoft welcomes this because, to stay competitive, they need to know what is not working with their products. While MVPs do not often post scathing criticisms on forums or in their blogs they do, behind closed doors, let Microsoft know in no uncertain terms where the problems are with their products. I will talk more about these closed doors a little later.

How Do I Become An MVP?

This is a question that is often asked and it is difficult to answer because there is no specific ‘track’ to getting the award. There is no set of certifications or qualifications which are needed. One thing that is required is nomination. In my case I was nominated by another CRM MVP and this was seconded by a Microsoft employee working with Dynamics CRM. Traditionally, this was how prospective MVPs were put forward (one external, often an MVP themselves, and seconded by a Microsoft employee). However, this is not necessary. Anyone can e-mail someone they believe is deserving of the award (including themselves). The details are here.

Once nominated, a panel within Microsoft reviews the application. I have no idea who is on this panel, nor where they are located (although I assume it is in Redmond). Community contributions from the previous 12 months and technical knowledge are considered. There are no official levels of activity required and it is presumably a subjective decision weighed against the relative merit of other candidates and existing MVPs. Intakes into the programme are quarterly (January, April, July and October).

Once successful, MVPs are reviewed on an annual basis and must be able to demonstrate community activity on par with that which got them into the programme in the first place. If an MVP stops contributing, they will not be renewed.

What Is Meant By ‘Community Contributions’?

Occasionally, Microsoft do release a document talking about the activities considered to be contributing to the understanding and appreciation of the product by the broader community. Typically, the kinds of things mentioned include:

  • Participating in the online Microsoft forums
  • Blogging
  • Tweeting
  • Giving talks at user groups or conferences
  • Organising events for the public such as user groups or public demonstrations

Of these, the forums are the easiest one for Microsoft to measure. You need a live ID to login, meaning it is easy to track how long you are in the forums, and the forums track who proposes answers and whether they are acknowledged as an appropriate answer to the question being asked. The most difficult of these for Microsoft to measure are public appearances. If you are running a user group in a remote foreign land, this is much harder to verify than your forum activity.

What Are The Benefits Of The Program?

Certainly there is no money in it so if you are looking for some kind of monetary reward for getting on the forums and blogging excellent code, you will be sorely disappointed. In my opinion, the biggest benefit is an invitation to the MVP Summit held in Seattle each year around February-March. While it is up to the MVP to pay for flights, accommodation is subsidized and Microsoft keep all attendees fed and watered for the entire time. You get to meet the product team, you get to tell them what you really think and you also get to find out where the product is heading (under an NDA agreement, of course). You also get to go to the Microsoft Shop at the Redmond Campus and buy Microsoft goodies at staff rates.

Throughout the year MVPs also get access to exclusive email groups where they can raise issues they may be having and get ideas from other MVPs and from the Microsoft product teams. The MVPs also use these channels to provide feedback on improving the product. With the sheer volume of communication that occurs in these channels, it would be fair to say the number of messages I try to get across has probably doubled since getting into the programme. However, for understanding the finer aspects of a product, there is no better source of information.

Other benefits include a subscription to MSDN/TechNet, free Microsoft support tickets and free or discounted software from third parties.

What Does Leon Specifically Do To Remain Active In The Community?

Obviously there is this blog. I try to write an article once a week but will often give myself one weekend off so that I generally put out three articles per month. Articles mostly fall into one of three types:

  • Codeless solutions or handy, lesser-known features of Dynamics CRM
  • Commentary on how CRM is stacking up to its competitors (you know who you are)
  • General thought leadership of marketing and business practice

I also tweet when I come across something I feel would be of interest to non-coders involved with Dynamics CRM (users, non-technical administrators, buying decision makers etc.)

I try to propose answers for at least ten forum questions a month but, with the friendly rivalry between the forum participants, it is difficult to get to a question before someone else has answered it. It is really surprising if a question does not get some kind of response within an hour or two.

I will talk at any event about Dynamics CRM and often do so for free. A great example of this are the online Decisions conferences. A number of CRM MVPs regularly present at Decisions with no compensation other than the satisfaction of getting a soapbox to stand on for 30 minutes. If you are looking for a speaker on a Microsoft product, I strongly recommend approaching an MVP. Generally they present well, are knowledgeable and very friendly. As I often say, I will attend the opening of an envelope if it means I get to speak on Dynamics CRM.

To provide content for my blog and tweets, I read a lot of articles on Dynamics CRM and the CRM industry in general. These come to me, almost exclusively through Outlook and are sourced from RSS feeds, Google alerts, LinkedIn groups and tweets. I also read the posts to the forums, via an RSS feed in Outlook.

These are my personal Outlook folders I read every day:

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Using Outlook rules, messages get diverted to ‘holding bays’ for reading when I have time. As you can see, there are literally thousands of messages I have waiting to be read and while I will not get to read them all tonight, they are in my PST waiting for me when I get bandwidth (airport terminals and plane flights are excellent for this). For the tweets, I use TwInbox, an excellent product for tracking tweets in Outlook.

All of the above I generally do outside of working hours as I have a full time job. I also have a wife and two kids so I often do things like read articles once the little ones have gone to bed. As an example, I am writing this blog at midnight on a Friday night. The television is on (showing Conan) but I am watching it over the top of my laptop screen.

My Experience With The Programme

My experience has been very positive. I am yet to meet an MVP I did not like. By their very nature, the are smart, eloquent and willing to share information or talk to others, especially if it is about the product they got awarded for.

In terms of the work involved in maintaining the award, to be honest, I would be doing these things anyway. I tend to be a little obsessive-compulsive when it comes to knowledge and learning so squeezing as much information as possible into my brain at every possible opportunity is kind of who I am.

Also, getting to see the human side of the Microsoft ‘machine’ in the form of online discussions involving the CRM product team is great. It is all too easy to consider Microsoft as a faceless engine pumping out software and making a few bucks along the way but, like every organisation, Microsoft is made up of people and getting to know these people is a rare and welcome experience.

If I did not enjoy it, I could simply resign; an option that is available to every MVP but I have no motivation to do that at this time.

Final Thoughts

If you are looking to becoming an MVP as a badge of honour, you will struggle. The fact is, to become an MVP and keeping the MVP status requires a lot of work in terms of maintaining relevancy and expertise. It also requires a paradigm of being willing to share this hard sought knowledge at the drop of a hat. My advantage in this regard is I did a physics degree, not an IT degree so the academic philosophy of sharing knowledge for the benefit of the many is hard wired into me. There are many people in IT who are experts but who hoard their knowledge to maintain an advantage over others. This is not the way of the MVP.

If, after all this you think the MVP programme is for you, I wish you the best of luck. It is a lot of work but I enjoy it immensely and I look forward to seeing you at ‘Summit’.