Dynamics CRM 2013 in Retrospect

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Posted on 13th November 2014 by Jukka Niiranen in Features

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Dynamics CRM 2013 was released only a bit over year ago, on October 8th 2013 to be exact. With CRM 2015 already knocking at the door, this seems like ages ago already, even though the actual time between these two major releases is shorter than their marketing names imply.

Since the discussions in the Dynamics CRM community will inevitably be moving towards the latest 2015 version as the year turns, it’s a good moment to reflect back a bit and recap what the previous release gave us. I took a look at some of the blog posts I’ve personally written regarding CRM 2013 specific functionality since the version came out. By analyzing the page view stats from my blog, the following articles came out on top as the five hottest topics that you, the readers, were interested in reading about.  If you missed any of the articles, now’s the time to do a quick catch up before CRM 2015 steals all the attention.

Synchronization vs. Tracking: Understanding Activity Management Options

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CRM_2013_Server-side_SyncCRM 2013 introduced a new feature called server-side synchronization, which allowed the CRM server to communicate directly with the Exchange server for the first time in the product’s history. Upon first look it might have appeared like the long dependency on Dynamics CRM Outlook client was about to be history. However, in our brave new “cloud first, mobile first” world there are many more aspects to managing activity data in relation to CRM records that you need to understand.

While the synchronization options for activities and contacts were indeed expanded with CRM 2013, the tracking options were not. In addition, the combinations supported email client and server applications for each entity and action type were quite a maze to navigate in. Since this is not such an easy topic to grasp nor explain, I ended up building a support matrix of my own, so that I was able to clearly communicate the various synchronization and tracking options to our customers.

Getting Your Head Around Dynamics CRM 2013 Processes

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CRM_2013_Process_Automation_smallChanges in the application’s UI may have grabbed most of the attention when it came to the CRM 2013 release, but there were also notable enhancements made to platform capabilities behind the scenes. Business Rules and Real-time Workflows opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the system customizers to create custom business logic that had previously required JavaScript or plug-in development.

The one process type that was highly visible to the users, Business Process Flow (BPF), was also perhaps the most demanding one when it came to applying it in real world scenarios. Since BPF’s themselves don’t provide any automation but rather rely on the other process types to work in conjunction with the BPF process stages and steps, understanding the role of each of these components will require a fair bit of experimentation. This is why I wrote a two-part article where I tried to lay out the big picture of process automation in CRM 2013.

Connecting to CRM Online OData Feed with Excel 2013 Power Query

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CRM_OData_feed_Excel_Power_Query_4While the CRM 2013 release itself didn’t provide any dedicated feature for the Power BI tools announced by Microsoft a bit earlier, there were updates made to the Power Query component in Excel 2013 that made it very interesting for CRM Online customers. More specifically, the December 2013 version of Power Query finally delivered the ability to connect to OData feeds what utilize Office 365 authentication – with CRM Online being such an application.

There isn’t a whole lot of official documentation available on the topic of how to leverage CRM Online OData feeds to build reports utilizing the Power BI toolkit. The process isn’t necessarily very straightforward and requires a fair bit of experimentation with the various Excel components (Power Query, Power Pivot, Power View). In addition to the OData feed connection part, I also wrote a couple other posts on what to do once you have the CRM data flowing into Excel via Power Query.

Setting Up a Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2013 Development Server on Azure

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Azure_MSDN_benefitRunning Dynamics CRM in the cloud via CRM Online is a popular option these days, but for performing testing and development tasks it’s often more convenient to have your own sandbox where you can control each and every part of the system. Azure has evolved into quite an attractive option for running virtual machines, especially with MSDN subscription credits and discounts for development environments.

I’m not an infrastructure specialist that enjoys configuring servers very much, but when new versions of Dynamics CRM become available as preview/beta versions, it’s a good exercise to set up your own sandbox server. To better remember what the minimum steps are to be able to install the Dynamics CRM server application, I decided to document the process via screenshots and make it available on SlideShare for anyone else wanting to complete the same task.

Expanding Add Activity Options on CRM 2013 Forms

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CRM2013_Activities_2In the course of the UI refresh performed in CRM 2013, the number of menu options visible to the end users were optimized to cover only a single way to perform many of the options that previously might have had alternative route options. While the intention was noble, this did create a few situations where the navigation path required to perform an action may have not been the optimal one.

The great thing about Dynamics CRM is that it’s a customizable platform that allows you to adjust the data model, forms and also the menu options to the specific use cases required by the customer organization – as long as you know how. With awesome community contributed tools like the Ribbon Workbench these tasks can be completed with a few clicks of a mouse, which is what I illustrated in this post where I added a new flyout menu onto the CRM 2013 Command Bar to access standard as well as custom activity records, and even launching a dialog process directly from the menu.

What Convergence 2014 Europe Tells Us About 2015

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Posted on 8th November 2014 by Jukka Niiranen in News and events

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What happens at Convergence rarely stays there. So was the case with Convergence 2014 Europe held this week in (supposedly) sunny Barcelona. There was a flood of #CONV14 tweets shared by the friendly attendees of this conference, which give us quite an accurate picture of what Microsoft’s got in store for the beginning of the year 2015 when it comes to Dynamics CRM and the related products.

CRM 2015

Given that the new major version, Dynamics CRM 2015, is scheduled to become available in December, Convergence was naturally the place where this release was to be shown live in action to customers and partners. The actual contents of the release isn’t such a big secret anymore, given that the Release Preview Guide became available already quite some time ago. Although new features like Global Search and Hierarchy Visualization provide some nice looking screens for the demos, there’s also plenty of enhancements buried inside the platform that will make the system customizer’s life easier, like calculated fields and rollup fields.

Product_hierarchy_2_small

For anyone wanting to learn in more detail about the upcoming release, Microsoft has made available an unprecedented amount of content on CRM 2015. Check out all the links on this blog post about CRM 2015 prerelease content to keep yourself occupied with Get Ready pages, ebooks and videos for the next week or so.

Mobility

What wasn’t previously covered in the Preview Guide was how MS plans to take the mobile client capabilities forward with this latest release. At Convergence 2014 Europe we saw a couple of interesting features being demoed on this front. The first was a Windows Phone exclusive, as Microsoft announced the coming integration between Dynamics CRM and Cortana. While this voice guided WP8 digital assistant is currently only available in limited markets and languages, the CRM integration is a fine example of the type of extensibility and the potential that these new types of user interfaces have on our personal mobile devices.

CRM_MOWA

Another far more immediately useful feature that was shown in a demo (and a Youtube video) was the ability to finally track emails from a mobile device into records in CRM. As we know, up until today the only way to select emails to be tracked has been to run a PC with the Outlook client, since CRM activity synchronization options do not cover the use case of promoting new items from you mailbox into CRM. As seen from the image above, the MOWA app (as in Mobile OWA, OWA as in Outlook Web Access) shown at Convergence now promises to deliver a way to do this via your smartphone screen, alongside showing the details about the regarding record such as an opportunity. While you obviously can’t inject a “track” button into the native iPhone email app and the likes, this sure seems like an option worth exploring (at least for Office 365 users) once more details about it become available.

Marketing and Social

Gone are the days when there was only the Dynamics CRM product in the Dynamics CRM portfolio. As we saw in the US Convergence event this spring, the product roadmap these days consists of four different lanes, with Dynamics Marketing, Social Listening and Parature (the customer service component yet to be re-branded) having their own releases lined up alongside CRM itself.

On the Dynamics Marketing side there has been some catching up to do for the features that didn’t originate from the marketing resource management product (Marketing Pilot) that Microsoft acquired a couple of years ago. While the Mira release this spring was the first version to give us a package with the core marketing automation features for email and web content, the next release (Electra) is starting to look a lot fancier, with advanced features from competing solutions being replicated there (graphical email editors, A/B testing, inbox previews) as well as new areas like the Sales Collaboration Panel (included in CRM Professional license now) and integrated Social Listening data making the MDM product an interesting offering for many existing Dynamics CRM customers.

Microsoft_Social_Engagement_2_small

Speaking of the social side, one highly interesting concept that Microsoft demonstrated during the sessions at Convergence was a social tool targeted not only for listening to the data streams from a central tower but also for bringing out this information to a wider range of CRM users. Labelled as “Microsoft Social Engagement” in the demos, this application offered both a dashboard with KPI charts as well as a stream based view for presumably any CRM user who’s interested in following certain topics on the social networks. Whether this is Microsoft’s version of Hootsuite or something completely different remains to be seen, but simply having the social feeds integrated into the CRM UI and then providing a “track in CRM” button for engaging with the people who are having the discussion on these networks seems to make some of the “social looking glass” visions from 3 years ago finally a reality. Definitely something to keep an eye on for 2015. (more…)

Don’t Merge Your Forms in CRM 2013

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Posted on 12th October 2014 by Jukka Niiranen in Features

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If you have been using Dynamics CRM before the 2013 version was released, you may have something in your system called “information forms”. This is not a very descriptive term for them, since of course all the entity forms are about presenting “information” to the end user. These forms actually date back to a time in the Dynamics CRM platform history when there was only a single form available per entity. Times have changed quite a lot since then, as entities can now have role based forms, mobile forms, quick create forms and quick view forms.

Although not a specific form type in itself, CRM 2013 introduced a whole new layout for the default entity forms as a part of the UI refresh. Instead of the traditional & boring two column layout, the new CRM 2013 forms are made up of three columns that can consist of not just entity fields but also related entity subgrids, the social pane, Bing Maps component and other exciting new features. Whereas the old default forms were called “Information”, the names of these new forms follow the entity names. So, the account entity will have a new form labelled “Account”, as an example. (By the way: check this tip for optimizing your form naming convention.)

Merge Forms Feature

Since the new forms are designed to make better use of the new navigation paradigm of CRM 2013 as well as present the data in a much richer way than the old “ERP style” forms of past CRM versions, customers who are upgrading their Dynamics CRM deployment to the latest version are advised to migrate into using these new forms. In fact, Microsoft has stated that the next major version (CRM 2015) would no longer support the use of the old “information forms”.

To make this transition easier, Microsoft has provided a feature called “Merge Forms”. This new button available on the form editor in the CRM customization UI (which still utilizes the old CRM 2011 style layout even in CRM 2015, by the way) is intended to be used for bringing the tabs, sections and fields from your old forms onto the new forms with as little clicks as possible.

CRM_merge_forms

The process is described in the article “Update your forms to Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2013 or Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online Fall ’13”. Even more detailed steps can be found from the PDF document “How to Prepare for the CRM Online Fall ’13 Service Update”. Basically what the feature does is bring in the contents of the old form to the end of the currently open form, with the intention of making it faster to rearrange your customized fields and sections to align with the new default form’s content and layout.

Sounds like a handy feature, right? There’s only one slight problem with it: it doesn’t work.

Conflicting ID Values

“What do you mean it doesn’t work? I have used the button to bring in my custom fields and it did just what I expected.” Well, maybe I should rather say that it works partially. If you never export your CRM customizations into a solution file and move it to a different environment, you may not notice that anything is wrong with your forms. However, if you do want to move the customizations between development, test and production organizations, you might run into the below error message during the solution import process.

CRM_import_solution_error_after_form_merge

After the error, if you download the log file and open it, you’ll see a message like this:

Error code 0x8004F658. The label ‘E-mail 2′, id: ’87dc7c9c-94c1-3953-e490-11413b31d0ad’ already exists. Supply unique labelid values.

What the system is telling us is that we’re trying to insert an item into the customization metadata that has a non-unique ID. Depending on the scenario, the item could be a field or section label. But how did the ID end up being a duplicate? After all, we don’t assign these GUID values in the customization UI, rather the CRM platform generates them. What could have caused the system to violate its own rules?

The answer can be found from this thread on the MSDN forums: CRM 2013 Solution Import. A Microsoft support engineer has confirmed that the error is caused by a design mistake in the Merge Forms feature. Apparently in the process of merging form content from the old form onto the new one there is more data carried over than is needed. Not only do you get the form components exactly the way they are configured in the original form, but you also get the same ID’s. Now, since the old form also exists in the system, this will cause an error message when you try to import your solution file from the source system to the target environment, like from development to test environment, for example.

The Workaround

The system where I ran into this problem was running Dynamics CRM 2013 Service Pack 1 (6.1.0.581) with no Update Rollups (see this earlier blog post for help on understanding the different updates and version numbering). The forum thread above does not indicate that a hotfix for the form merge bug would have been included in one of the released updates so far, so I’m assuming that all CRM 2013 environments are affected by it during the time of writing.

The suggested workaround in the forum discussion was basically “start all over”, meaning removing the merged content from the form and re-adding the components back there one by one. In the environment I was working on this would have required many hours of work with using the form editor on a number of entities , which I wasn’t too keen on spending there. I had just migrated a copy of the CRM 2011 production organization database onto a CRM 2013 test server and was in the process of testing the upgrade steps before the final go-live, so re-doing the customizations at this stage just sounded like both a schedule challenge as well as a potential source for new issues.

I extracted the CRM solution zip file and poked around the customization.xml file for a while, trying to think of a way out of this situation. After I realized that trying to edit the XML manually would only land me into a deeper hole, it occurred to me that there was another feature in CRM that performed something similar than the broken Merge Forms: the “Save As” button. Copying entity forms to create new variations was something that I had used many times with no issues, so perhaps I could rely on it here as well?

I proceeded with creating a copy of each of the entity forms where I had used the Merge Forms feature. Since the new form versions created via “Save As” are able to co-exist with the original forms without causing any conflicts, this must mean that the CRM platform assigns the required new ID’s to the form components. Based on this reasoning, I therefore assumed that once I deleted the original merged form and renamed the new copy (as well as configured the form order and security roles), I would have a clean solution file with unique ID values. After testing the solution import I was extremely glad to see that this was in fact the case, as no more error messages appeared during the import. Saved by the “Save As”!

Don’t Just Merge – Design

So, with the above workaround and a potential upcoming hotfix, is there any reason not to use the Merge Forms feature? In my humble opinion, the merge process is not a best practice but rather just a quick’n dirty way of getting the custom fields to appear on the entity forms. If you don’t in practice know how to customize your Dynamics CRM environment but need to cope with the updated UI of the new version, then the merge will technically make it possible to keep using your CRM data. What it will not do is produce a system that your end users will enjoy.

The merge will bring over a lot of duplicate content (all the default fields) that you may forget to clean away from the new form. It will also create very confusing components for the system administrators, such as the old “What’s New” section vs. the new Social Pane, which require a deeper understanding of the Dynamics CRM platform evolution to really figure out. The biggest risk is that the form content designed for the old version UI will end up living alongside the content that is specifically made for the post CRM 2013 world, creating a disconnected and illogical application that works differently depending on the area where the user navigates to.

Instead of taking the shortcut and doing a quick content merge, I recommend investing a bit more time and effort in planning what’s the best way to present the data and how to make it as easy as possible for the users to interact with it through the UI. If you need some ideas for improving the user experience of your Microsoft Dynamics CRM environment, take a look at my previous post that listed 10 tips for designing a great user experience in Dynamics CRM.