It’s been 17 years since Microsoft Dynamics was first introduced and many people, me included, missed the launch of Microsoft CRM (as it was then called) v1.0 because it singularly failed to grab anyone’s attention.
Fast forward to Microsoft CRM v3.0, which was the first version people started to take seriously. This version was also the one that started to turn the heads of Housing Providers. All of a sudden, they could see the potential of a solution that could replace those costly off-the-shelf packages which managed one or two areas of the business or the complex spreadsheets used to run key processes. It looked like Microsoft CRM had arrived.
Remember charity pricing?
Early trail blazers in the housing sector were keen to adopt a Microsoft solution for a number of reasons. The licences were very cheap (remember those golden days of charity pricing for registered social landlords?). It also fitted into a ‘Microsoft first’ IT strategy and, most importantly, the product offered a flexibility that few other applications had, with its configurable interface and extremely flexible SDK.
Those early trail-blazers in housing who dared to try something new often became advocates for Microsoft CRM, but not every implementation was successful. Despite this, more and more housing providers started to take note and considered whether Microsoft CRM could benefit their business and be introduced into their IT ecosystem.
Initially, the business applications for Microsoft CRM were primarily to manage customer interactions in the call-centre. It was also used to manage more complex processes such as complaints or ASB but by and large, this was the extent of the processes it managed. The more complex processes, such as repairs, rent management and remote working, remained with the housing providers’ ‘traditional’ systems; the appetite to change simply wasn’t there. Data, always the key part of any project, was more often than not passed from the housing management system into Microsoft CRM, with only any amended contact details being passed back to any of the other systems.
Things took a leap forward when Microsoft CRM v4.0 was released. Microsoft introduced a number of new features into the application but the most important of these was support for multi-tenancy databases; this new feature paved the way for how Microsoft CRM was deployed in the cloud in later versions. This meant that multiple instances of CRM could be configured on the same SQL server, meaning that environments could be set-up relatively easily for development, testing and training. Suddenly housing providers had the means to quickly rollout functionality at a fraction of the cost and time it previously took.
Over the next few releases Microsoft introduced more enhancements to the user interface and to the development tools available but the biggest advance was to move Microsoft Dynamics (as it had been renamed) into the cloud and enable easy integration to other Microsoft cloud services including SharePoint, Exchange and Office365.
At the same time, Microsoft was also releasing add-ons to Microsoft Dynamics, with some being highly relevant to housing such as ‘field service’ which turned Dynamics into a powerful scheduling engine. Others included ‘customer engagement’ which enabled Survey Monkey-style functionality direct from Dynamics. But it wasn’t just Microsoft who was adding modules and functionality at a rapid rate. Microsoft partners were also engaged in the Dynamics functionality ‘arms race’, with the most popular solutions extending CRM to be available on external portals and hand-held devices.
However, implementing Dynamics had its challenges, with the application’s greatest strength, flexibility, also being its biggest weakness. Sometimes the initial requirements were too complex which inevitably led to an overly-complex user interface and low user adoption. In other cases, the reverse was true, with too little thought given to the initial design, resulting in the development of application ‘cul-de-sacs’ where the existing design stymied any future developments.
In both cases, the only options were either to unpick certain elements of the initial implementation and re-configure or, if this wasn’t possible, a complete re-development. These early mistakes, although painful, made both the housing organisations who were implementing Dynamics and the partners assisting them far more knowledgeable concerning future enhancements and implementations.
As the first wave of Dynamics was being rolled out within housing providers, there was a huge growth in Dynamics customers around the world which meant that Microsoft carried on investing massively in development, with more versions and more functionality being rolled out faster and faster.
Microsoft partners kept in step with Microsoft, producing applications and solutions that not only extended the overall functionality of Microsoft Dynamics but provided specific industry solutions. At about the same time Microsoft stepped up their cloud based strategy resulting in Microsoft Dynamics customers not only having to decide what processes Microsoft Dynamics was to be used for but also where the Microsoft Dynamics implementation was to be hosted.
Cloud-based deployment as standard
Skipping forward to today, all new Dynamics deployments are now cloud-based and the shiny new add-ons, such as tenant portals and mobile working, are commonplace. Trail-blazing housing providers who have implemented Dynamics to its fullest extent are now looking at where to take Dynamics next. The obvious area is to fully replace traditional housing management systems, but is that a step too far?
Not really. The evolution of the early Microsoft CRM application into a highly configurable and powerful system means that it can certainly be used to manage much more complex processes than in the early days. Some larger housing providers are already taking tentative steps (at considerable cost) to replace their housing management systems with Dynamics.
But is this next step only for larger, cash-rich housing providers? Not necessarily – Microsoft partners are creating off-the-shelf additions to Dynamics that allow the product to be tailored for more complex processes. Combine this with Microsoft’s commitment to tighter and tighter integration with Microsoft Business Central (a cloud-based financial management application, formerly an on-premise package known as Microsoft NAV) and suddenly all the necessary pieces are in place for Dynamics to replace some, if not all, of the processes previously only the preserve of housing management systems.
What does all this mean for the future? I predict that over the next year or so there will be a change in attitudes toward existing housing management systems, with housing providers giving serious consideration to Dynamics replacing many of the processes that are the bastions of more traditional systems. This will be partly driven by the cost effectiveness of Dynamics over traditional housing applications and partly by the transparency and flexibility of Dynamics. And as in the early days of Dynamics usage, there will be a few innovators and advocates who will lead the way and where they lead, others are bound to follow.
Andrew McCormick is the managing director of Redkite CRM.