In the first part of this series we looked at the two new process categories introduced in Dynamics CRM 2013: Business Process Flows and Actions. Now it’s time to dig deeper into new CRM 2013 functionality that will allow you to achieve process automation results in areas where custom code was previously required.
Business Rules: Processes In Disguise
Business Rules have the nickname of Portable Business Logic (PBL), so there must be something else that makes them particularly easy to carry around then? The portability actually refers to the way in which the rules can be applied to all the different forms of the entity and also to how they will be carried over to the mobile client application (MoCA) on Windows 8 and iOS tablets. They are however form specific in the sense that you must define what the scope of the Business Rule is: either tied to a particular form of the entity or simply set to run on “all forms”.
What can you use Business Rules for from a process automation perspective? Similar to the Business Process Flow (BPF) process type, Business Rules can be used for guiding the data entry and update tasks by dynamically changing the UI presented to the user, based on the values of other fields on the form. Typically CRM entities end up having far more fields available than what a user is really expected to fill or even view in a particular stage of a business process. Whereas the Business Process Flow can only touch the Process Control shown on the top of the entity form, Business Rules can manipulate any field on the form, setting it either as visible/not visible, required/not required and disabled/enabled. They also have the ability of presenting field specific error messages if a user tries to deviate from the intended process.
Business Rules have a similar type of conditional statement setting as workflow processes do (if/then), but it is quite a lot more limited currently than the workflow editor options. For instance, you can only reference fields from the same entity you’re working on, so setting the requirement level of a contact form field based on the parent account record’s values won’t work. You are also limited to only specifying a single set of conditions that must all be true for the action to run. In order to build an “or” rule to cover multiple alternative conditions you’ll need to save your first Business Rule, then create a copy of it with Save As and have as many concurrent rules as there are options in your “or” statement.
Unlike the Business Process Flow processes that are only able to present fields from the entity, Business Rules can actually update the record as well. The “Set field value” action allows you to input either a static value, copy the value of another field (on the same record) or perform a simple +/-/* calculation with two fields. For an in-depth list of Business Rule capabilities and considerations, look no further than this excellent article by Jesper Osgaard on Understanding Portable Business Logic.
- Create dependent optionset fields (filtering available values based on another field)
- Set dynamic default values (“task deadline today+3 days”)
- Show/hide form components other than fields (tabs, sections, subgrids, iFrames, Quick View Forms etc.)
Based on the fact that Business Process Flows are categorized as a process record in CRM 2o13 whereas Business Rules are “only” a component of an entity, should you spend more time designing the Business Process Flow and resort to Business Rules only when you need to tweak some details on the forms? I personally don’t think that the BPF Process Control is necessarily the only right way for implementing guided processes in CRM 2013. For a transactional record with a linear process consisting of several stages with clear boundaries (the sales opportunity scenario) it is surely a natural fit, but in many situations the flexibility provided by the field level configuration of Business Rules can prove to be a more practical approach. At least ask yourself these question before committing to a BPF based design: 1) does it offer some required functionality that Business Rules could not replicate, and 2) can the process data naturally fit into the stages that the Process Control will display?
Real-Time Workflows: Plug-ins For The Analysts
For the past 10 years the Dynamics CRM workflows have been tirelessly performed their tasks behind the scenes, driven by the time slots that the asynchronous service on the CRM server has kindly allocated for them. Originally designed for executing workloads that didn’t have a need to present the results immediately to the same end user who triggered the event, they’ve since been frequently leveraged also in process automation tasks that would have performed much more smoothly with a synchronous execution (also known as “poor man’s plug-ins”). The powerful process automation capabilities presented in the workflow editor would have often been enough to meet the business logic customization requirements, had it not been for that delay in the logic’s execution that demanded the same logic to be replicated in custom code instead.
In CRM 2013 workflows have now been promoted to a 1st class citizen status by adding one tiny switch: “Run this workflow in the background [yes/no]”.
Why is this option of running workflows synchronously so important then? Well, if you’re just using your workflow to send an email notification to someone, there’s precious little difference in whether the action takes place immediately or after one minute. However, if you are updating the current record that the user is currently viewing through the entity form, the fact that you can present the changes right away opens up a whole new world of opportunities for leveraging workflows to guide the business process.
Nowadays when the new CRM 2013 entity form design leans towards a dashboard style of summary views presenting a number of subgrids of child entities, activities or activity feed posts, the need for immediate feedback on the UI applies also to the creation of related records through workflows. If your business process relies on the assignment of tasks to users rather than the “mark completed” checkbox driven style introduced by the new Business Process Flows, the fact that the user will see the process automation in action as he updates the records in CRM will surely help to build confidence in the system’s ability to manage the business process and distribute information to all relevant parties, without the need for manual emails or phone calls to coordinate the work.
From a development perspective, Real-Time Workflows have a similar but likely far more significant impact on the division of labor between the business analyst and the .NET developer than the new CRM 2013 Action processes that we covered in part 1. Synchronous workflow processes can cover many of the common CRM customization scenarios that would have previously required developing a plug-in. While a custom plug-in will naturally still remain far more flexible in terms of its ability to query and manipulate data, the Real-Time Workflows will drive more and more custom code to be developed as Custom Workflow Activities rather than plug-ins.
This is because of the fact that if you can isolate your code into a component that the business analyst can call from a standard workflow process, the configurability of the business process automation functionality will be greatly enhanced as future adjustments to the process can be performed through the CRM UI without touching any code. The development of re-usable components that extend the default capabilities of workflows also lowers the barrier of applying the same custom logic into new processes as the needs of the customer organization evolve.
The less people it takes to solve a business problem through CRM and the shorter the lead time from identifying the problem to deploying the solution is, the more likely it is for the problem to get solved. This is the main reason why increasing the share of configuration tasks over development tasks is so critical for any business information system that needs to adapt to changing business processes and not just fulfill a static set of requirements. If you’ve worked with CRM systems beyond their initial implementation projects, you’ll surely know into which category these systems fall into.
The Growing Business Process Automation Toolkit
If we compare the old and the new world of process automation in Dynamics CRM, we can see that the tools available for no-code configuration of business process management functionality have grown considerably over the past few years:
- CRM 4.0: workflows
- CRM 2011: workflows, dialogs
- CRM 2013: asynchronous workflows, real-time workflows, dialogs, business process flows, business rules, actions
What this means from a system administrator, customizer or business analyst perspective is that if you haven’t yet started to take advantage of the process automation capabilities of Dynamics CRM, you’re really missing out on a significant share of the platform’s potential value to your business. At the same time the growing number of options in CRM can make it seem like an increasingly difficult topic to approach. How do you know which one of the six tools to pick for building a solution to a business problem you’ve identified?
As discussed in part 1 of this article, Business Process Flows are essentially just a map of the process that you present to the end user, but they don’t perform any actions on the data on their own. Since the Action processes are currently only valid for scenarios that involve a developer resource, we can also leave those our when exploring the right tools of how to get started with CRM process automation. That leaves us with four tools to evaluate for their fit to get the job done. I’ve compiled some of the main characteristics of each of them into the following table to help you in the selection process:
You should pay attention to the following constraints of each tool when analyzing their fit for the task at hand:
- Business Rules are the only way to perform actions right after the user updates a field. Workflows will not fire until the save event (which can be 30 seconds away in the new auto-save CRM 2013 organizations).
- Workflows will run even when the records are created or updated through other means than the form (data import, integrated systems). Business Rules are only executed on the form.
- Due to the aforementioned limitation, Business Rules also only ever apply to a single record at a time.
- Workflows can reference data from related entities for read/update. Business Rules can only work with data available directly on the form.
- The special capability of Business Rules includes manipulating the UI (hide/show fields, set requirement level, show alerts). Workflows only deal with the data.
- Dialogs are a manually initiated subset of workflow functionality with a specific Wizard style UI. They also have one special skill: querying data from any entity, not just the directly related ones.
I hope that this article has managed to highlight the new features in Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2013 that can help you build solutions for guiding the user through a business process and automate the related tasks. There is a lot to explore in the latest CRM release in this area and I’m sure we’ll discover many creative ways for applying these new tools in practice as more and more customers move onto the CRM 2013 / Fall ’13 platform.