In case you missed the announcement last week, Microsoft has acquired Adxstudio. This is simply wonderful news for anyone working with Microsoft Dynamics CRM, for a number of reasons. First of all, the Adxstudio Portals product brings in a critical piece of functionality that has so far been missing from Microsoft’s own portfolio, which is surfacing the information and processes of CRM to external parties via integrated web portals. Second, the amount of knowledge and real-life experience that will be brought into the Dynamics CRM product team on topics like solution management, ALM practices and in general the life of an ISV partner in the Dynamics ecosystem is bound to make Microsoft’s product offering even better in the future.
The third point, and the main topic of this blog post, is that in my eyes this acquistion validates one very important aspect when it comes to Dynamics CRM as a business application platform: XRM is alive and kicking. In order to understand why I think that way & why it makes a big difference to the Dynamics CRM ecosystem, we need to look back a bit and understand what’s been happening on the acquisitions front during the past few years.
Let’s Go Shopping
It is not that uncommon for enterprise software vendors to grow their solution portfolio by acquiring companies rather than organically developing new products and features. This timeline from a few years ago demonstrated how Oracle and Salesforce were buying companies related to Social CRM technology. (Funnily enough, the company who posted the timeline was first acquired by ExactTarget, which then got sold to Salesforce within 1 year from that post.) Microsoft hasn’t been quite as active in this shopping spree as some of its competitors, but they do seem to have picked up the pace during the past few years.
Are acquisitions a smart way to spend cash then? Back in the days when Microsoft bought Yammer, the price of $1.2 billion was questioned by many. Three years later the valuation of Slack, which you could call “the Yammer of 2015”, is set at $2.8 billion. Once you get to the “three commas” level, the traditional laws of physics no longer apply, meaning it’s not about technology underneath the product or anything else tangible that sets the price tag for a company. So, instead of handing out investment tips to the big boys in the “,,,” club, let’s discuss a more down to earth aspect of software company acquisitions: integrating the new technology with the old.
In these days of cloud based services with open API’s, it’s really not that difficult to develop a bit of code that will allow you add a bullet into your marketing materials, claiming “X now integrates with Z”! Heck, with services like Zapier or IFTTT, even a code illiterate geek like me could take two applications from the consumer or business space and make them talk with one another, just by setting up the business logic via point & click configuration in a browser window. If I’d want to push tweets with a negative sentiment into Dynamics CRM as support tickets, all I really need is to watch a video from Azuqua, sign up for their subscription service and click my way through the process shown below.
In the marketing speak, any software integration will always described as “seamless”. The reality of what you can actually achieve via the integration (if anything) may not become apparent until it is validated in a real-life use case that takes into consideration the variations in configuration & data contents found in live systems, executing an end-to-end business process rather than a simple data exchange between two IT systems. In practice, a cloud application vendor that promises to integrate with 20 different CRM platforms is unlikely to understand very much at all about the built-in logic of each target system, nor the specific use cases in which organizations wish to leverage such integrated features.
Integrating pieces of software together isn’t a very unique task. After all, that’s the origin behind the term “systems integrator” that’s sometimes used when referring to consulting companies that deploy enterprise IT systems like CRM software and stitch it together with other systems. Integrating actual products, on the other hand, is a much more challenging task than just integrating software. Not only do you need to deliver a solution that adapts to the needs of many customers instead of one, but you also must be able to align the capabilities of all the related products in your portfolio in such a way that makes sense to the customers and end users. Avoiding redundancy and overlap while still smoothly transitioning the old & new users towards the new, truly seamless experience that delivers on the promises made regarding the integration – yeah, I can imagine that being a bit of a product management challenge for sure.
Microsoft’s Acquisition & Integration Track Record
The list of acquisitions Microsoft has made in the recent years that involved product functionality related to Dynamics CRM includes the following notable examples:
- Skype (2011) – At $8.5B, this was the biggest MSFT acquisition to date and the Skype brand has since then replaced Lync as the telephony/messaging brand for consumers and businesses alike.
- Yammer (2012) – Another big one. The whole social revolution in information work meant MSFT needed to make both their products as well as product development processes more like that startup & viral model of Yammer and less like that traditional enterprise software world of Office & co.
- MarketingPilot (2012) – Although not primarily a marketing automation solution for digital channels originally, the MP acquisition was transformed into Microsoft Dynamics Marketing (MDM) to attract the CMO’s with an technology budget that would soon pass that of the CIO.
- Netbreeze (2013) – While Yammer targeted the internal social collaboration scenarios in organizations, monitoring the public social media channels needed a separate channel. Enter Netbreeze with it’s initial Microsoft Social Listening brand and the later reincarnation as Social Engagement (MSE).
- Parature (2014) – Along with marketing resources targeted to social channels at a growing pace, the customer service work also moved away from call centers into online support portals and customer reps communicating via services like Facebook. Parature was the answer to meeting the market demand on this front.
For each of these products it was easy to come up with numerous scenarios in which the organizations using Dynamics CRM could benefit from embedding this new technology into being a part of the sales, marketing and service processes managed via CRM, linked directly into the account & contact records, thus promising to deliver that a true 360 view of the customer relationship. Of course the mere change of ownership for the IPR behind these acquired technologies didn’t yet change anything in the physical world that would make such scenarios become reality. How would these new pieces of the puzzle in practice be fitted together with the existing big picture was the important question to ask. Would 1 and 1 be 2+, or closer to “one point something”?
At the time of acquisition, there were some existing integrations to Dynamics CRM available for Yammer and Parature. If we take the former as an example, then there was obvious overlap between Yammer and CRM’s own Activity Feeds feature that was introduced to the platform on the year before. While Yammer of course has far more end user functionality available in its own application, on the Dynamics CRM side there’s actually quite a lot less that we can do with these type of social posts in the business process context than with the native Activity Feeds feature of CRM. Since the posts are now split into two different feeds (Yammer and “System Posts”) inside two different databases with two different security models and several different client application UI’s, it’s not so obvious that this new integrated world is a better fit for all Dynamics CRM customer organizations. (For a discussion on the future of Yammer & CRM, check out this blog post from Gustaf Westerlund.)
Looking at a larger integration effort, Microsoft took the foundation of MarketingPilot and rebuilt much of it to create Dynamics Marketing, but they still decided to keep it as a separate application that can be used with or without Dynamics CRM. So, what does this mean for CRM customers then? Looking at the surface, the main application navigation is identical between MDM and CRM, but the form and view controls presented to the end user have different logic in each application. The system administrator cannot perform similar UI and data model customization on MDM than what the CRM platform provides. Microsoft offers a connector service hosted on Azure that synchronizes data between CRM and MDM databases, but the scope is limited to a set of predefined record types. As an end result, while you get a wealth of marketing resource management functionality via MDM, there will be limitations on how you can integrate the solution to act as part of you specific business processes and data model configured into Dynamics CRM.
Doing It The XRM Way
If as an independent application architect it was clear to you from day one that the product you’ve set out to build should work in the most seamless way for Dynamics CRM customers, you probably wouldn’t first develop a separate application and then start thinking about how to connect it with the CRM database. In such a scenario your architecture design would most likely start from the core of the customer data and business processes that CRM is typically used for managing, as you would want to ensure that your solution is well aligned with the installed base of Dynamics CRM organizations out there. Next you would take a look at what functionality the XRM platform offers that could be leveraged as the building blocks of your own solution, to avoid time spent on developing the “plumbing” already available in each CRM deployment where your application would operate. Only after this would you go and build the external services needed in delivering your application’s functionality, by connecting to other systems, presenting data in non-CRM user interfaces where needed, enforcing licensing policies for your product etc.
The XRM way of developing products has clear benefits not only to the solution provider but most importantly to the organization using the product. The user identities and access rights have a single administration point, the user experience is likely more familiar to your CRM users, you have no application interfaces to configure or manage and the data will (mostly) sit inside the same database as your existing customer account and contact information. Most importantly, from a functional perspective, you can keep on building your business specific processes and reporting for the XRM applications in the same way as you would customize your Dynamics CRM application. If you’re seriously investing in CRM as your business process hub, doesn’t that all sound quite tempting?
Also Microsoft appears to have understood the temptation behind such a model, since the Dynamics related acquisitions it has made during this year for the most part have XRM written all over them:
- Mojo Surveys: Design surveys inside CRM, by modeling the questionnaires as CRM entities and tracking the detailed response data back to the customer records. Will be include in CRM 2016 release as a Survey Designer / “Voice of The Customer” feature. Pure XRM ISV solution from Fusion Software, who still continue to work on similar non-MS products like CRM SalesFlow.
- FieldOne: Field service solution that started out in 2001 with a bit more classic approach for their “Terra” product, then bet the farm on XRM and rewrote it as “Sky”. Built on top of Dynamics CRM and also leverages other leading ISV solutions like Resco for mobility and Scribe for integration. Oh, and coincidentally, Adxstudio for their service portals.
- FantasySalesTeam: The only non-XRM product on this acquisition list. Well, I guess it doesn’t hurt MS to have some apps in their portfolio that integrate with Oracle Sales Cloud and the likes…
- Adxstudio: If there ever was a prime example of an XRM application, it would have to be Adxstudio Portals. Their solution was already included as a part of CRM 2011 SDK to replace the earlier Portal Accelerator, and now the circle is complete. With up to 128 custom entities, Adx hasn’t been afraid to use Dynamics as a true XRM platform, all the while offering the critical missing piece that would connect the internal facing business applications with the customer facing websites.
Depending on what’s the position of your application in relation to CRM, it’s of course not mandatory for it to be fully baked into the XRM platform for it to deliver great value to end users. Also, if Microsoft were to just keep on buying more and more ISV solutions into their product portfolio and assimilating them all into one big CRM suite, there’s a potential risk of ending up with a SAP-esque enterprise monolith that’s no longer serving the needs of the customers (by the way, for anyone interested on some insights on the current state of the “SAP nation”, I recommend reading the book by the same name).
Still, I for one am much more optimistic about the recent XRM based acquisitions when it comes to the expected time to value for customers and partners, as there shouldn’t be a pressing need for MS to rearchitect these solutions to try and integrate them with the existing Dynamics CRM product offering. From our perspective, they’ve been done right from the start. In a couple of years time I think we should reflect back on these different acquisitions made, to see if XRM truly got its revenge or not.