Aberdeen InSight: The Road to .NET for Business Applications
Converging on Orlando
Users of the Microsoft Great Plains business applications and many of their VAR partners converged on Orlando for the annual user conference. The audience was evenly split between users of Microsoft Great Plains Dynamics applications and their e-Enterprise applications, which targets larger companies. This audience represents a portion of the company's 4,800 e-Enterprise license holders, fully 40% of whom are outside North America. The Dynamics population is four times that of e-Enterprise today.
What Does It Mean to Be Microsoft?
The culture and atmosphere that characterized Great Plains before the acquisition still hold - as evidenced by the now-Microsoft employees' ongoing good relationships with Great Plains users.
One benefit was obvious: The development effort behind the next release of e-Enterprise -- expected this summer -- far exceeds that of the smaller company alone.
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And while the Great Plains architectural strategy was previously based on .NET anyway, the audience got an earful of the benefits of the Microsoft framework for networked applications -- and Bill Gates as the keynote speaker.
e-Enterprise Grows Up
Great Plains' roots were in solid, small-business accounting packages such as Dynamics. First released in 1996, Microsoft Great Plains e-Enterprise moves into its seventh release this summer with an enterprise-wide solution for the middle and growing markets.
Design goals for Release 7 included increasing productivity, gaining efficiency, and extending the reach of global operations. With this release, e-Enterprise improves its support for multinational organizations. It also eases connectivity with Internet-provided services through system-wide support for Internet links and services.
The extent and range of product enhancements in Release 7 are impressive. New development and Microsoft Great Plains' traditional responsiveness to customer requests have resulted in product enhancements and new functionality in financials, human resources, distribution, e-Commerce, manufacturing, project and field services, customer relationship management, and business analytics. In addition, new technology and tools have been added to the suite.
Microsoft CRM Hits the Streets
Microsoft Customer Relationship Management (CRM), designed to increase sales and the quality of customer service, is scheduled to be available by the fourth quarter. The new application is integrated with e-Enterprise accounts and contracts, payment history, and sales orders, as well as Dynamics, Solomon, and Microsoft Office and Outlook. Features include contact and account information, orders, service issues and incident management, reporting capabilities, collateral management, lead reporting and routing, and customer service. Included is a customer portal accessible over the Web for self-service support information.
Microsoft CRM is procurable as a stand-alone application as well as an integrated module of e-Enterprise.
Enhancements Across e-Enterprise
Enhancements cover the breadth of e-Enterprise. Some examples include Financials, Distribution, e-Commerce, Manufacturing, Project Accounting Management, Field Services, and Business Analytics.
New Technology and Tools
e-Enterprise 7.0 provides a wide range of new tools and integration functionality through the Microsoft Great Plains product suite. Office XP Smart Tag Manager, as one example, provides context-sensitive links embedded in Microsoft Office documents that link to key master records throughout e-Enterprise. Initial Smart Tag IDs recognize general ledger accounts, checkbooks, customers, employees, items, salespersons, and vendors.
Great Plains' security product -- previously Omni Security, now called Advanced Security -- has also benefited from Microsoft's resources. The product supports a multi-user, multi-company, and multi-dictionary Explorer-style interface, which can control form, window, field, record, table, and report access, as well as tools and document access, posting permissions, and SmartList objects. SmartList now includes fixed assets purchase; receiving transactions; receiving line items; landed cost group IDs; landed cost IDs; tax detail transactions; Canadian payroll employee master; pay code year-to-date; outstanding accrued amounts; and transaction history.
Service tools address financial modifications in the back office, such as tools for financials, distribution, human resources, services, and technical support.
Integration tools also support component object model (COM) objects, MSMQ for message queuing, and eXtensible Markup Language (XML).
Microsoft Great Plains online training is enhanced with the addition of a direct link to an online mentor, interactive quizzes, simulations to practice what has been learned, and improved participant record tracking. A more intuitive navigation system makes the online learning experience easier.
Great Plains has always been dedicated to meeting the needs and requests of its user community in all aspects of product development and enhancement. As a Microsoft Business Unit, there appears to be no dilution of that dedication. With Microsoft's support for research and development efforts, the extent of both enhancements and new applications integrated into Release 7.0 is indeed impressive. Aberdeen is heartened with the efforts of the combined companies to address users' business requirements. While exercising the care and caution of the past, Great Plains has added new functionality and the technical underpinnings in .NET that bode well for the future.
As Microsoft Great Plains users look forward to CRM applications and the impact of the .NET strategy, there are some questions to which users will require answers:
- 1. How does Microsoft CRM relate to its other initiatives such as the bCentral initiative?
- 2. MS CRM is the first .NET business solution using the .NET framework. Are there trained and knowledgeable partners and distributors to provide the important local presence and required design, implementation, and related products and services for this new technology and architecture?
- 3. Is Microsoft committed to the enterprise business application market space, and the needs of small and medium businesses (SMBs)? Is there an upgrade path?
- 4. What are the integration opportunities and risks for users at SMBs?
- 5. Are smaller Sales Force Automation (SFA) and CRM packages (such as ACT! or Goldmine) complementary to MS CRM? Or do these users need to begin anew with MS CRM?
- 1. What is the Microsoft vision for tying together MS CRM, .NET, .NET My Services, and Passport? How can a typical SMB take advantage of all of this?
- 2. How can suppliers of .NET-enabled services leverage the MS CRM solution and reseller network?
- 3. What are the leading .NET application opportunities for partners wanting to integrate their .NET services into the MS CRM product suite?
- 4. It seems as though the MS CRM and .NET announcements and programs are codependent, but the average small business has enough trouble understanding what CRM is all about. Is there just too much complexity here for the average SMB to assimilate? How does Microsoft/Great Plains plan to address this issue?
- 5. .NET is an architecture and tool set for developing networked services. What do end-users need to know about the architecture to use the services? Is Microsoft confusing end-users with information that really should be directed at developers and the development environment?
- 6. As an end-user of .NET applications, what changes - if any - should a small business plan for, and what will those changes cost?
Katherine Jones is Managing Director, Enterprise Applications, in Aberdeen Group's Human Capital Management practice. Aberdeen Group is a leading IT market analysis and positioning services firm that helps Information Technology vendors establish leadership in emerging markets. For more information, go to www.Aberdeen.com.