Dynamics isn't just for CRM

Often seen as Microsoft's answer to Salesforce, Dynamics is actually a broad business platform with services for everything from fraud protection to field service, retail and IoT.

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Over the last few years, Microsoft has been quietly rebuilding Dynamics from a CRM tool with added ERP capabilities, into a tool for managing the way your business works that makes Azure services like machine learning, cognitive services and IoT easy for business teams to exploit.

Along with Power BI (for visualising and analysing data), PowerApps (for creating custom apps) and Microsoft Flow (for linking those together with Office and other services to create custom workflows), Dynamics 365 is one of the core services in what Microsoft sometimes calls its 'business application platform'. Underneath all of them is a secure business information store called the Common Data Service (CDS) platform.

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Microsoft is using the CDS and Flow as the basis for new services like the cloud version of Project, and it's already built a whole range of different tools inside Dynamics like financials, customer service, field service, project service automation and resource scheduling, so you can pick and choose what your business needs and get it in a familiar interface that looks like Office 365.

If you need custom features inside Dynamics, you can have your development team build those using the same underlying Azure services that Microsoft uses. But in the same say that PowerApps lets you create mobile apps without needing an app development team, Microsoft is building solutions in Dynamics that package up Azure services like IoT Central and Azure AI so you don't need to have a developer create a custom solution for something that a lot of businesses need to do.

Connecting your business together

CRM and ERP are artificial divides: accepting a customer order for a product and knowing whether that product is in the warehouse or out of stock are part of the same business process, even though they're usually thought of as separate 'front office' and 'back office' tasks. Similarly, when the maintenance team drives out and fixes something on a customer site, getting the spare parts they used reordered so you don't run out of stock should be part of the same workflow.

CRM and ERP are the classic systems-of-record for a business, but they're not the only systems of record, with data coming from your website, your factory floor, your supply chain, delivery drivers, retail stores, social media, error reports and tickets in your support system -- even the job applications coming into your company. Different companies need different elements of that, so Dynamics 365 includes an increasingly long list of apps that you can use as part of the service (and adding a new module to a SaaS application means a much faster rollout than ripping and replacing entire business systems).

There's a whole marketplace of partner solutions, but Microsoft offers a lot of Dynamics applications, and it's just launched a set of updates and new tools.

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Dynamics Virtual Agents can automate customer support.

Image: Microsoft

For small businesses, there's a single solution for doing business management, Dynamics 365 Business Central. For enterprises, there are some 20-odd applications, ranging from HR tools for hiring, onboarding and managing employees to field service, to Dynamics Virtual Agent chatbots for customer support. The latter, available later this year, will be able to make appointments or look up customer account details rather than just answer common questions from an FAQ. Some of the sales and support tools are fairly standard: tracking leads, using LinkedIn to get more details about potential customers, or pulling data from web searches and social media to see what customers are saying about you (or your competitors), but you could add in a workflow to make sure your responses to online conversations follow company guidelines.

Microsoft uses Dynamics 365 for Customer Service internally to manage update releases for Windows. Instead of people sending emails, checking build logs and manually passing things on to other teams, the engineers that build Windows put the details of what's getting released into the Dynamics pipeline and it gets packaged, targeted to the right systems and flighted out to Windows Update automatically as long as it passes all the right checks along the way. Marketing and support teams can see the progress on a dashboard so they don't have to interrupt the engineers to ask what's happening. It used to take over a week to manage all the steps of packaging a Windows update for release; now it's down to four hours.

The Sales, Customer and Customer Service Insight tools give you business intelligence about leads and customers, like which deals are going cold, what personalised recommendations you should show a particular customer, or whether one of your products is turning out to be unreliable and might have a design problem. Dynamics Customer Insights now covers B2B scenarios as well as B2, so you can use it when you're part of a supply chain as well as for consumer sales.

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These tools take data from other systems like SAP and Adobe Marketing Cloud -- so you can look at, say, the offers in your loyalty program and your sales together to work out what kind of incentives work to encourage more repeat business. But they can also integrate with systems you don't normally think of as being part of CRM or ERP.

The new Fraud Protection app is based on the AI-powered fraud prevention system Microsoft uses for Outlook.com and Xbox to see if someone signing up or buying a game is a legitimate visitor or a potential fraud: you can use it to protect account signup processes as well as ecommerce. 

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Dynamics 365 Commerce offers tools for building product pages and managing online orders.

Images: Microsoft

As well as a general Dynamics 365 for Retail app, there are two specialised new apps. Dynamics 365 Commerce covers both physical retail and ecommerce, with tools for building product pages on a website, managing online orders that people want to pick up in store, and sending out surveys to track customer satisfaction with what they bought.

Connected Store lets you use sensors and video cameras to instrument a physical shop the way you can a website, whether that's watching the tills to see if you need more checkout staff to handle a long queue, spotting gaps on the shelves and restocking products or monitoring the temperature of fridges and freezers. You could build that kind of solution on Azure IoT Central, which this is based on, but Dynamics has it all built and ready to customise.

Dynamics 365 Supply Chain Management now includes IoT monitoring. Australian snack maker Majans, which specialises in crispy fried snacks, is already using Dynamics 365 for Finance and Operations to manage manufacturing, logistics and distribution. Now it's adding real-time monitoring and preventive maintenance, which is based on Azure Machine Learning finding potential failures in advance. Checking the salt and moisture levels of a batch in a lab takes 30 minutes to an hour: with 1,000 kilograms of snacks going down the production line in an hour, that's a lot of waste if there's a problem. With a spectrometer, results can be back through Azure in a minute.

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Discover problems and anomalies with Dynamics 365 Product Insights.

Image: Microsoft

Dynamics 365 Product Insights gives you telemetry from connected physical products once you've sold them to customers; Ecolab is using that to track its commercial dishwashers to spot anomalies like a model that starts using too much detergent or not enough water -- under the hood, that's Azure Machine Learning too.

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Show customers 3D models of your products with Dynamics 365 Product Visualize and notes from the meeting end up in the sales system.

Image: Microsoft

Three HoloLens applications make it easy to use augmented reality in your business without needing to build custom tools: Layout lets you see virtual designs in physical environments to see if they fit; Remote Assist lets an expert back at the office collaborate with field staff; and Guides lets you annotate the real world with tips and virtual tests for training.

Product Visualize is an iOS app that lets customers see products in mixed reality. So if you sell kitchens, yachts or something else buyers want to explore before you actually make it, you can create a virtual version they can walk around. You make the 3D model using the CAD assets you already have for manufacturing, and store it in SharePoint, so you don't need a development team with AR experience. It's also connected to your sales system, so if the customer wants a custom option like doors that open the other way round, you can write a note or draw right onto the model and it stays with their information and doesn't get forgotten along the way.

The new apps extend Dynamics 365 a long way beyond CRM into categories Microsoft calls 'observational, analytical and transactional' such as IoT and mixed reality, finding and predicting patterns within your business and actually doing business.

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