Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What is a Solution Accelerator?

We are often asked what is the difference between a software product and a solution accelerator such as Microsoft Stimulus360 or Microsoft Grants360. The distinction is important because confusing solution accelerators (also called templates or solutions) with products leads to unmet expectations.

All of us are familiar with software products such as Word, Excel or Outlook. These products contain features and do certain tasks for us. While they allow for some configuration and personalization of preferences, they essentially work the same way for all users. This is acceptable because word processing and email are largely similar for users in many industries. My Exchange and Outlook setup may be bigger or smaller than an organization, but essentially the user experience is the same.

Products usually come with prescriptions on how they are installed and configured, and this process is made as easy as possible. For some products. it is as simple as clicking a link, downloading and a couple of clicks later the product is installed.

Solution accelerators are more like tools than they are like products. In other words, instead of getting a table you are getting wood, hardware, and sometimes even a saw to cut the pieces to length. Grants360, for instance, provides a website for soliciting grant applications. The website works right out of the box, and a user can submit an application, but for a complete solution you need to do some analysis and customization. For instance, you would replace the logo in the sample with your organization's logo, replace the instructions with your instructions, and perhaps add new fields that are germane to the type of grant you are awarding.

Solution accelerators make sense for line of business applications which do not have universally consistent business rules or features. Grants for homeless shelters track different information from grants for cancer research or environment cleanup, so the solution accelerator approach allows the required tailoring. Microsoft Stimulus360, for instance, contained reports which met the requirements of the Office of Management and Budget for ARRA (stimulus) grants.

Custom reports are almost always needed for line of business solutions. Each manager likes to see data in a different way. Analyzing reporting needs also uncovers data fields that should be added to the solution.

A solution accelerator is a different approach than custom development, which offers nearly unlimited customization but is expensive, risky and time consuming. Solution accelerators fit somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, between off-the-shelf products and custom development.

If you choose a solution accelerator, you need to plan for services including requirements analysis, configuration, customization, training, and documentation. The effort required will be more than a typical product installation, but the work is required for line of business solutions if you want them to match the way your organization works.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Microsoft Releases Grants360

On September 20, 2010 Microsoft released Grants360, a solution accelerator for grantee organizations. InfoStrat and its partner TrueTandem developed the solution to provide end-to-end management of the grant process, from soliciting applications to review, award, and post award tracking.

Grants360 (databasheet) is build using Microsoft Dynamics CRM for the management module and Microsoft Azure for the public website. This means that when Dynamics CRM 2011 is available, the entire solution can be hosted in the cloud (by Microsoft), hosted by a third party or run on premise.

Grants360 (demo)complements Stimulus360. Where Stimulus360 was tailored to the unique requirements of federal stimulus (ARRA) grants, Grants360 is more general purpose. It can even be used by non-profits for their grant activities.

We are posting more materials on the solution on GovServer.com. Watch for video demos and tutorials coming soon.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Top Ten New Features of Dynamics CRM 2011

At InfoStrat, we have been eagerly awaiting the newest version of Dynamics CRM and are excited to see it available now to the public. Now is a good time to learn more about the new version.

If you have an hour for a demonstration, check out this video:

http://digitalwpc.com/Videos/AllVideos/Permalink/f9625bd7-7009-4bed-ab7a-c3fbb548d6ac

If you want a shorter summary, here are my top ten enhancements to Dynamics CRM 2011:
  1. Cloud. Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online will have fewer constraints on customization, making it easier to use Microsoft as your hosting provider. To show its commitment to the cloud, Microsoft will make Dynamics CRM 2011 available on the cloud before it distributed for on premise deployment.
  2. Integration with SharePoint. You can use SharePoint for document management along with Dynamics CRM. We have done this ourselves for our solutions but now Microsoft is doing it for us.
  3. Slickness. The user interface has been updated, replacing tabs with the familiar Office ribbon and generally looking more modern.
  4. Multi-form capability. This allows you to design a form that changes based on data entered by user or based on user roles. It could be done in the past but required serious coding.
  5. Field level security. Combined with multi-form, this offers a great deal of flexibility that was not practical with prior versions of the product.
  6. Dashboards. You can build the same flashy dashboards you are used to in SharePoint with Dynamics CRM. Maps, graphs, the works.
  7. Custom activities. Extend the standard activities in Dynamics CRM such as phone and email by adding your own.
  8. Workflow dialogs. Make workflow interactions more sophisticated by creating custom dialogs.
  9. Outlook integration. Dynamics CRM 2011 improves the integration, especially for creating emails in Outlook.
  10. Data auditing. This is another feature that we have needed for a long time. We developed our own plug-in for earlier versions but are grateful that Microsoft is including in the product.
I hope these hints of the new features will tempt you to take a look for yourself. InfoStrat will be making its GovServer solutions available in Dynamics CRM 2011 on the heels of the release.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Microsoft Releases Dynamics CRM 2011 Beta

Today Microsoft unleashed the long awaited new version of Dynamics CRM to the public. You will find a dramatically revamped user interface, tighter integration with Microsoft Outlook, and technical parity between the Microsoft-hosted version and running Dynamics CRM on premise.

Go here for a test drive: http://offers.crmchoice.com/CRM2011Beta-Landing

or the download links: http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/en/details.aspx?FamilyID=0c7dcc45-9d41-4e2e-8126-895517b4274c&displayLang=en

For InfoStrat, the new version makes it easier for us to offer our solutions in whatever deployment mode our clients need -- on premise, hosted or cloud.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Lessons from Northrop Grumman Failure in Virginia?

This week witnessed one of the most dramatic government information technology failures ever, with an outage that paralyzed twenty six state government services for days in Virginia. The Department of Motor Vehicles was the most visible outage, leaving thousands of frustrated motorists and forcing law enforcement to relax enforcement to allow time for drivers' license renewals.

Northrop Grumman holds long term contracts for IT services worth more than $2.5 billion which has generated controversy since it began.

Investigators will be sifting through the incident to determine the causes. What lessons will emerge from this crisis? How can similar problems be averted in the future? Are massive outsourcing contracts a mistake? Would state employees have performed better than contractors in resolving the issues or coming up with workarounds?

Some press accounts pointed to hardware failure in devices manufactured by EMC which were highly unlikely to fail as they did. Recovery procedures took longer than anticipated and some data is still missing as of today, including 12,000 to 16,000 photographs for licenses and delivery cards.

The only people who can be grateful for this incident are those who write business textbooks, as this is certain to become a popular case study,