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Dynamics CRM Customizations for Government Contractors

If your business focuses on government contracting, you can tailor Microsoft Dynamics CRM to help you manage your business development efforts.  Out of the box, Dynamics CRM is missing some of the data elements you will need to track opportunities, and the standard business processes will probably not match your requirements.

You may want to consider how you approach marketing and determine whether or not you want to use the Leads entity or purchase mailing lists for marketing purposes.  Our experience is that many traditional marketing approaches do not work well for government customers.  One reason is that government separates the people who need products and services from people who purchase them.

You can populate the Accounts entity with all the agencies and sub-agencies that you sell to.  Be sure to enter the data to reflect the hierarchical nature of government agencies, departments, branches and offices. This data is available from several sources for import if you would like…

Microsoft Dynamics for Government Contractors

A recent article in the Washington Post told the story of the rise of Deltek, a company that pioneered research and accounting for government contractors.  According to the article, the company has virtually cornered the software market in government contractors because it is perceived as the only choice for companies that want to feel secure in compliance with government accounting rules.  Government auditors make contractors feel like they are taking a risk if they choose anything other than Deltek.

It turns out that there are alternatives to Deltek which may be better choices for many government contractors.  Microsoft and its implementation partners offer the Microsoft Dynamics family of products which can fulfill the needs of large and small government contractors.

McGladrey, for instance, offers Dynamics SL accounting software which has been tailored to the needs of government contractors.   Pleasant Valley Business Solutions has helped government contractors migrate from Delte…

Microsoft Cloud, Hybrid and On Premise Options -- Update from the Field

InfoStrat has witnessed growing interest in cloud computing among its customers, but not as much movement as you might expect based on the amount of press received from cloud computing.  Our primary customers are public sector: federal government, state and local government, and education.  These are not usually the first to implement new technology, so they tend to lag behind trends.   Nonetheless, we are seeing solicitations which either call for cloud deployment or request bids for both cloud and on premise deployment.

Another barrier to cloud computing is that government agencies impose security standards for computing solutions, and cloud providers are scrambling to achieve certifications such as FISMA and FedRAMP which are needed by federal agencies. 

Our solutions are based on the Microsoft platform, especially SQL Server, Dynamics CRM, and SharePoint.  Most of our clients own traditional volume licenses for these Microsoft products, and Microsoft affords an unusual flexibilit…

Notes on Upgrading from Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011 to Dynamics CRM 2013

The following are notes on upgrading from Dynamics CRM 2011 to Dynamics CRM 2013 from InfoStrat’s Dynamics CRM lead Dmitri Riz.
In many ways, the upgrade to Dynamics CRM 2013 is less painful than the transition from version 3.0 to 4.0 or from 4.0 to Dynamics CRM 2011.In general, if your site has been already upgraded to CRM 2011 Rollup Update 12 or later, you shouldn’t experience significant issues with updating to CRM 2013.
The upgrade process falls into following large categories:
     1.Find incompatible/legacy code and update it
2.Upgrade to 2013 (if using on-premise)
3.Review and refactor the user interface (UI) to adopt the new form and navigation paradigm.

Dynamics CRM 2013 removes all support from legacy 4.0 features. All references to objects like crmForm or 2007 web service endpoints such as ‘…/mscrmservices/2007/crmservice.asmx’; ISV folder, CRM 4.0 plugins are all unsupported and should be replaced with updated objects.
Use the Legacy Feature Check tool (http://go.microsoft.com/…

Microsoft Grants Manager Plus

The latest version of Microsoft Grants Manager Plus contains new features and enhancements based on feedback from users as well as software updates from Microsoft . This is a summary of what is new as of November 2013.

Integration with Microsoft Dynamics AX Most grant management solutions require integration with a financial management system.Grants Manager Plus includes integration with Microsoft Dynamics AX to offer a more complete solution for the entire grant lifecycle.

Grants Manager includes sample code to integrate with Microsoft Dynamics AX.This integration allows authorizationof funding sources and processing of payment requests from Grants Manager Plus.
New Program Data Elements The data model for grant programs has been expanded to include new program classification elements (Budget Activities, Program Attributes, Program Skills).

Automated Financial Rollups New reporting includes financial summaries on grant and program levels.

Multi-Browser Support Grants Manager Plus is comp…

Upgrade to Dynamics 2011 or 2013?

As we mark the countdown to the next version of Microsoft Dynamics CRM, many questions arise around what will happen next. 

When can I upgrade? Will the new version be available at the same time for online and on premise customers?
What if I'm on Dynamics CRM Online?  Will I be forced to upgrade?  Can I schedule the upgrade?
If I'm still on Dynamics CRM 4.0, should I upgrade to 2011 and then to 2013 or go straight to 2013? 

Here is an excellent blog post on the subject from Intergen. 

Microsoft has tried to make the upgrade as painless as possible while packing in as much new innovation as possible.  

You cannot get the most out of the new version without considering how new features impact your users and by providing training to help people discover new features and take advantage of them.



Why Microsoft Should Buy Netflix

With the retirement of Steve Ballmer and the acquisition of Nokia, Microsoft has shown just how serious it is about the vision of becoming a devices and services company.  The question is how Microsoft can close the gap with Google and Apple to become a contender in the mobile and tablet market.

One way would be to give Microsoft device users free legal access to entertainment content.  Imagine if Microsoft purchased Netflix and gave its device subscribers access to the Netflix content library.  Based on my informal survey at the lunch table, this would be enough to get many people to give up their iPhones and Androids and give Windows Phone a chance.

Customization Makes Software Users Happier

Most of our clients are looking for off-the-shelf software to fulfill their needs for line of business solutions.   Their requests for proposals typically contain a long list of desired features, and we are asked to characterize whether the feature is "out of the box" or requires customization or custom programming.   Proposals are scored higher if they have more features listed as "out of the box" and as few as possible requiring custom development.

I understand the motivation for this approach.   Custom development has fallen out of favor, and more "out of the box" features reduces time, cost, and risk for an implementation.  This approach is not sophisticated enough to lead to the best choice, however.

Many features required in a line of business solution are inherently "custom" because organizations follow business rules and workflows that are quite specific for their industry and niche.  Companies strive to differentiate themselves from on…

Shop for Fit and Not for Function

In fashion, the way your clothes fit is more important than whether they are the latest style.   If they are too long, too short, too tight or too loose, you can't achieve the comfort and style you seek. 

So it is with enterprise software.  When we see a request for proposals, it usually contains hundreds of detailed specifications for features, but only a cursory list of requirements for compatibility with enterprise architecture and integration with other systems.

This feature-centric approach leads to poor software choices and increases the long term expense of integration and support.  If your organization has adopted standard software services for all departments, you should not keep re-purchasing the same features every time any department needs a new point solution.   Your organization can save money by standardizing on a database, reporting tools, email, and other shared services.  

The way a solution fits with the rest of your architecture may be more important than man…

Standardize the Platform, Not the Solution -- Assimilation is Futile

Many organizations are plagued by incompatible software solutions that proliferate in multiple departments.  These solutions are expensive to support because they may require different skills from developers and system administrators. The quality of data also suffers because records are updated in one department and not another. The result is a search for a single system that will rule them all.

If this sounds familiar, it is because the desire for a monolithic and comprehensive software solution is timeless and universal.    The problem is that this quest is futile, and has been shown repeatedly to fail by large and small organizations.

Politics is usually the reason that a universal solution fails, not technology.   Individual departments know their data much better than anyone else, and are justifiably reluctant to give up control.

Change is also the archenemy of the monolithic solution.  It takes time to document and implement requirements, and these business needs are subject t…

Portal Options for Microsoft Grants Manager

Microsoft Grants Manager provides a comprehensive solution for grantor organizations to track the full lifecycle of a grant.  Most grantees publish grant opportunities on a website and accept online grant applications. The website or portal may be used to report application status, payment requests, and post-award reporting.  Because you cannot control which browser is used by grant applicants, it is desirable to choose tools which are browser neutral, and avoid requiring software downloads.

In a Grants Manager implementation, you have several options for a public facing portal:

1. The most common scenario is to add pages to your existing website, using your content management system such as SharePoint.  These pages connect to Dynamics CRM with web services.   The web page developer codes in the integration between the web pages and the Dynamics CRM used by Grants Manager.

2.  If you need to allow for offline users, you could accept applications using document formats such as Word, E…

Constraints are Killers for IT Projects

After working on information technology projects for many years, I'm here to declare what may be obvious -- it's not the technology that's the problem, it's the constraints.

Software and hardware technology keeps improving, and offers many innovations that can dramatically change how government and business work.  But the constraints remain intractable.

Project management literature is rich in discussions on working with constraints, such as the tradeoffs between schedule, cost, and scope.  The implicit assumption is that all the parties working on a project are rational players and motivated to achieve the stated project goal.  I have experienced other constraints that are not usually discussed and which are even more hazardous to the health of a project:

1. Communications constraints.  A great way to make a project fail is to isolate the project team from stakeholders and prevent communication with people who are most knowledgeable about system requirements.

2. Pol…

Choosing a Deployment Model for Microsoft Dynamics CRM

Microsoft offers customers three primary choices on how to deploy Microsoft Dynamics CRM: cloud, hosted, and on premise.  Here are some of the key differences among these choices which may help you decide which is best for your solution. 

Dynamics CRM Online

Cloud-hosted Dynamics CRM is the fastest path to deployment, and undoubtedly the least expensive for a small number of users.     You can have CRM Online up and running in the time it takes to sign up and enter your credit card payment information, and you don't have to purchase any server hardware or server software.

For most customers, Microsoft CRM Online costs $65/user/month.  Microsoft has non-profit pricing which is even lower for qualified organizations. This subscription fee covers both the hosting and the associated software licenses.   This deployment model is rapid -- Microsoft manages the infrastructure and you don't need to install anything on your servers.  It is flexible and quite scalable, so you can add …

InfoStrat Cost Calculator for Dynamics CRM Implementations

InfoStrat has created a calculator to help customers explore costs for licensing, hosting, and professional services relating to Dynamics CRM projects.   This calculator is based on many assumptions (list price for software, nominal blended rates for services) and is missing some cost items (data migration, hardware, and integration) but is a starting point for understanding the total cost of initial implementation and total cost of ownership.

The tool will be refined based on user feedback.  It is no substitute for talking to an experienced implementation team and getting the actual prices based on your Microsoft volume licensing agreement and professional services provide.

We hope you enjoy.

Usage Scenarios for Microsoft Grants Manager

Government agencies have diverse requirements when it comes to automating grants management.  I have been helping customers evaluate Microsoft Grants Manager and it turns out that each agency has a unique approach which requires some customization in order to optimally match their business rules.  One size definitely does not fit all when it comes to grants.

Federal agencies are the largest grantors, and rarely receive grants except perhaps from other federal agencies.  These agencies are bound by guidelines established by the Office of Management and Budget and are striving for more consistent approaches to grants such as accepting applications via the grants.gov portal.    Many of their grants are formula grants rather than competitive grants, and the formulas themselves may be quite complicated.    Typically the grant managers are scattered among offices within an agency rather than centralized, although some are consolidating.  The volume of applications and dollar value of feder…

Microsoft Dynamics CRM and Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

Maps are a great complement to CRM systems, and can help you visualize data in exciting new ways.  Over the years, InfoStrat has integrated Microsoft Dynamics CRM with GIS including ArcGIS (ESRI) and Bing Maps (Microsoft).

One of our first GIS integrations was to show cases from constituent management on a map using "pushpins."  This solution allows users to see a map of open cases and filter by search criteria.

Field inspection is a great scenario for mapping.    Inspections use maps to navigate to inspection sites, and can present inspection results in maps.

Mashups of data from multiple sources, including CRM, can be useful.   This visualizations can include business graphs integrated with maps.

Interactive video conferencing often uses maps to communicate critical information.   The virtual meeting experience can be enhanced with Microsoft Kinect as a 3D controller.

Modern GIS data and images may be used for scientific and historical research.

The extensibility of Dyn…

The Secrets of IT Project Success -- Willpower

Stories of failed information technology (IT) projects are legion, and the poor success rates have been documented in many studies.  To some extent, the larger the project and the more time and money spent, the more elusive the success.

I have been mulling over the reasons for project success based on my experience participating in projects and reading about the industry.  Of course there are many reasons for success and failure, but I think the most important one is the willpower of the stakeholders and key project participants.

Nearly all IT projects are challenging, and could easily be considered failures or the project team doesn't adapt to changes in requirements, technology, and other factors.    

The assumption that requirements are finite and stable is unrealistic.  Rigid requirements can lead to project failure, or a product that technically meets the requirements but doesn't actually work.   It's easy to point blame to all the participants in the project, from f…

Don't Call People Resources

I know that in project management, people are considered resources in the same way that raw materials are considered resources, but for software development projects I have found it counterproductive to treat people like so many interchangeable parts.

The success of a software project hinges on the interactions among many people, including the client, subject matter experts, project managers, testers, trainers and developers.  In addition to their experience and expertise, these people bring with them their personalities and communications styles. 

Because software development is more a team exercise, like filming a movie, than an individual exercise, like writing a book, the overall team dynamic is just as important as individual qualifications.   It is quite possible to put together a team of people with excellent resumes who will be quite ineffective when forced to work with one another.

I have run into clients who focus excessively on comparing resumes as if they provide an indic…

Estimating the Cost of Dynamics CRM Implementations: Part 8 -- Future Enhancements

This is the latest installment of ruminations on cost estimating for Dynamics CRM projects. Now that your xRM solution is in place and you have determined what kind of support you need to keep it alive, is that all there is?

For some customers, maintenance is the last item that requires professional services.   But building a software solution isn't usually like building a stone obelisk and placing it in the middle of your piazza.  For most people, it's more like planting a garden, and will require not only tending but will evolve over time based on which plants thrive.

The future may bring changes that require modifications to the solution.  Government agencies must ensure that their policies and procedures are consistent with laws and regulations which are constantly changing.   This regulatory compliance is not optional.

What if you come up with an improved business process and want to reflect it in your CRM solution?   Such changes could affect the data model, automated w…

Estimating the Cost of Dynamics CRM Implementations: Part 7 -- Support

This week we examine alternatives and costs for supporting your Dynamics CRM (xRM) implementation. In the long run, it is not unusual for the support to end up costing more than the implementation itself, but cutting corners on support can put user satisfaction and adoption at risk.

The first step is to determine what support arrangement you have with Microsoft?   Who is authorized to create Microsoft support incidents?   Does your organization have assigned Microsoft technical support managers? Microsoft can help with product questions and issues that arise from software updates.   In most cases, they will not be familiar with your specific implementation. 

Next, do you have a help desk or do you need to hire an outside company to provide help desk services?   Do you need coverage during business hours or 24 hours x 7 days a week?  Will your users call your help desk to report their initial issue?

How will you handle enhancements to your solution? Do you intend to publish new versio…

Estimating the Cost of Dynamics CRM Implementations: Part 6 -- Training

No software implementation is successful without adoption, and most enterprise solutions require training in order to be adopted.    Training is often shortchanged in Dynamics CRM and xRM implementations. 

You should include training in your project plan, and start work on training materials as soon as use cases are created for the solution.     Analysis, development, testing, and training all should be tightly connected so you end up training to the requirements and usage scenarios you have identified.

Several options are available for training on CRM, including:
Custom hands-on classroom training in a lab environment, tailored to your specific implementation. This is the most intensive and expensive option, but is appropriate in many cases, especially for critical and complex solutions.Standard CRM classroom training.  Microsoft authorizes training centers around the world to deliver the standard approved training for its products.  Video training.  The content may be similar to cl…

Three Letters that Cost Government Millions

Federal, state and local governments waste millions or perhaps billions of dollars by making requests for proposals too vague, and hedging their bets with language which forces contractors to pad their estimates in order to reduce the risk of misunderstanding requirements and scope creep.

Just three letters -- "etc" -- account for significant waste.  We often see "etc." added to the end of a long list of requirements as if to protect the writer of the solicitation from an inadvertent omission. Other phrases are sometimes used in place of "etc." such as "including but not limited to."

Bidders have two options in handling ambiguous requests.   One is to bid low, hoping either that the unknown requirements will not be large and sink their project or planning to use change orders to cover the revelation of the unknown with additional funding.  The other option is to bid high, conservatively adding time and dollars to a bid to cover even what has no…

Estimating the Cost of Dynamics CRM Implementations: Part 5 -- Installation

How much time should you budget for installing and configuring Dynamics CRM?  

If you choose a cloud or hosted deployment, the installation will be done for you.     The only thing you will need to do that resembles installation is to install your customizations and set up your users.

For on premise installation, the cost can vary significantly.    We have spent from one day to two weeks or more, depending on the number of environments to be installed and the state of network and SQL Server infrastructure. One of the factors that causes delays is when many people are involved in managing different servers and networks. In a large enterprise, you can end up bouncing among people who have various permissions, trying to find the right person to do the right installation task.

If you are in a virtualized environment, you can save time by using standard server images and copying them for multiple Dynamics CRM environments. 

We have employed a technique which radically decreases the time…

Estimating the Cost of Dynamics CRM Implementations: Part 4 -- Integration

If you have been following this series, part four takes us from the relatively clear formulae of software licensing and the function-driven, gap analysis of customization, into the wilds of software integration.   The cost of integration cannot be derived from the number of users or even the complexity of the xRM solution.  It can only be determined with a thorough understanding of the systems to be integrated and the nature of the integration that is required.

We often encounter implementation solicitations that include integration requirements.  Usually, there is a line in the long list of requirements that says something like "integrate with our accounting, timesheets, federal systems, etc." We always say that the price of an unspecified feature cannot be specified.  In order words, without a detailed definition of how two systems will be integrated, an estimate of scope is useless. That little et cetera often found in requirements is of course the worst three letters you…

Estimating the Cost of a Dynamics CRM Implementation: Part 3 -- Customizations

In the last installment of our saga, we looked at the Microsoft licensing cost for a Dynamics CRM solution.    Now let's take a look at the cost of customizations and software development.  This is significantly more complex than deriving the licensing costs, and is derived based on functional requirements for the specific solution.

The least expensive solutions usually are for the most common CRM scenarios, such as sales force automation, customer service, and marketing (or outreach).   These scenarios match the out-of-the-box functionality of Dynamics CRM well to begin with.   You are likely to require some additional data elements and reports, and nearly certain to need some workflows to match your business processes, but will not need too many new fields or entities.

The most expensive xRM solutions are those that do not match the out-of-the-box entities, forms and reports, and which require integration with other systems.   At the extreme end of customization, the cost will…

Estimating the Cost of a Microsoft Dynamics CRM Implementation -- Part 2: Software Licensing

The cost of a Microsoft Dynamics CRM implementation includes software licensing, internal costs of the time of your staff, and sometimes hardware and professional services from Dynamics CRM specialists. 

To determine the cost of the software licensing, you must determine the deployment mode and choose which type of licenses you will need. You can start here: http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/dynamics/crm-purchase-support.aspx  The comprehensive source is here: http://crmpublish.blob.core.windows.net/docs/Pricing_Licensing_Guide.pdf   Keep on reading if you would like a briefer introduction to your options.  

Your reseller is best source for software pricing, and can create a quote based on your volume license agreement.  If your organization has an enterprise agreement for Microsoft products, it will offer the best prices.  

Counting Your Users and Servers

Dynamics CRM is licensed based on named users, so the first step in calculating costs is to count your users.      First, count int…

Estimating the Cost of a Dynamics CRM Implementation -- Part 1

One of the questions I am asked most frequently by clients is to estimate the cost of a software implementation project.   My most common answer, "it depends," is not satisfying for them or for me, so I am going to explore this topic in depth and offer an approach for estimating implementations of Dynamics CRM, especially the xRM approach which involves using CRM as a development platform for a line of business solution.

There are several approaches to project estimation which can produce results with a high degree of accuracy.  In all these approaches, the traditional trade-off triangle among time, cost, and features still applies.    If you want more features, the cost will increase. 

You can start with the easier items to estimate, the hardware and software.  For hardware, many organizations use standard server configurations, so costs are easy to determine.     Don't forget to include all the environments that will be needed.   Enterprise solutions usually call for …

Saving Money with Microsoft Dynamics CRM -- the xRM Approach Part 1

We are putting the final touches on a white paper about using Dynamics CRM  to develop line of business solutions (Microsoft calls this xRM), so here is a preview of the highlights.

Budgets are tight for government at all levels, and agencies are forced to do more with less.    This is nearly always true but has become more acute since the 2008 economic slowdown and more recently with failure to pass federal budgets and resolve the federal debt.  

Information Technology (IT) is part of the problem, because government processes are so specialized that commercial software geared to other industries such as manufacturing or retail simply won't cut it for government.    The most common approach for these solutions has been custom software development -- the IT equivalent of tailor-made suits.  

My company InfoStrat has been in the custom development business for 26 years, but about five years ago we found a new alternative that makes sense for many government solutions.   Instead of…