The transition from Dynamics NAV to Dynamics 365 Business Central may have taken a while, with a few name changes along the way, but in April 2018 we had the full launch of Dynamics 365 Business Central. With Dynamics NAV being trusted by over 2.7 million users, it’s important that its successor offered everything it did and more.
1. Microsoft Messaging was confusing, but the Vision is brilliant
2. Application functionality – Business Central is the same as/better/worse than Dynamics NAV
a. Where are they the same?
b. What are the differences?
c. Where is Business Central functionality better?
3. XaaS is more than using a browser
4. Only selling software will not cut it anymore
5. Development needs to be done differently – if at all
6. Technology requires timing
7. You’re no longer serving ERP, you’re serving a solution
Microsoft Messaging was confusing, but the Vision is brilliant
As a solution architect, I had my eye on ‘Dynamics NAV in the Cloud’ for some time. It was often difficult to get to the bottom of what the plan was. Now the dust has settled, this confusion seems to have been caused by the inexplicable naming conventions that were going on. Towards the back end of 2017, in between promising noises about the Common Data Model and Project Tenerife, if you attempted to pull up an article on Dynamics 365 it was a game of Russian Roulette.
In order to access the right information, you had to use the mouthful of ‘Microsoft Dynamics 365 Finance and Operations, Business Edition’. Names matter, and thankfully the positioning of the various products now sit with greater clarity under the Dynamics 365 Banner.
From Dynamics CRM, we have the Customer Engagement Suite, comprised of Sales & Marketing. For Dynamics NAV, we have Business Central. From Dynamics AX, we have Finance & Operations, Retail and Talent.
Microsoft eradicate isolated silos and deliver an all-in-one solution
The previous hodgepodge of naming confusion had hinted at something visionary from Microsoft however. They were positioning their products now not so much as separate applications, but as modules of an all-encompassing cloud solution. This is not to discount on-premise solutions, of which Business Central still offers a version.
The aim is for a company’s IT systems not to look so much like a bunch of isolated silos. In the past, each system performed their own function, largely ignorant of what was going on in the others, but were somehow expected to share the information that was needed from them. So if a warehouse system shipped an order, maybe someone looking at the CRM system should be able to see this when they’re on the phone to a questioning customer.
Bringing this to life typically involved a huge endeavour with enterprise architects getting to grips with data feeds and ownership from a myriad of complex systems. Microsoft’s out-of-the-box approach demonstrates a dizzying clarity.
Dynamics 365 for Sales and Business Central now synchronise data in shared tables, not simply via an old-style integration. Power BI has dashboards and reports ready to go, as well as easy hooks in for other data. Office 365 is now extremely well connected, and Business Central sales and purchase activities can be executed from within Outlook. Excel, which once had an arms-length relationship with Dynamics NAV, is able to refresh data from Business Central and publish changes back to it.
In short, the Microsoft Ecosystem challenges the entire paradigm of where the boundaries lie between your business system and your Office, Reporting and other applications – or whether indeed any true boundaries will eventually remain.
Application functionality – Business Central vs Dynamics NAV
If you have any level of experience and expectation of Dynamics NAV, a key question we are often asked is, ‘What is the difference in application functionality between Dynamics NAV and Dynamics 365 Business Central?’
That’s a great question – I’m glad you asked. I’ll identify in what ways Dynamics NAV and Business Central are the same, worse and better, comparatively. Microsoft’s development strategy for Business Central is that both the on-premise version and cloud version share a single team of developers. Meaning, any current functionality differences can be expected to be ironed out in the not too distant future.
Where are they the same?
Firstly, and most importantly, the underlying functionality is almost entirely the same.
As an illustration, I did a cursory analysis of the code in the Tables, and found that (adjusting for unimportant differences, such as a caption change), of some 307,000 lines of code against the Tables, over 302,000 were functionally the same.
Of the differences, many of them showed a slightly increased functionality in Business Central compared to Dynamics NAV. One key feature for Dynamics NAV is Limit Totals and Advanced Filtering. In the April 2018 release of Dynamics 365 Business Central, these were not available. However, it has now been added to Business Central. Doing this kind of filtering would have required manipulating the data in Excel. Essentially, modularisation of the product remains the same with its core capabilities still intact for each.
Broadly speaking, if you were able to do something in Dynamics NAV, you will be able to do this in Business Central.
What are the differences?
The support and help Business Central provides to its users is superior. This is to be expected as Microsoft has spent the last two years translating the old Dynamics NAV handbook into easily accessible online help and tooltips split into each field.
One of the most important features Business Central has over Dynamics NAV is that Business Central is updated on a monthly basis by Microsoft. This removes the need for your Microsoft partner to update your software. Most importantly, it means no additional cost for the customer.
Overall personalisation is still better on Windows Client than it is in Business Central. Business Central does outstrip Dynamics NAV using the drag & drop feature that allows users to get their Lists and Cards the way they want them.
The ability to personalise Ribbons and Menu options is also included. When it comes to apps, Independent Software Vendors are slowly coming on board to Business Central. For now, Business Central will have fewer applications than we have been accustomed to in Dynamics NAV.
Shortcut keys, such as familiar favourites like F8 (copy above cell) were not included in the original release. They have since been added however. Again, this represents a success of the development strategy, bringing Dynamics NAV and Business Central in line with one another.
Eagle-eyed users might also notice that there are some fields that are present in Dynamics NAV, but not visible in the Business Central client. For example, ‘Additional Reporting Currency’ on the General Ledger Setup. In some cases, this is because they have been set with an ‘Application Area’ property of ‘#Advanced’. The fields are there in the database; you just can’t see them. It appears likely that Microsoft will be rectifying these as we go forward.
Where is Business Central functionality better?
Looks aren’t everything unless you’re working with Instagram. However, it has to be said that Business Central’s clean lines and on-the-money teal palette make Dynamics NAV 2018 look something of the poor cousin in comparison. The Business Central Role Centre is now more intuitive, and the ‘Insights’ panel is an attractive addition.
Unlike in Dynamics NAV, setup menus are brought together into a single location. A number of setup wizards are available to help non-specialists configure some areas of the system much more readily.
Integration with other Microsoft Cloud services is greatly simplified. A Business Central Extension (perhaps a 3rd Party enhancement) can be deployed from AppSource, tested and uninstalled within a few clicks, requiring no developer input.
Dynamics 365 Business Central covers the vast majority of what you would expect to see in the latest version of Dynamics NAV. The Dynamics 365 Business Central benefits currently outweigh any limitations in functionality. There are some small areas where fields are still waiting to be made visible. However, users should expect an experience that only improves on what they are used to in Dynamics NAV.
XaaS is more than using a browser
Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) and anything else as a service (together referred to as XaaS) represent a fundamental shift that has immediately realisable benefits for business. In each of the above examples, the business requires minimal maintenance and ownership of the service provision. In other words, you no longer need to:
- buy expensive servers
- pay high electricity bills
- use expensive in-house resource time to monitor and support when issues occur.
Initially, SaaS applications can simply appear to be a browser-based version of whatever the ‘normal’ application would have been. Slightly easier, because it doesn’t have to be installed, but slightly less convenient, because browsers sometimes react differently to a Windows client, with things like shortcut keys.
Business Central provided as SaaS eliminates the need for running the database server, as well as one or more Service Tier servers. Storage space is also unlimited, so there are significant infrastructure hosting and management savings.
Improved efficiencies for those businesses on the go
However, the improvements offered extend far beyond infrastructural efficiency. The fact that Business Central is served via an internet connection and is more or less device-agnostic means that it is incredibly easy to consume the data on any device and in any location. Remote-working may not be a requirement for every company, but where they facilitate efficiency, there is no barrier any more.
Additionally, instant access means that decision makers and approvers are not limited to waiting for their arrival in the office. Train journeys between locations and long wait times no longer have to be dead time from a productivity perspective.
XaaS in one sense frees your data from the very narrow channel between your server and your office desktop. It broadens both the scope of an individual’s access to it, and its ability to be shared amongst other cloud platforms.
As previously mentioned in the strength of Microsoft’s vision in establishing a singular ecosystem rather than a raft of separated applications, XaaS means that usable data is shared from Business Central into other applications, such as Power BI, but also data and decisions formed on other platforms, such as Azure Machine Learning and Microsoft Flow can then be pumped back into Business Central – making for the beginning stage of a truly automated intelligent solution.
This is because their data is already prepped and primed to be input and output using pre-existing services. New integrations are no longer required to service this requirement.
It is early days still with respect to the next stage of possibilities, but by creating the access, we can expect the technological adoption of the next phases of artificial intelligence and automation to be more rapidly and rigorously adopted into businesses using Dynamics 365.
Only selling software won’t cut it anymore
Another great change that has coincided with the shift to the cloud is the development of subscription pricing. Previously across the IT industry, it was not unheard of for some companies to be driven on software sales. They might overpromise on what a project might deliver, take the sale of the software and its commission, and then if the finished product came up short or overshot by a number of days, there was enough profit buffer for it not to be too much concern. Sadly, high proportions of ERP and other projects were classed as ‘failed’ implementations. Leaving users and managers frustrated at the systems they were left with.
With subscription-based pricing however, this won’t fly any longer. In order to continue receiving the recurring licence revenue, the relationship between the partner and customer must remain intact. This means that projects must result in higher levels of customer satisfaction. Those companies that are unable to deliver that are not likely to thrive in the new world. Clients that have moved from Dynamics NAV to Business Central should therefore be among the most satisfied.
Delivering improved customer satisfaction
For the customer, the concept of TCO – ‘Total Cost of Ownership’ – also needs to be considered differently. The solution is now less of a Capex expenditure, and more of an Opex recurring expense, and so it hits the books in a different way.
Additionally, project overruns that are pushed back onto partners can no longer be swept under the carpet. The software margin that might have previously covered it is no longer there. This is great news for customers and great news for the industry. Inevitably, this will result in an increase of standards in some areas, and a squeezing out of suppliers that aren’t able to deliver.
Good, strong project management is increasingly essential in this professional services-driven model. It would not be surprising to see more projects priced and delivered using agile methodology, as when run properly it can significantly reduce the risk of mismatched expectations.
Customer satisfaction with Dynamics 365 as a result should be expected to be higher than many other solutions. The success for the customer becomes the success of the partner.
Development needs to be done differently – if at all
Initially, when the movement of Dynamics NAV into Dynamics 365 was revealed, it was not clear whether any development would be possible at all on the application. Gradually, however, it became clearer. Development was still possible, but there were going to be some changes.
Firstly, you can no longer simply change the core code. As soon as the word ‘code’ is mentioned, some people may be tempted to switch off, but let’s consider the very real business implications. Because Dynamics NAV was so readily modifiable, many companies used it essentially as an expensive Software Development Kit. Customers were told that any modification was possible in Dynamics NAV, encouraging an increase in development revenues and doubling the cost to the customer.
When it came time to upgrade, frequently Dynamics NAV systems were found to be so heavily modified that a simple upgrade was not a viable prospect. Instead, the decision was pushed further and further down the line of priorities. Eventually, customers were left with bespoke systems a decade or more behind the latest version.
Microsoft has now changed that. By stopping modifications to the core code, it means that there is no obstacle to upgrading the software. Business Central customers are always on the latest version. Developments can still be made, but they are completed using extensions that ‘listen’ to the core code. When certain events occur in the code, it triggers the extension, and it goes off and does whatever it was developed to do. Modification is possible but must be done in a responsible and sustainable way, prioritising what is best for the customer.
Microsoft empowers users with the next generation of Dynamics Nav
For on-premise versions of Business Central, it will still be possible to modify the core code. However, customers and partners must ask the question very seriously – is this best, and is it necessary? Short-term benefits can result in significant long-term hangovers.
By significantly pushing the core functionality, Microsoft has also reduced the necessity of application development which was prominent among Dynamics NAV users. Good service provision now must be increasingly focused around empowering users to get what they need from the application and the ecosystem without developing where possible.
The provision of Microsoft AppSource provides the possibility to browse, understand and acquire third-party solutions for users. Options can be identified on AppSource, installed to the test environment on their free trial, evaluated and then uninstalled if necessary in a few simple clicks.
Technology requires timing
People can often be loosely categorised into the risk-tolerant and risk-averse. It is very easy to assume that technology can be looked at this way. Some will always be early adopters, others will always want to have a more proven product. In order to make good business decisions, a more nuanced understanding is required.
Bleeding-edge technology can be a mixed bag. On the one hand, having the first-mover advantage can give you a leg up over your competitors. On the other hand, entrusting your business data into a system that may well have significant wrinkles that still need to be ironed out could put you in a precarious position.
Anyone who compared Dynamics NAV with the first iteration of Dynamics 365 Finance and Operations Business Edition, the predecessor to Business Central, would have found that there was some functionality that definitely required improvement. Anyone who picked up Business Central from April 2018 onwards however, had a complete and powerful solution that was leaps and bounds not only beyond its predecessor but also an improvement upon Dynamics NAV itself.
Simply adopting early for the sake of it is not wise. There are two main considerations: business risk and solution ownership.
1. Business Risk
‘How much of my key business data is entrusted to this application or platform?’
If this is minimal, and you are simply maintaining a chart of accounts, then the risk from adoption is commensurate. If however, you are moving a FMCG warehousing operation onto it, waiting for Business Central was the smart move.
2. Solution Ownership
Solution ownership refers to the degree of control you have over the application itself. Fundamental changes to Microsoft Windows are nigh on impossible. But if you are running a reporting solution, or an artificial intelligence model in the Azure Machine Learning Studio, you have a high degree of influence over your training and test data sets, as well as the model parameters. Combined with the fact that you can use AI predictions in an advisory fashion only – hence lower business risk – machine learning for forecasting is a prime candidate for successful early adoption.
Having worked with Navision 2.6 to Dynamics NAV, right up to Business Central, there is definitely a risk evident from falling behind. Out-of-date manual processes waste time, and bar companies from releasing their employees to focus on their strengths. This also reduces competitiveness.
Business Central, while cutting edge, is no longer a risky proposition for businesses. With core functionality in place, and 3rd party add-ons increasingly ready, the risk has been significantly reduced. Artificial Intelligence, still bleeding edge, if implemented in small, controllable packages (such as supplier invoice reading, sales forecasting, etc.) can prove to be a risk worth taking that provides an extra competitive edge. Internet of Things (IoT) for many non-manufacturing businesses still requires stronger use cases for it to be warranted a safe bet.
For these, and for those all new innovations, it is not a matter of being first to the party, or waiting out to see how things go. The technology requires the right timing for your organisation.
You’re no longer serving ERP, you’re serving a solution
Traditional ERP implementation was never simple, as complex, functionally rich systems need a depth of understanding in order to succeed. It was however mostly bounded by the application. With the emergence of the Microsoft Ecosystem, now partners need to be ready to show not only how Business Central can bring benefit, but also have a vision for bringing in other facets to bear, such as Power BI, PowerApps, Flow and Office 365.
Technology is rapidly changing, and the real winners from this will be businesses that are able to make strategic adjustments. Blue-sky thinking needs to become a routine part of planning. This is not because businesses will jump to adopt an Internet of Things (IoT) platform. Instead, it means that ideas for the next phase of growth are already being digested by business leaders.
Working with a partner who has an appreciation of the possibilities within the existing landscape, and who can illustrate the applicability to your business is increasingly vital. If you are already paying for all these applications under your subscription package, then it is a no-brainer that your partner should be expected to let you know how this can be leveraged to your advantage.
Your limit as a business is increasingly a function of your IT partners’ knowledge and imagination.
The switch from Dynamics NAV to Dynamics 365 Business Central has been a steep learning curve. We’ve learnt many lessons about the future of this Microsoft product and what it can do for our industry. We can be sure to see more improvements and versions of Dynamics 365 Business Central over the coming years.
If you haven’t already considered upgrading your ERP system to Dynamics 365 Business Central then contact a member of our team today. We’d love to speak to you and answer any questions you have about how we can help your business grow.