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An Operational Analytics for Dynamics 365 Carol: Past, Present, and Future

On-premises operational analytics, for all intents and purposes, is … dying.  Yeah, I now … Bah Humbug, right?  However, there is little doubt of its imminent demise.  In this carol, we will explore the evolution of operational analytics in Dynamics through the perspective of Joseph Carl Robnett (“JCR” or “Lick”) Licklider, an American psychologist and computer scientist from the 1950s and 1960s known somewhat as a forefather of the Internet and modern worldwide computing, a.k.a. “computing’s Johnny Appleseed.”  For now, let’s just refer to him as “Scrooge.”

Scrooge is enthralled and fascinated with the human-technology relationship, but his enlightenment comes at the benefit of being visited by three ghosts.  Before he can write his work “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” Scrooge must learn from these ghosts and complete some homework in the process.

First, Scrooge receives a visit from the Ghost of D365mas Past who will help him make the distinction between operational reporting versus operational analytics.  Next, the Ghost of D365mas Present helps Scrooge understand the present-day state of both reporting and analytics in the Dynamics 365 context.  Finally, Scrooge explores the importance of having a digital transformation strategy for operational analytics as well as what is coming in product pipelines from Microsoft when he is visited by the Ghost of D365mas Future.

Mind you, this is not the same carol that is often told during this time of the year, and this Scrooge is not the miser from the tale of which you might be familiar.  Rather, this is a new carol; one that takes many twists and turns but is full of hope and possibility.

A Visit from the Ghost of D365mas Past

Scrooge first has to learn that analytics was a concept that was an intrinsically human process before Operational Analytics could become what it is today.  The Ghost of D365mas Past helps him understand that the introduction of process optimization by Henry Ford in automotive manufacturing assembly — which, laid the foundation for the Industrial Revolution — also, ultimately, oriented businesses to evaluate their business processes.  However, Scrooge still needed to understand that during the infancy of personal computing, analytics was—at best—merely reporting via a process of search and retrieve in a MS-DOS based graphical user interface (GUI) and either through viewing on screen or exporting to printer — the earliest printers being either a line printer or a dot-matrix printer.  So, the Ghost of D365mas Past thinks it might be wise for him to view what the early stages of operational reporting for Microsoft Dynamics might have looked like:

Navision – Version 1.0 (predecessor to Dynamics NAV)
Epson MX-80 Dot Matrix Printer

Not until the marriage of personal computers, ERP and CRM systems, data warehouses, and software applications did the term operational analytics start to take shape.  The Ghost of D365mas Past also helps Scrooge understand that through the acquisitions of several startup business software companies, Microsoft entered into the world of enterprise-grade software to complement its growing hardware business and Windows operating system.  Eventually, the early Dynamics systems moved to utilize Microsoft SQL Server database environments that allowed for Transact-SQL (T-SQL) queries to retrieve data that could be exported into Excel and eventually through SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS).  Around this time SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS) and SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) were also introduced as part of the Business Intelligence Development Studio (BIDS).

In time, the Business Solutions division of Microsoft was born and the suite of products that would eventually become known as Dynamics.  Scrooge began to see visions of modern interactive user experiences – so did Microsoft!  Microsoft saw the business value in these independent operational systems and worked to build a viable product suite that not only enhanced and optimized these transactional systems but also provided reporting capabilities that helped to form the basis of modern-day operational analytics.  Scrooge now begins to understand the foundations for operational analytics in Dynamics and is ready for a visit from the next ghost.

A Visit from the Ghost of D365mas Present

Understanding the Power Platform Revolution 

The Ghost of D365mas Present appears to Scrooge one day and transports him into the year 2010, and shows him a vision of operational analytics that has somewhat persisted through present-day 2018.  The ghost helps Scrooge see the power of mobile computing as being not just something from science fiction movies but something that has revolutionized the way people interact with data and with each other.  Scrooge also sees the importance of machine learning and artificial intelligence and what their impact can be on operational analytics in enterprises.

The ghost helps Scrooge realize how Microsoft enhances its enterprise analytics offerings with frequent SQL Server database enhancements, morphing BIDS into SQL Server Data Tools (SSDT), frequently releasing version updates for the Dynamics software suite, and, of course, with functionality expansions in Excel as part of its Office 365 release – all of this while Microsoft is also scaling its Windows platform for global enterprises and introducing its cloud platform, Microsoft Azure.

The Microsoft Power Platform Vision

In a move to differentiate mere reporting and to define a strategic approach for operational analytics, Microsoft introduces the Power Platform.  The Power Platform revolution first started with Power Query, Power Pivot, and Power View.  These were Microsoft Excel add-ins that date back to Excel 2010. Starting in October 2018, new solutions are available in Dynamics 365 with Power Platform. The precursor to the Power Platform, however, was Project Crescent.

Scrooge learns that Project Crescent is initially positioned as an “ad-hoc reporting and visual exploration experience for casual and experienced users alike, to collaborate and present others within a SharePoint environment.”  With Project Crescent, Microsoft sought to build a BI Semantic Model (BISM) that would utilize Power Pivot or Analysis Services Tabular data modeling and would provide an interactive component as opposed to traditional report and print type end-user consumptions.  It was the first foray by Microsoft into Corporate BI and Cloud BI.

Project Crescent

Project Crescent

The ghost then takes Scrooge into July 2015 where he learns that Project Crescent shape-shifts into Power BI.  Key components of the Power BI ecosystem include:  Power BI Desktop, Power BI Service, Power BI Mobile Apps, Power BI Gateway, Power BI Embedded, Power BI Report Server, and Power BI Visuals Marketplace.

Power BI

The Ghost of D365mas Present gives Scrooge some homework to do before he can be visited by the Ghost of D365mas Future.  His homework consists of the following:

  • Learn what functionality was initially released in Power BI by checking out this video.
  • Read about Embedded Power BI on this website, and visit the Power BI Embedded Playground to learn the art of what is possible.
  • Discover how customization and innovation are possible with PowerApps and how the Common Data Service for Apps allows for the development of enterprise-quality applications using an integrated data platform with direct connectivity to a Dynamics 365 environment.
  • Learn how Microsoft Flow allows for automated workflows between apps and services to not only enhance and optimize efficiencies of business processes but also to streamline the synchronization of data across the enterprise.  The ghost also recommends that Scrooge learn about the use of Flow in the financial services industry, and helps him discover how Rudolph’s nose glows brighter than ever.
  • Investigate how operational analytics sometimes must reach beyond the Dynamics AX and CRM environments to integrate data from other systems or devices:
    • Discovering how the Bring your own Database (BYOD) concept leverages the Dynamics 365 Entity Store to integrate Dynamics data with data from other systems.
    • Utilizing the Azure Internet of Things (IoT) hub to capture and deliver data from connected devices.

 

A Visit from the Ghost of D365mas Future

After Scrooge begrudgingly completes all of his homework, the Ghost of D365mas Future finally appears and helps him understand that the rapid pace of change in information technology is forcing Microsoft and its customers to address the inevitable digital transformation that must take place in order to compete in the future.  It is no longer a matter of merely looking at data trends, assessing gaps, improving processes but also a matter of taking a prescriptive and forward-thinking approach to business operations.

This involves alignment across the entire enterprise and investments in smart technologies that will elevate a business to the next level through the development of machine learning, artificial intelligence, high throughput computing, big data integrations, statistical analysis, and more.  He learns that the new state of operational analytics—where reporting, optimization, process improvement, and predictive analysis collide—relies heavily on the ease and speed of data integration.

The Future of D365 Operational Analytics – Integration is the Key

Source: Hitachi Solutions ©

Integration becomes central to any company’s future strategy, because it feeds the innovation that will be required to transform companies and allow them to compete in the modern marketplace.  Scrooge starts to see how an Operational Analytics Strategy must mature beyond the traditional methodologies that often employ Extract, Transform, and Load (ETL) and Business Intelligence (BI) technologies.  The ghost helps him learn how speed and agility become critical parts of the equation, and that doing a little more homework might just help him get ahead of the curve.  Scrooge also learns about the Open Data Initiative in partnership with SAP and Adobe and how Microsoft is committed to helping customers have the tools and technologies necessary to make this possible.

But before the ghost will leave and let Scrooge get back to his work, he must complete his next round of homework:

For high-level overviews, Scrooge checks out these diagrams and web sources:

Microsoft Azure
Azure DevOps
Power BI Dataflows

Scrooge completes his final homework and becomes energized to do something with all of this knowledge he learns.  He decides to write a work entitled “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” and writes about a world not too unlike the one we are on the precipice of entering – a world where “machine cognition would surpass and become independent of human direction.”  In fact, in his own words, he portends that mankind “… will set the goals, formulate the hypotheses, determine the criteria, and perform the evaluations.  Computing machines will do the routinizable work that must be done to prepare the way for insights and decisions in technical and scientific thinking.”

In his lifetime, he contributes greatly to the fields of information technology and computer science.  However, prior to his contributions, little progress had been made in the way of electronic data storage, processing, retrieval, transmission, or manipulation.  The first hard disk drive was introduced in 1956 by IBM, but the power and extent to which that capability would transform business operations was yet to be realized.  During his life he certainly explored and expanded the way human beings view computers and championed the use cases of computers in not only a theoretical manner but in a practical, enterprising manner as well stating that “functions that can be performed by data-processing machines would improve or facilitate thinking and problem solving in an important way.” At its very core, this is what defines analytics; in an operational system, advanced data processing and integration capabilities yields faster, richer insights that drive the management of the enterprise.

Summary

As we look to the future for what operational analytics capabilities are in store for Microsoft Dynamics 365, one thing is certain – the digital transformation required by enterprises should be of paramount concern.  Digital transformation may seem like a buzzword that is often used to stir emotion or excitement of new ideas for information management, but it is very real and deserves adequate strategic investment.  Technology is disrupting industries and businesses at a rapid rate, and sustainable growth is not a guarantee.  Companies that strike the right balance between operations and smart technologies to transform business processes will greatly benefit from these investments.

What is your Operational Analytics Strategy?  Maybe it is time for a visit from the Ghosts of D365mas Past, Present, and Future this holiday season.  Or, you could just read this carol and then reach out to Hitachi Solutions to let us help you transform your business.