I came across this article a few days ago about integration between Dynamics CRM and Business Process Management (BPM) tools. As much as I believe there is a case to be made on integration between CRM and BPM tools, I felt like the examples/scenario presented in that article weren’t strong enough.
For example, if we take the scenario were “once a lead record has been created, it is assigned to the appropriate owner on the sales team, and that person can take the necessary steps to nurture the lead towards an opportunity“, it is simple enough to be handled directly in Dynamics CRM. Same for a case management solution, when a “case has been created in Dynamics CRM with all of its details,” how do we “ensure that the proper support team member receives it, handles it according to defined steps, possibly escalates it, and ensures that it is completed accurately in an optimal manner?“. From these simple lines, depending on the specs, Dynamics CRM offers enough with its Windows Workflow Foundation based workflow engine. In the CRM integration context, the different BPM products out there are essentially about managing workflows with a third party software that does what CRM Workflows (WF) can do and more.
So why would one use a BPM tool when CRM already offers some workflow capabilities? Here are a few reasons that I think are key to help deciders make a sound decision on whether to invest in a BPM tool to integrate with CRM or not…
When building very complex and long workflows, the Microsoft Dynamics CRM workflow editor is very limited and it can become very frustrating and reduce productivity:
- The user interface is sometimes slow to respond (especially when there is a lot of custom code)
- You can only go (I think) 5 or 6 levels deep and create child WF if you want to go deeper
- It’s not easy to read at all
BPM tools often provide a better workflow design experience by using visual editors, either custom built or on top of other applications (e.g. MS Visio, MS Visual Studio etc.). That makes the workflows easier to build and to read. It also takes away the “levels” issue, removing the need to create child workflows when you have more than 5 deepness levels.
Workflow Systems Integration/Complex Workflow Operations
If you need your workflows to talk to other systems (web service calls, external connectors etc.) or just to perform some more complicated operations (retrieve multiple, bulk delete/update etc.), it’s all possible in CRM by creating custom workflow activities (.NET Code). These would have the logic within them to make the necessary web services/external calls/complex operations. Some BPM tools provide with the ability to integrate web services calls or make complex operations with simple configuration (no code). A few good reasons to use a BPM tools in this context would be:
- You don’t have the Dynamics CRM expertise in house to build the custom pieces (custom workflow activities)
- You have so many different external calls/integration to do within the workflow that it’ll create too much custom code resulting in more difficult debugging and costly maintenance in the future
Workflow Version Management
Depending on what the WF does, you may need to keep a detailed history of WF execution, including which version of WFs have been triggered for specific records. Also what CRM is lacking is a workflow “live update” feature. Say you trigger a WF on record A and it gets to some wait mode. At which point you update the WF in the CRM solution. Well, the version of the WF that is executing against record A is still the “old version” of the WF and you cannot change that. Some BPM tools have this feature built in.
CRM Workflows don’t really allow looping. You can create a mechanism where a WF keeps calling itself as a child but that has a very negative impact on performance and eventually, CRM kills the loop thinking it’s an infinite loop (managing resource consumption). BPM tools have the capability to use loops sometimes very easily and with a much lover impact on system performance. Something to think about if you have plenty of WF in waiting and looping mode in your system at the same time.
These are a few elements that can help you decide if you want and/or need to use a BPM tool with your CRM. From my experience, depending on what you are building, BPM add-ons can be costly so before going down that road, it is important to assess the need and selected the right solution based on these needs. On the flip side, if what you really need is a BPM tool to manage your workflow/processes, do you really need CRM? Food for thoughts… There are plenty of options out there, including AgileXRM, K2, PNMSoft and many more. They all come with different features so just checking them out is an interesting exercise!