May 9, 2019
It seems that many people are confused about where Dynamics 365 Business Central fits into the landscape. Is it an ERP... a CRM... is it for SMB... Midsized...Enterprise? Is it part of the Power Platform? At the risk of annoying my BC Partner friends once again, I will take a stab at it.
It would be helpful to know the origins of Dynamics 365 Business Central "BC", to understand how it came to it's current position, and then I'll discuss it's current position. Once upon a time, there was a product called Navision that Microsoft acquired. There is more to that story, but that is all that is relevant here. That product, since shortened to "NAV", is still alive and well and in use by many businesses around the world.
Several years ago, Microsoft started their shift of Business Applications to the cloud, following the tremendous success of Office 365 and Azure. The first product to make that move was Dynamics CRM, and at the time it was launched as "Dynamics CRM Online". Dynamics CRM was not the only business application in the stable, it was just the first to go SaaS. Other products included Dynamics GP, Dynamics SL, Dynamics AX and Dynamics NAV, each of which were different flavors of Enterprise Resource Planning or "ERP". Enterprise Resource Planning is a pretty vague term. It could include human resources, supply chain management, sales activities and many more, but all of these activities revolve around a General Ledger in an ERP system. GL, AR and AP are the common denominators for each of these systems... and every business must have these components. All enterprise sized companies have an ERP, and most Midsized businesses do as well. Smaller businesses may have a solution like Xero or Quickbooks, that fills this purpose at a smaller scale for simpler needs. Many Midsized businesses are also using these simpler products... some successfully, and some who have outgrown them and are considering an ERP.
Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection was not conceived for software. But similar rules apply. Basically the strongest will survive. What was strong yesterday, may not be strong tomorrow as the environment changes, and when previously strong players do not adapt, they are replaced by new strong players. This was what drove Microsoft to the cloud in the first place... seeing other players adapt, and become leaders. So Microsoft adapted as well, and given their war chest, they were able to adapt very quickly to a SaaS model. But along the way choices had to be made. One of those choices was, which ERP solution(s) would take the SaaS path.
Shifting an on-premise product to SaaS is no small feat, and requires a significant investment. Having four on-premise ERP solutions, it was obvious that all four would not go SaaS. Microsoft drew a line across their customer base, dividing Enterprise on one side and everybody else on the other, and decided to pick one ERP for each side that would go SaaS. Why not just pick one? Well, I didn't have a vote, but I wrote about that here. Regardless, Microsoft selected AX for the Enterprise and NAV for... everybody else. It was pretty hard to argue AX as the Enterprise choice, but there was some debate about NAV vs. GP. GP is much bigger in the US, but NAV is actually bigger globally, so that decision made the most sense.... unless you were a GP partner.
I won't go into the cloud journey for AX, instead I will focus on the journey of NAV... which actually starts with CRM. Several years ago, Microsoft had an idea to create a specific offering for SMB called "Business Edition". It would be a scaled down version of the Enterprise CRM solution, better suited for the needs of Smaller businesses. Shortly into that initiative, the decision was made that this would be the best place to start the SaaS journey for NAV as well, and thus began the project code-named "Madeira". Given the SMB target segment, this was going to be positioned as a Quickbooks/Xero competing product. Understand that this was well before the idea of a "Common Data Service" was even on the future roadmap. BTW, another product that got it's start in the Business Edition effort was Dynamics 365 for Marketing.
About a year into the "Business Edition" effort, Microsoft decided that the path they were on, was not going to reach the original goals as intended, and the goals had shifted as well. CRM itself was heading down a path of componentizing its parts, and separation from its platform... this ultimately led to what we now know as the Common Data Service. But what about "Madeira" and Marketing? Dynamics 365 for Marketing continued it's journey as an independent application, no longer bound by the "Business Edition" limitations. And Madeira?
Project Madeira, similarly became unbound from the Business Edition limitations, and was launched as an independent application called Dynamics 365 Business Central. There are a lot of side routes that this took that I won't go into here. Today, Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central is one of the fastest growing SaaS Business Applications in Microsoft's stable. A far cry from my earlier predictions that it would never see the light of day. Maybe the product owner at the time, Marko Perisic, made it successful just to prove me wrong. Nevertheless, it is on fire. So where did it go?
Once the Business Edition tag was removed, Marko quickly pivoted BC from a Quickbooks/Xero compete, into a product those customers could move up to as they outgrew them. While the CRM side of the house was going through a massive evolution into what we now know as the Power Platform, Marko was able to stomp on the gas pedal. BC was evolving at a faster pace than any other product, partly because it was in a lane by itself. Weekly updates were the norm, and the new northstar became NAV on-premise parity. A goal that I believe has been largely met. SMB might be a fine market, but this thing could go way beyond that... in some cases even standing toe-to-toe with AX for some enterprise customers. So what exactly is BC?
At it's heart, Business Central is a SaaS ERP. "Manage your financials" is at the top of the product's page of capabilities. As you would expect from an ERP it has the GL, AP and AR core functions, but it is much more than that. Like everything Microsoft is doing in Business Applications today, BC is infused with A.I. The next listed capability is "Automate and secure your supply chain", that sounds pretty "enterprisy" to me. Next up is "Sell Smarter and improve customer service", so BC also includes some CRM capabilities. After that is "Keep projects on time and under budget", so we can add some project management capabilities to the list. The last item is "Optimize your operations" for inventory and warehouse management.
Clearly this product has grown up quite a bit from its humble "Business Edition" beginnings, and there is a growing number of partner extensions (ISVs) to extend the capabilities even further. The pricing is pretty straightforward, at least in comparison to the Customer Engagement applications. There are only three flavors: "Essentials" at $70/user/month, "Premium" at $100/user/month, and "Team Members" at $8/user/month. To figure out which licenses you need, you can review the licensing guide. You can also sign up for a free trial here.
Since I am not an expert on Business Central, I reached out to two guys who I know are knee-deep in the product for their thoughts.
Andrew King is a Partner at WebSan, a Toronto based Business Applications partner. Since WebSan supports both Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement "CE" as well as Dynamics 365 Business Central "BC", I thought he would be a great guy to contrast the two. Andrew shared that there is some confusion in the market, "The products are as different as Golf and Baseball, but we frequently see customers asking about the product that does not meet their needs. Like BC for CRM needs, or CE for Supply Chain. Would they work? I guess if you like playing golf with a baseball bat".
James Crowter is the Managing Director of Technology Management, a UK based Business Applications partner. Technology Management also supports both Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement "CE" as well as Dynamics 365 Business Central "BC", and has a long history with NAV. James talked about the amazing pace of innovation, "I can talk to a new customer in the morning, and have them using BC by the afternoon, which is amazing! For the right customer requirements, BC is a no-brainer... but not for sales workloads, there is not even a workflow capability (for sales), which is a key component for sales!"
Both Andrew and James agreed that while Business Central is an awesome solution, it is not really a very good Sales tool. Both agreed that they would typically position Customer Engagement for any CRM type requirements, and they often position both products for a true end-to-end solution. They both had some choice words for the Sales Capabilities of BC, and clearly neither one had any interest in activating those, but instead would bring in Customer Engagement for any customers looking to transform their sales processes.
So I guess it boils down to, what it is that you are trying to transform. If you are looking to modernize your financial processes, including supply chain and inventory, or have outgrown Quickbooks or Xero... Dynamics 365 Business Central is an excellent option, and you could reach out to Andrew or James for more guidance on that. If you are looking to modernize your sales or service processes, Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement is the clear way to go, and Andrew, James or myself can help you explore that further. But are these the only Microsoft options?
If your ERP requirements are really big, and include things like HR management, you might look at Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Finance and Operations. This is Microsoft 's enterprise-grade ERP. Again, we have seen Business Central get into some pretty big businesses, but F&O is the next step up. Conversely, if your sales or service requirements are fairly basic, you may find that Dynamics 365 for Customer Engagement is a pretty big hammer to start with. In that case, you might want to explore RapidStartCRM, our PowerApps based CRM solution. It is an excellent option for small businesses or enterprise departments, built on the Power Platform and running on CDS so you can never outgrow it.
Hopefully I cleared up some confusion, but if I actually made you more even confused than before... please keep that to yourself.