Directions 2019 Review: Focus on the Future

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 by Patrick O'Connor

Directions North America was originally established to bring together Dynamics NAV partners in the SMB market as a way to network and learn new skills to enhance their business via classes and workshops. 15 years later, the landscape of accounting software has evolved, with many organizations pushing for software solutions that can help them do business more efficiently, from anywhere, utilizing cloud computing. With the April 2018 release of Dynamics 365 Business Central, Microsoft believes they have found the answer for those organizations.

Business Central is a web-based (cloud) ERP system which Microsoft sees as the eventual successor to their on-premise Dynamics products NAV, SL and GP.  Many in the Dynamics GP and SL communities see this as an ambitious goal, considering the many differences between the three Dynamics products - and these concerns are not entirely without merit. Early adopters have encountered challenges in migrating from GP or SL to Business Central due to the software originally being built with NAV building blocks, and its relatively limited knowledgebase was only released last year in 2018.  However, what Microsoft Directions North America 2019 demonstrated most effectively in Las Vegas was that Microsoft is committed to continuous improvement of the product, and incorporating best practices familiar to GP and SL users while adding functionality previously unavailable to them.

Directions North America’s focus on Business Central attracted its largest crowd since the event’s inception with 925 attendees. The highlight of the opening session was Microsoft’s Toby Bowers and Mike Ehrenberg revealing the roadmap for Business Central, which included an aggressive schedule of releases. Major releases to Business Central will be rolled out in both April and October of each year, with smaller updates and improvements released monthly.

Following the General session, attendees dispersed to one of 10 available breakout sessions that included a mix of townhalls, workshops, and classroom environments. I chose a well-attended class titled “Administration and Lifecycle of the Business Central Tenant” presented by Senior Engineering Lead Brian Alrich and Senior Program Manager Jared Hall.  As a seasoned Senior GP Consultant who working to become more familiar with SaaS (Software as a Service) environment support, I found this session particularly informative and helpful.  Customers are excited to remove themselves from the cycle of overly involved expensive upgrade processes in exchange for the cloud’s overnight scheduled updates, but there is naturally some concern about handing that control over to Microsoft. Brian and Jared lead us through the update process which includes ample opportunity for testing prior to an update being rolled out. They put many minds at ease showing the three-month window customers and partners are given to test their extensions and third-party applications before allowing the update to affect their production environment. They concluded with a call to action regarding the need for partners to populate notification recipients so that customers are aware of upcoming updates and maintenance outages. Jared stressed the importance of keeping customers informed throughout the process.

One more highlight from the conference was the opportunity to attend a workshop on integrating data from GP to Business Central. Last year this built-in integration was limited to only bringing in master records such as a COA and Vendor/Customer list. Since then the integration has grown to include account balances and AP history. Within just 45 minutes, our instructor had led us through the process of connecting Business Central to a GP Server and importing all of the various records I just mentioned.

Making the transition from GP and SL easier was a heavy theme this year. I came into the conference concerned that data entry was tedious, but quickly I learned about the recently added Copy/Paste functionality. I heard complaints about a Payroll module not being available only to find that this was also just recently added to the solution. If a problem was noted by an attendee, the presenters either had a fix in the pipeline already or immediately wrote it down.  This is the new standard Microsoft wants to set as it invests heavily in Business Central’s future: one of commitment to continuous improvement in their effort to make the program as user-friendly as possible. Considering the pace of the improvements demonstrated at Directions 2019, Microsoft appears to be ahead of schedule.

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