By Jukka Niiranen, Senior Consultant (CRM Solutions) at Anvia

In the previous three parts of this article series I've discussed how the traditional management-focused design process of CRM systems is beginning to give way to a more user-oriented approach, where generating pull or even viral traction for the application is used as the strategy for achieving the desired business results. In this final chapter I'll take a look at how changes in the client hardware and software fronts can allow CRM to fully re-invent itself - and how the Microsoft Dynamics CRM team has just recently made strong statements aligning itself with some of these ideas.

Like many other business applications, CRM used to have a very physical presence inside the corporation. You launched a client application on your workstation and connected it to the server software located not necessarily very far away from the client. As the web browser capabilities evolved, the requirement of running a dedicated client app was soon lifted, but CRM still remained something that existed behind the corporate firewall and was utilized deliberately and as a distinct task, separate from the use of other applications.

Today we are surrounded by a continuously increasing collection of apps in the growing number of connected devices around us. The reason we are able to cope in such an environment with the same size brains we've always had is that the applications are becoming lighter. They load up within a couple of seconds and consume only a tiny bit of our mental capacity. At best you barely notice you're using them.

I can open up Foursquare on my smartphone and immediately see the nearest companies around me, as well as view a feed of where my friends and acquaintances are currently located. Shouldn't I be able to just as easily view a list of the nearby customer accounts and read updates of any interactions that my colleagues have recently had with them? We surely have the technology for building such business applications, but most often our CRM solutions don't fall into the same category as the lightweight apps we use as consumers. They're typically big, sometimes hairy systems, which tend to require far more attention than the user would prefer to give to them.

In reality, the best CRM application may not always be the one which makes the most use out of the 14" laptop screen. It might rather be the app that fits on the 4" smartphone screen. You see, the real beauty of fitting your CRM application into a mobile phone is not that every user would absolutely necessarily need to carry that functionality in their pocket. Not all CRM users are road warriors - typically quite many of them actually spend a fair deal of their working day sitting behind a keyboard and a display. Regardless of this, many of them might be using your CRM system more if it was smaller - like a mobile app.

To a large extent it is the design and the presentation layer of an application that set the expectation level for users in terms of complexity. While it is quite easy to deliver a "something for everybody" type of a CRM system that exposes tens of menu options and entities to the user on the big screen at any given time, it's much more demanding to design solutions focused on the bare essentials, on very specific tasks. But do pay attention to the trade-off you will be making: you design the solution once, but it will be used and supported every single day your business operates. Even if the "less" may end up costing more, in most cases less is in fact more.

You could characterize Microsoft's early target of bringing CRM into Outlook as an almost unnoticeable addition of a few menu buttons, and automated data sync was a reflection of this design language for the desktop PC era. Today we've started the long farewell to the desktop environment and many of us no longer look to the Outlook client for our email and calendar data. Instead, these business-critical tools reside in the cloud and reach us on the nearest browser, smartphone or tablet. In some statistics the iPhone Mail app has already eclipsed Outlook as the most widely used email client.

If we're expected to track the flow of customer communications from our inbox into the CRM database, and we use email increasingly from the cloud, then our CRM app needs to connect with email in the cloud.  Happily, in the Dynamics CRM "Orion" release, scheduled for Q2 2013, Microsoft will at last break the users free from the desktop legacy of Outlook and allow server side synchronization through Exchange as well as tracking items through Outlook Web Access (OWA) on the browser and even on the mobile phone screens. These additions are an important step in reducing the perceived size of CRM as an application, making it work in the context of the actual business task the user is engaged in.

Another big leap Dynamics CRM will be making is leaving behind the warm & safe arms of Internet Explorer and becoming compatible with basically any platform that supports HTML5. In order to bridge the gap between what a CRM application needs to be able to do on a modern mobile device and what the HTML5 environment offers to developers today, we may also see a range of platform specific apps being released by Microsoft onto non-MS operating systems. Oh, and then there's that little product launch right around the corner called "Windows 8".

The trend is inevitable: the number of different ways in which we access the corporate CRM system is on the rise. What was previously a question of "do you use CRM on Internet Explorer or Outlook" will need to be reformulated into "which applications do you use with your CRM". Solutions will need to be designed for all the user touchpoints into Dynamics CRM information and processes, which of course sounds initially like a lot of extra work. At the same time it will be an excellent opportunity to realign our mental model of how CRM needs to work and what it should look like.