Microsoft Convergence 2008: Tool up to harness the winds of change
For those who think the best course of action in an economic downturn is to batten down the hatches and freeze technology investment until sunnier days, Microsoft has a different message. Matt Henkes reports for our sister site, AccountingWEB.co.uk, from Microsoft's recent Convergence conference in Copenhagen. 
A raucous, shield hammering, motivational celebration of everything Microsoft Business, the key message from Convergence 2008 was that turbulent economic times present massive opportunities for companies with the wherewithal to take the bull by the horns and shell out on technology; specifically Microsoft Dynamics.
Convergence presented a grand stage for the launch of Microsoft's new ERP application Dynamics NAV 2009. The NAV development team presented the new edition with a nice touch of theatre, driving a forklift right into the keynote hall to complete their simulation of its capabilities.
In his opening keynote address, Kirill Tatarinov, corporate vice president of Microsoft's business division, warned that different people react differently to the winds of change. "Some people build shelters, some build windmills," he said. "Using change to your advantage is what differentiates truly successful businesses."
There's little surprise in Microsoft Business urging people to invest in technology. But Tatarinov backed his point by explaining that 50 percent of the most successful Dow Jones companies were started during times of economic downturn. "They took the opportunity to invest and get ready for the next period of economic growth," he said. Fortune favors the bold, after all.
So how can the mid-sized businesses, the ones that Microsoft Dynamics is designed for, be convinced to part with their cash when there's such a perceived scarcity of it about? The answer, according to Tatarinov, was in recognizing what was really important to Microsoft customers. "We can demonstrate how Dynamics applications can help businesses reduce cost and improve productivity," he said.
"We're listening to our customers, we're looking at the market. Overwhelmingly, the thing that SME customers require from their technology investment is something that will make their people more productive," said Tatarinov.
"We want them to go away from this event, equipped with sufficient knowledge that they know what our systems can do for them today in this current economic climate. So that they can go back to their shareholders, owners, and boards and be able to justify the choice to run on Dynamics."
He continued: "When you think about people productivity, you think about user experience. A billion people use PCs every day and some 60 percent use Microsoft Office. Having applications that look like Office is the number one thing that helps users to drive productivity without ever having to open a manual."
When half of the new workforce learned to use computers before they could write, this usability factor is only going to increase in importance. "These people don't want to have to look at the manual, they just expect things to work," he added.
This is a key point where Microsoft believes it has the edge over some of its more established competitors. The NAV family comes equipped with 21 built-in role-based portals that will eventually find their way across the Dynamics range. These interfaces allow the screens to be tailored for each person using the system. This, says Microsoft, is a key driver of productivity.
The fabled Project Green, part of which spawned these role based interfaces, looked at the possibility of releasing a brand new ERP system to replace the existing one: integrating much of the rest of the Dynamics range into a single, easily supported package. While producing one all-encompassing product is surely more attractive to the Dynamics development team, Tatarinov admitted that it was more prudent for the business to concentrate on evolving its existing NAV, GP, and AX product families.
"It was much more prudent for us to make sure that existing ecosystems and existing customers can continue to make benefit of those systems, while we bring them closer together," he said. "While we harmonize the code, while we make them look more and more alike."
Following the hasty back-peddling from the introduction of Dynamics Entrepreneur, released in Holland last year but controversially discontinued there, and casual talk at last year's Convergence of a possible HR string to the Dynamics bow, the focus this year had more of a back-to-the-knitting feel, concentrating on CRM and ERP functionality.
Tatarinov dismissed our suggestion that Microsoft had pulled back from more adventurous developments such as online versions and horizontal applications such as HR.
"I would characterize the strategy as the one that's being much more focused and direct in delivering concrete solutions across the industries," he said. "We do deliver HR capabilities across the board. I wouldn't say it is a change. I would say it's a greater focus on delivering what it is that our customers want."