Configurable Business Documents were announced on Microsoft Business Application Summit in Jun 2019 with great excitement. Many partners have been asking us ever since what they are and whether they somehow interfere with Docentric. They wanted to know, if it is true that after Microsoft releases them in October 2019, end-users will be empowered enough to customize their own business documents such as invoices and orders directly from within Dynamics 365 for Finance and Operations, without help from their Microsoft partners, developers or third-party reporting products such as Docentric.
Let’s look under the hood to understand how Configurable Business Documents work, what benefits you can expect to get and what the limitations are.
What are Configurable Business Documents
Configurable Business Documents are built around the MS flagship framework: Electronic Reporting (ER). Each document uses a pre-prepared ER Data Model as a data source, and one or more ER Formats (aka templates). These templates can be in Excel, Word or PDF formats and therefore easily designed by end-users in terms of adding or removing fields as well as changing the document layout, formatting and styles.
Moreover, power users can also extend ER Data Models by writing complex formulas or adding additional data from the related tables, views and entities. Changes of document data sources and designs are done directly in production so no deployment is required.
The main purpose of Configurable Business Documents is to replace SSRS Reports, which don’t support any of the above, and hence customization of documents such as invoices and orders implemented via SSRS can easily cost you a fortune.
What exactly Microsoft will provide in October 2019
Microsoft already provided Free text invoice and Payment advice implemented via ER, so Configurable Business Documents coming in October 2019 are in fact a new package of 34 core and 64 localized documents consisting of ER Formats and ER Data Models acting as their data sources. Additionally, Microsoft will provide Business document management, a new setup for storage, versioning and handling of document templates (aka Formats).
Which documents will be exactly provided, you can see on the screenshot below.
Support for already customized SSRS Reports
If you already customized your business documents such as invoices and orders using SSRS Reporting, the question is, can you benefit from new Configurable Business Documents in any way? After all, document designs can change over time, or you may not have finished customization for each legal entity in your system.
Don’t worry, Microsoft also kept you in mind, because ER Data Models used as Configurable Business Documents’ data sources will automatically include all your extensions of SSRS data provider classes and tables.
There is a catch though. By doing so, Microsoft introduced additional complexity within ER Data Models; they will now be based on the existing SSRS data provider classes instead on the tables from the database directly, so it will be much harder to investigate issues when they arise.
In addition, unlike SSRS Reports, Configurable Business Documents will be integrated with business processes and workflows only partially, and this integration will be provided through Print management. For example, you will be able to print an invoice implemented as a new Configurable Business Document when posting the source sales order. Still, additional customization will be needed if you want to preview reports or print them using the existing report menu items.
However, newly provided ER Formats in Word and Excel will be similar to existing built-in SSRS Report Designs, and you will have to customize them again, but this time without the need to go to the developers.
Design Configurable Business Documents with Word and Excel
It sounds great, isn’t it? At first sight, at least. But what we saw on the demonstration on MS Application Business Summit was somewhat disappointing. We don’t know if Microsoft will provide better designers in the future, but as a matter of fact they haven’t provided any so far.
Design with Excel
It’s true that you can design static Excel documents, using all fancy formatting and styles. But then, surprise! You have to name cells and ranges, and afterwards bind data from the source ER Data Model to these named cells and ranges from within ER Designer, separately from the document itself, which is, you have to admit, quite a tedious and non-robust approach.
Design with Word
The situation with Word is a little better. You will use built-in Content Controls and Custom XML Parts, which is a limited technology with many disadvantages. For example, data is bound to Content Controls but bindings cannot be viewed or edited. There is no support for conditional rendering, e.g. user cannot conditionally hide or show certain document parts. There is no support for expressions either. Repeater Content Control used for generating dynamic tables, e.g. with invoice lines does not work reliably. And the worst part is that documents can be generated in Word format only.
You could usually test the ER Format you design from within ER Designer, but because Configurable Business Documents are based on SSRS report artifacts, you can preview them only by running the corresponding SSRS report.
What about PDF output
Configurable Business Documents (34 core and 64 localized documents) will be shipped in Word and Excel. As described, they can be generated in Word and Excel output formats only. If you want to support PDF output too, you will have to introduce so called Precision Designs or PDF templates.
Design PDF templates
PDF templates offer user experience that is even worse than designing documents in Excel, where we deal with named cells and ranges. Here we need to design each page separately and handle a multi-paged document as a merging of multiple single-paged PDFs.
Adding missing data with the help of ER Data Models
This part is really great. You can add any data from related tables and views, include classes and methods and write very complicated formulas. For example, you can easily add any bank account detail you need for your Customer invoice’s footer, or payment terms to the Purchase order’s header.
Document templates storage and setup
Business document management is a new setup for templates in Word, Excel and PDF. The templates are stored on SharePoint or Azure blob storage using regular Document types in D365FO. The setup provides template versioning and enables you to control their statuses (Draft, Published, etc.).
Document routing and print destinations
The concept of ER print destinations slightly differs from SSRS print destinations. Here we are talking about File destination per template that comprises of one or more destinations including Email, saving to SharePoint or Azure blob storage. Now you can set up the email body when emailing reports and even use the data from the source ER Data Model as placeholders. In order to create HTML email body easier, you can also use built-in Email templates.
Integration with Print Management
All Configurable Business Documents are replicas of the existing and most commonly used Print management reports such as Customer invoice and Purchase order.
Unfortunately, Configurable Business Documents are only partially integrated with the D365FO document related processes and Print management:
- You cannot reuse all existing SSRS Reports – there are more than 1000 such reports in D365FO. Configurable Business Documents will cover only Print Management Reports (e.g. Production order report or Route card report will not be provided).
- SSRS Reports are often tightly integrated with business processes (e.g. posting invoices or printing checks). Configurable Business Documents will be integrated with the same business processes only to the extent enabled by the Print Management framework. This is how it works: if an ER template is selected in Print Management Setup, this will be a trigger for the ER framework to jump in and take over the report execution from SSRS. The report will be generated as a Word or Excel document, but instead of printing it to the print destinations configured in Print Management Setup, always the same ER destinations that are configured in the separate setup, Electronic reporting destinations, will be executed.
- Regular print destinations (used for SSRS Reports) including printing to printers or Print archive are not supported.
- Preview original/copy from journal forms is not supported (works with SSRS Reports only).
- The Use print management functionality is partially supported as explained above.
Configurable Business Documents: Pros and Cons
- End-users can change business document designs including adding additional data from within D365FO, i.e. without deployments.
- Provides Business document management, a setup for document templates with versioning.
- 34 core documents and 64 localized templates in Word and Excel are provided out-of-the box for most common business documents such as invoices and orders.
- No PDF output.
- Very limited design capabilities with no preview option.
- Cannot be printed to printers.
- Partial Print Management integration: cannot configure different target print destinations for the same template.
- (Should provide) strong data fetching capabilities in terms of adding additional data. However, since Microsoft wanted to reuse the existing SSRS data provider classes, this solution actually seems to be even more complicated than SSRS, especially when it comes to debugging and solving data fetching as well as design issues.
- Business document management (i.e. setup for templates) provides versioning, which is a good thing! Still, keeping all the templates for all possible reports on flat doesn’t seem to be a well organized template storage. Also, the process of adding new templates (by deriving from a configuration or creating a new one in a separate place – ER workspace) seems a bit complicated too.
Can Cons be removed?
Yes! Our team is preparing the ground for taking advantage of the best part of Configurable Business Documents, and that is using ER Data Models as report data sources. This way end-users and functional consultants will be able to add additional fields they find to be missing on particular business documents. But instead of losing their nerves with the poor designers, they will be able to enjoy designing their documents in MS Word with the truly user-friendly Docentric Designer.
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