Building a Core Competency

Kevin Teder of Inrange Consulting knows that developing expertise in a chosen field can help grow his business. Learn how he and others chose sensible core competencies and developed the know-how to make them pay.

Inrange Consulting is looking to make a name for itself—and it hopes Microsoft can help it do just that. The Indianapolis-area solution provider has been around, in one form or another, since 1997. But it has only been operating under its present name since an April 2004 acquisition by Cincinnati-based Brandywine Computer Group. So, Inrange is doing what tens of thousands of other solution providers are doing: Using the 15-month-old Microsoft Competencies program to make it clear to Microsoft, its business partners and potential customers exactly what it does.

The Competencies program, formed as part of a major retooling of the entire Microsoft Partner Program in early 2004, is designed to use customer references and employee certifications to draw distinctions between solution providers. "We heard a deafening roar to start talking to partners the way customers talk to them," says Kevin Wueste, general manager of the Microsoft Partner Program. "We were talking to partners about being Gold or Certified, but we weren't giving them information about meeting specific customer needs, about building specializations. This is the change, and the foundation of the next 10 years."

So far, the plan seems to be working, partners say. "It's really helping partners break out into areas where they have true strengths," says George LaVenture, president of Trinity Consulting in Marlborough, Mass. "It promotes circles of trust, shows partners that they have areas where they can help each other and helps partners focus more deeply on training."

John Golden, vice president of products and programs at Anaheim, Calif.-based New Horizons Computer Learning Centers, agrees. "There's more triangulation between Microsoft, partners and customers," Golden says. New Horizons, the world's largest independent computer training company, trains about 800,000 students each year on Microsoft applications.

Now, partners hope to convert cooperation into sales. To that end, Microsoft on Feb. 28 launched its Partner Channel Builder online tool, an electronic swap shop of sorts where Gold and Certified Partners can describe their expertise in detail—including their officially recognized competencies—and the specific customer segments they target. This way, solution providers that lack specific skills or solutions to close a sale can partner with one that has the skills they're missing (see "Partnering for Success").

On the end-user side, Microsoft is souping up its Windows Marketplace online tool to include partners' names and their services, and to forward sales leads of users making inquiries on the site to those partners. News about the lead-generation tool, which Microsoft hopes will better connect end users with partners, is expected this month.

Launched in October 2004, Windows Marketplace allows partners to showcase their software, hardware and trialware. Products that carry the "Designed for Windows" logo receive additional exposure. It's not yet clear whether the enhanced Windows Marketplace will replace the Microsoft Resource Directory, which lets potential customers find the right solution provider. The Resource Directory is not comprehensive and cannot capture sales leads. "The Microsoft Resource Directory isn't very good, so we don't publicize it," Wueste says.

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"Our goal is to bring the whole stack," says Kevin Teder of Inrange Consulting, which is pursuing the Information Worker Competency, and already setting its sights on the Integrated E-Business Solutions, Advanced Infrastructure Solutions and Business Intelligence Solutions Competencies.

Pick the Low-Hanging Fruit
Deciding which Microsoft Competencies make sense for your company involves an assessment of your current skills and some long-term strategic planning.

With the exception of ISV/Software Solutions and Learning Solutions, all Microsoft Competencies require that you employ two Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs). So for your first competency, it makes sense to select an area in which you or your employees are already certified. For example, to pursue the Advanced Infrastructure Solutions Competency, your business must employ or contract with two MCPs—specifically, MCSEs, MCSDs or MCDBAs. Both individuals must have passed at least one of four exams to determine, for example, whether they can implement and administer a Microsoft Windows 2000 Directory Services Infrastructure, or plan, implement and maintain a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Active Directory Infrastructure.

"We chose the Information Worker Competency because it was the path of least resistence to getting Gold," says Kevin Teder, vice president of Inrange Consulting, a Microsoft Certified Partner that specializes in customer relationship and supply chain management applications. That's because the Information Worker Competency includes Microsoft Business Solutions CRM, with which Inrange is already proficient.

Microsoft Competency Requirements Overview

To enroll in any Microsoft Partner Program Competency, you are required to:

  1. Be an active member of the Microsoft Partner Program.
  2. Meet the Microsoft Competency requirements, including certifications and competency profile, as outlined in the Partner's Guide to Microsoft Competencies.
  3. Submit at least three* Microsoft Competency-specific customer references:
  • Submit each customer reference project within 12 months of its implementation. (Referenced customers must be a separate legal entity from your own company.)
  • Each reference will expire 12 months from the date your customer verifies your reference with Microsoft.
  • All customer references should be replaced before they expire. Microsoft will keep all information confidential, if requested.

*The Learning Solutions Competency only requires one reference.

Source: Microsoft

With at least one competency under its belt, Inrange is eligible to apply for Gold Certified status. (Certified Partners are invited and encouraged to achieve competencies, but it's not a requirement.) Once that happens, Inrange will pursue other competencies, such as Business Intelligence, an area in which it is already familiar.

Microsoft's Wueste says Inrange is following a sound strategy. "The first thing people do is get efficient where they already are," he says. "That's standard human behavior. As they get that sorted out with us, they can then engage in other areas that serve their business opportunity."

That's the tack 4-year-old Trinity Consulting is taking. The Gold Certified Partner has already acquired Advanced Infrastructure, Business Intelligence, Information Worker, Networking Infrastructure and Security Solutions Competencies.

But Trinity is the exception, not the rule. The majority of Gold Certified Partners—73 percent—achieve only a single competency.

And even Trinity isn't trying to do it all. "Fifteen years ago you could say you were all things to all people," says Trinity's LaVenture. "But there was always a danger of people overextending themselves. It's better to find an area where you know you can deliver a first-class solution."

Think Long-Term
Ultimately, you need to map out a long-term strategy for your company. While Inrange is first pursuing the Information Worker Competency, it has already set its sights on the Integrated E-Business Solutions, Advanced Infrastructure Solutions and Business Intelligence Solutions Competencies.

It's not that Inrange is looking to collect certifications like so many Boy Scout merit badges. Rather, it feels that offering a more complete solution that includes both the applications and the infrastructure will benefit its clients and ensure its own long-term viability, Teder says. Historically, the company's strengths have been in CRM, supply chain management and financial management applications. "Now," he says, "our goal is to bring the whole stack."

Similarly, Concord, Ohio-based Cornerstone IT already has its Microsoft Competencies in Information Worker Solutions and Networking Infrastructure Solutions, but it is pursuing the Business Intelligence Competency because that fits into the company's goal of helping enterprise clients squeeze more value from their data, says Raymond Paganini, chief information officer of Cornerstone IT and president of the Cleveland chapter of the International Association of Microsoft Certified Partners.

Pick Your Competency

To earn one of the 11 recognized Microsoft Competencies, you must first enroll or renew your membership as a Microsoft Certified or Gold Certified Partner (Registered Members are not eligible). Then, review the available competencies and select the one that best suits your long- and short-term goals. Competencies include:

  • Advanced Infrastructure Solutions: Includes Microsoft Exchange Server implementation, migration or deployment; Microsoft Identity Integration Server implementation and design; and storage solutions design and deployment
  • Business Intelligence Solutions: Includes data warehousing; business intelligence; and online analytical processing
  • Information Worker Solutions: Building collaboration and group productivity solutions
  • Integrated E-Business Solutions: Using extranets and Web hosting; and Web-based application and portal development
  • ISV/Software Solutions: Developing and marketing packaged software solutions based on Microsoft technologies
  • Learning Solutions: Training solutions that focus on Information Technical Professional Training, .NET Developer Training, Solutions Offering Training and Career Changer Training
  • Licensing Solutions: Providing customers with Microsoft software licensing and asset management solutions
  • Microsoft Business Solutions: Deploying Microsoft Business Solutions focused on financial management, customer relationship management, supply chain management and analytics applications, such as Axpta, Navision, Solomon, Great Plains and others
  • Networking Infrastructure Solutions: Implementing technology solutions based on Microsoft Windows Server and Windows Small Business Server operating system technology
  • OEM Hardware Solutions: Building PC and server systems based on Microsoft technologies to deliver comprehensive solutions
  • Security Solutions: Security management and operations; secure wireless VPN and perimeter; and identity and application security

Attaining any of these competencies can help you graduate from being a Certified Partner to a Gold Certified Partner. Gold Partners need 120 points; Certified Partners need 50 points. For the first competency, you earn 50 points; for the second, you earn 25. No points are awarded for subsequent competencies.

— Kevin Ferguson

Don't Skimp on Training
By and large, most solution providers report they have all the requisite training to achieve at least one competency. As they add staff and target new competencies, however, more training and testing is often required.

Finding training is hardly a problem, though. Microsoft training is nearly ubiquitous in classrooms and online. This spring, more than 625 courses were offered as on-demand Webinars, e-learning sessions and on-site, through Microsoft's U.S. Partner Readiness program. The latest options include hour-long Webinars on such varied technical topics as migrating from Lotus Notes to .NET, how to recover items and mailboxes from backup, and how to rebuild a destroyed Exchange 2003 Server. In addition, the Partner Readiness program now includes sales and marketing tutorials on topics such as using business ratios to determine the effectiveness of sales, sales management and marketing.

Among the most popular classes are those involving Windows Server 2003 and Exchange 2003, says New Horizons Computer Learning Center's Golden. There is also heightened interest in technologies considered part of the Information Worker Competency, including Microsoft Exchange Server, Office Live Communications Server 2003 and Windows SharePoint Services. "There's been a lot of push by Microsoft around the idea of business collaboration tools," he says.

Trinity Consulting's LaVenture says his firm doesn't need training to meet any specific requirements, but stays on top of it just the same. "We continually do training," he says. "I just sent an e-mail out to staff in which I detailed six or seven different training classes that we have coming up. You're never going to stop it."

Jim Stout, chief executive officer of Invoke Systems, a Baltimore-based CRM solution provider and Gold Certified Partner, also doesn't expect his technicians will need more than the usual ongoing training as products are updated. "CRM has been a strong focus for us for a long time," says Stout, whose company built and sold the application that is now the core of Microsoft Business Solutions CRM. "That's not to say there's not some learning involved. But the certification tests tend to be broad, so you always have to go through and learn some more on your own anyway."

Still, Invoke Systems knows there are plenty of CRM solution providers out there. Having Microsoft Information Worker and Business Solutions Competencies, says Stout, helps his company stand out.

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