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Temperature Check on the New(ish) Microsoft Cloud Partner Program

We're now four months into the Microsoft Cloud Partner Program (MCPP), which succeeded the old Microsoft Partner Network (MPN) and went live on Oct. 3, 2022.

I have loved this evolution right from the start. I have felt for some time that the old MPN program was a bit dated and no longer relevant. Partners were constantly testing its boundaries to qualify for Gold competencies, and customers had long stopped paying notice.

The new MCPP is, in my mind, more in-tune with the times and better addresses how customers buy and consume their IT services and solutions today. I think the MCPP's six solutions areas -- Data & AI (Azure), Infrastructure (Azure), Digital & App Innovation (Azure), Business Applications, Modern Work and Security -- better frame the different practice areas that a partner of today might have in the era of cloud computing. On top of these, there are specializations and expert programs for the partners with an even deeper knowledge in certain areas.

I have been part of Microsoft's various partner program changes during my years as a channel insider, and the switch from the MPN to the MCPP represents a natural evolution. Case in point: The concept of collecting points, which is a staple of today's MCPP, comes from an older Microsoft partner program code-named "Octane" from over 15 years ago.

My point is that once in a while, Microsoft will have a discussion with its partners, the result of which is sometimes a new version of its partner program. This is a rhythm that has been going on since the 1990s. And it makes sense; it's important to always improve, making adjustments as the rest of the world changes.

When then-channel chief Rodney Clark announced the MCPP last March, some partners expressed concerns that it would be harder to qualify in the new program as a Solutions Partner compared to the old Gold qualification. I didn't see that as negative, though, because the value of a Gold competency was hugely diluted. To me, one of the main problems with the old MPN was that there was very little useful differentiation between competency levels. I personally welcome a higher bar for standards so that partners have something to strive for and customers have an easier way to determine who has true expertise in a certain field. The old program had become way too easy for the partners that wanted to become Gold-certified. 

Some partners said this was a downgrade for them. They feared the cost of losing their benefits. Perhaps they also feared they would no longer have a prominent badge. There have been concerns about the MCPP from partners servicing smaller customers and who tend to be more generalists than specialists. I've also heard concerns from ISVs.

My response to those concerns is that I am certain modern partners will find a place in the new MCPP. Others partners, especially those with legacy business models, should perhaps see this shift as a wake-up call to modernize their businesses. After all, Microsoft is just trying to address the changes in the market; likewise, partners need to evolve if they want to continue to be successful.

The MCPP's six solution areas give valuable insight to business leaders in our community. Partners that invest in any of these six solution areas will stand a decent chance of being in a growth area that will help support their practices. They will also be aligned with Microsoft's priorities, which has huge value: They can piggyback on Microsoft's investments to win in the marketplace.

What we have seen in the MCPP's first four months is the same pattern we've seen many times before. As partners learn about this new version of the partner program, they start to feel more at-ease and capable of planning to obtain their new status within the revamped program. The larger partners have found it easy to make the changes, though smaller ones will need time to achieve the right number of customers, revenue and certifications to reach the minimum required partner capability score (70 points out of 100) to become an MCPP Solutions Partner. Microsoft's decision to allow partners to keep their old benefits, like Internal Use Rights (IURs), was welcomed by the partner community, as it gives partners time to qualify for their desired level in the new program.

When I talk to partners in my network from all over the globe, I sense that most of the more successful ones are on track to adapt to the new MCPP. The key is "less is more." Partners need to specialize in a certain solutions area, instead of trying to fit too many. Being specialized attracts customers who want the best partner in a certain area. It also attracts the right hires. The new MCPP is great for the partners that embrace specialization as a strategy. If you're a generalist, you will find it hard to achieve 70 points in any solutions area -- and I think that's a good thing.

What I foresee is that Microsoft and its partners will educate customers on what it means to have a Solutions Partner badge. As customers understand how it works, it will be easier for them to create a shortlist of the right set of partners to solve their challenges.

I have personally always embraced change in the various iterations of Microsoft's partner programs, and I know that each evolution creates profitable opportunities for the early adopters. This generation will most likely follow the same pattern: They will create and enjoy wonderful new opportunities.

Posted by Per Werngren on February 13, 2023