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Sea Change in the MPN: Advanced Specializations Outnumber Competencies

The structure of the Microsoft Partner Network reached a significant milestone this week when the number of advanced specializations surpassed the number of competencies for the first time. It's a change worth paying attention to because it shows where Microsoft's priorities lie.

Competencies have been the major way for partners to demonstrate their expertise since Microsoft last restructured its program as the Microsoft Partner Network (MPN) more than a decade ago. Competencies come in Silver and Gold levels. Their number has ranged from about 30 at the peak to about 18 now.

Advanced specializations have developed over the last couple of years. Earned atop a Gold competency, advanced specializations have higher costs, require more training and employee certification and can have other requirements such as a third-party audit. As recently as last fall, there were only 11 advanced specializations.

On Wednesday, Microsoft unveiled a new batch of five advanced specializations, bringing the total number of specializations up to 23. That vaults the number of advanced specializations well ahead of the number of competencies.

Rodney Clark, Microsoft's new worldwide channel chief, put competencies in context against advanced specialization in an interview this week.

"We still recognize and value the competencies, but we also have to ensure that we're investing in the channel so that they are staying one step ahead of our customers. And to do that, we have to get deeper in terms of where and how we ask our ecosystem to specialize," Clark said.

One of the challenges that Microsoft is addressing, Clark said, is that many customers now have substantial technical expertise inside their organizations. Those customers are looking to channel partners for help on very specific issues and opportunities, he said.

So, for example, competencies around cloud include broad areas like Cloud Platform or Data Analytics. Within advanced specializations, badges include areas like SAP on Microsoft Azure, Windows Server and SQL Server Migration to Microsoft Azure or Linux and Open Source Databases Migration to Microsoft Azure.

"We still recognize and value the competencies, but we also have to ensure that we're investing in the channel so that they are staying one step ahead of our customers."

Rodney Clark, Worldwide Channel Chief, Microsoft

In short, the advanced specialization process is designed to result in a partner offering best-in-class, repeatable services, Clark said.

"We are going to continue to invest in specialization because that is now the currency," Clark said. The new advanced specializations launched this week are Microsoft Azure VMware Solution, AI and Machine Learning Microsoft Azure, Cloud Security, Hybrid Operations Management with Microsoft Azure Arc, and Hybrid Cloud Infrastructure with Microsoft Azure Stack HCI.

To be clear, while the number of distinct advanced specializations is now higher than the number of distinct competencies, the number of partners with competencies is orders of magnitude higher than the number with advanced specializations. About 400,000 partners have competencies, Clark said. Somewhere in the low 1,000s have earned advanced specializations.

Part of that is that the advanced specializations are newer. Another part is they're intentionally exclusive and harder to achieve.

Dan Truax, the general manager of partner digital experiences and programs at Microsoft, has been steadily rolling out the new advanced specializations in blog posts over the last year. In the blog announcing the new specializations this week, he pitched the value.

"For services partners, achieving an advanced specialization is a powerful way to validate, differentiate and showcase your organization's technical capabilities and experience," Truax wrote. "It can be a valuable way to highlight your capabilities, differentiate your organization and stand out with customers. With an advanced specialization, your organization can gain greater visibility in customer searches and the Microsoft partner directory, which can help your organization scale both now and in the long run. And with an Azure advanced specialization, you can also gain access to additional programs to help further expand your customer connections."

Truax's post acknowledged the investment of time and resources, and Clark said that one of the top challenges his team is currently focused on is helping partners visualize and plan for the road to profitability from investing in an advanced specialization to making money from one.

"A partner investing in specialization may recognize a return six months to nine months after they've invested in it. So they're saying, 'Hey, we know that profitability is there, but help us bridge this six to nine months,'" Clark said.

Posted by Scott Bekker on June 17, 2021