Microsoft's Partner Program: Buffet or A La Carte?

People Ready, indeed. Microsoft's Partner Program should follow suit, with offerings that make it Partner Ready.

In his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwarz points out that those who want many choices must also make tradeoffs. If one cracker had it all, the supermarket Schwarz visited wouldn't have 85 different brands of crackers.

When we make choices, we close off options, and sometimes we may end up less satisfied than if we had fewer choices to begin with.

Finesse and restraint generally aren't Microsoft's style, and the company likes to overwhelm both customers and the competition with options. There isn't a product line that the company doesn't think it can do better, bigger and splashier than anyone else. Not only will they compete, but they'll come out with three or four variations.

The strategy has had notable successes, such as the Office suite, and some failures. Windows Vista is an example of a Microsoft product that was intended to overwhelm -- entirely new programming model, new UI, new file system, new networking and communications infrastructure -- but at the end of the day was itself overwhelmed by the magnitude of the choices.

Microsoft's partner program has a lot of options, too, including a steady stream of new programs that partners can sign up for. And that makes me nervous.

The current version of the partner program was, in my view, a rare example of finesse at Microsoft. They corralled a herd of partner programs into one. That one program nevertheless provided partners with ways to distinguish themselves (competencies and tiers) and Microsoft could use those distinguishing characteristics to tailor its communications with partners to ensure they weren't overwhelmed. In short, partners had fewer choices but more clarity.

As time has passed, a dozen or so competencies have become three dozen or so competencies and specializations, with more to come. In addition to variations on technical skills, Microsoft has decided that it can help partners run their businesses better, so we have Partner Skills Plus, Marketing 101, Partner Solution Selling, and participation in the "People-Ready" and Customer campaigns.

Two problems come to mind. First, without disparaging these programs themselves, participation is not without costs. Time spent on these programs may be valuable or it may be a distraction. I'm all for education and life-long learning, but doing it right begins with analysis of your current shortcomings and unexplored market opportunities. If Microsoft offers programs that can help with that analysis or overcome such obstacles, great. If they can't help, don't go there.

Second, some of these programs are as much about Microsoft's marketing as they are about a partner's business. That's not necessarily bad -- I'm constantly telling partners that they need to figure out where Microsoft is going and get in front of the company. But make sure that you do the research before making a big investment.

For example, People Ready is a vague marketing concept, and a lot of partners will have trouble connecting with it. My analysis is that People Ready is a subtle way to get business leaders to focus on desktop software, where Microsoft reigns, rather than on the Internet browser, which is fast becoming the new desktop. Many of them are putting their new apps on intranet servers, eliminating the need to create, deploy and patch code on desktop PCs. That's not good for Microsoft's critical desktop business. People Ready is a smart concept for Microsoft, but it may not be valuable for partners who don't focus on the desktop.

Does that mean you should ignore all but the core Microsoft partner offerings? Absolutely not. Many programs offer valuable resources that most partners could never create on their own. But examine them critically, and ask someone you know at Microsoft about the offering.

About the Author

Paul DeGroot is principle consultant with Pica Communications, which provides consulting services for customers with complex Microsoft licensing issues.