Dynamic Destiny

Microsoft's move to standardize its enterprise-applications suite offers both opportunity and challenges for partners that sell those solutions.

They say the only constant in life is change, a truism to which companies selling the Microsoft Dynamics product suites can attest.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant has committed to continuing to release and support new versions of each of the four different Dynamics enterprise resource planning (ERP) suites -- AX, GP, NAV and SL -- for the foreseeable future. But it's been 18 months since Microsoft brought the products together under the Dynamics brand umbrella, and its vision is to one day standardize the four to a Web services-enabled code base. The latter won't happen for up to six years. In the meantime, Microsoft will release upgrades to the Dynamics products that will bring them closer together, especially in terms of user interface.

The integration of Microsoft's Dynamics lines isn't just a rationalization of the best features of four similar products with different market strengths -- it's a conversion of the products to Microsoft's core infrastructure. For example, going forward, each product in the suite will be integrated with flagship Microsoft technologies including SharePoint Server, SQL Server and Office. This could eventually give partners specializing in Microsoft Business Solutions much more flexibility in quickly addressing new markets and could make the entire product line a platform that's much more attractive to ISVs. But in the near term, the push to standardize lays some heavy burdens on existing partners companies, which are using a variety of techniques to cope.

Dynamics Growing Pains: A Special Report

Since making its move into business applications, Microsoft has bought, built and partnered its way to steadily increasing revenues and market share. Inevitably, those gains generate conflicts. For Microsoft and many of its partners, those are the best kind of problems to have. But for partners specializing in Microsoft's Dynamics suite, the issues can get particularly sticky.

In this collection of articles, we examine three of those issues:

Lee Pender covers the increasing conflict between Microsoft and SAP as both companies dive into the market for small and midsize businesses to compete for one of the most desirable untapped customer bases.

Scott Bekker looks at Microsoft CRM's forthcoming "Titan" release. With the addition of a Software as a Service delivery option, Microsoft offers new opportunities for some partner companies, but also raises the possibility of elbowing others out .

Lauren Gibbons Paul explores how the GP, AX, NAV and SL Dynamics suites are coming together, and what their gradual integration means for partners.

One such strategy is adding support for all four Dynamics products in an attempt to cover all the bases. Microsoft officials generally don't recommend this approach except for partners with plenty of resources to devote to each product. But Brian McMurray, vice president of sales and marketing for InterDyn Business Microvar, a 60-employee Microsoft Dynamics reseller in Minneapolis, feels that he's hedging his bets against the eventual code standardization by adding the only Dynamics product he does not currently support -- AX, formerly Axapta, whose sophisticated features appeal to larger midmarket companies -- to his stable. It will be a long and arduous process to staff up to the point where Business Microvar Inc. (a Gold Certified Partner and part of the InterDyn association of Dynamics resellers) can sell and support AX. "It's hard to find those people. There's not a lot of experience in the market," says McMurray. Phase one of his plan, which should be complete by spring, is to hire people who can then be trained, eventually receiving certification on the platform.

That's partly because the AX product is only used by 7,000 companies worldwide, according to Microsoft, making it the least well-adopted of the four ERP platforms Microsoft has acquired in the last few years. McMurray is finding it hard to hire people with Dynamics AX experience, but he says it's much easier to find potential hires with experience in Microsoft core technologies like .NET and SQL Server. Since Microsoft announced its plans to integrate these into the entire Dynamics suite, McMurray has added a few technical staffers with proven Microsoft experience. It's been cheaper and easier to find and/or train people with Microsoft skills, he reports happily, than to try to staff for the legacy skills.

Dynamics Opportunity

Microsoft Dynamics partners share the following advice for leveraging the Dynamics opportunity:

Be prepared. If you do decide to support additional Dynamics products, don't pull the trigger until your team has the appropriate training. You don't want your customers to have to pay the price for your lack of experience.

Stay informed. Avoid making decisions in a vacuum. Keep a close watch over the Microsoft product roadmap, which changes often.

Consider options. Explore different ways of obtaining new skills. Hiring and training are not the only options. This could be a good chance to join forces with another partner. -- L.G.P.

McMurray believes the effort -- to add Microsoft platform skills in general and AX competency specifically -- will be worth it in the long run.

"We don't have a lot of upper-midmarket customers. We believe this will help open the door to that space. We need to reach into a different segment of the market, expand and grow our business," says McMurray. Adding AX support now will also stand his company in good stead when the eventual convergence finally arrives, he believes. Though Microsoft hadn't, at press time, officially announced plans to favor one application's code over another, McMurray predicts that AX code will ultimately predominate because, he says, it's newer and capable of more complex functions. Of course, that's just his opinion. Every partner company that sells Dynamics, it seems, has a different take on the issue.

Add Tony DiBenedetto, president and CEO of Tribridge Inc., in Tampa, Fla., to the list of those who would welcome the code standardization tomorrow. Tribridge is among the few resellers that are currently staffed up to sell all four Dynamics products. "I think it would be better for Microsoft and the channel for these to be one product sooner rather than later," DiBenedetto says. He believes that, because the products and names have changed before, such a shift wouldn't be as disruptive as it might have been in the past. "It would be a lot easier to sell net new business," he says. "The pickup would be greater than the loss."

DiBenedetto's views notwithstanding, the end date for ultimate code convergence won't come until 2013 at the earliest, according to Barb Edson, a director of Microsoft Dynamics marketing. And although it's the name of Microsoft's well-attended annual conference for Dynamics customers, "we don't focus on the word 'convergence.' We are focused on building iterative releases for all the Dynamics products that improve their usability," says Edson. "We believe partner opportunities will only increase as these releases come out."

David Pilz strongly agrees. President and CEO of NAV reseller and Gold Certified Partner Axentia Solutions Corp. of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Pilz sees nothing but opportunity in the days ahead as the Dynamics products become more integrated with the core Microsoft technology "stack." "The integration of the products gives us an opportunity to add additional competencies such as SQL Server and SharePoint Server to our staff. Almost all of our customers can benefit from that," says Pilz.

David Cintron also sees opportunity in the integration of Microsoft technologies to the Dynamics line, but he sees costs as well. President of Business Specialists CQ, a six-person Dynamics NAV reseller and Microsoft Certified Partner based in Camarillo, Calif., Cintron says his company, which sells to the manufacturing and telecommunications verticals, will need much more training to cope with the changes. "We barely have the time and resources to train our staff on existing features," he says. Cintron expects to rely heavily on online training and documentation to get over the hump. He expects to pay at least $3,750 to Microsoft for a support contract for access to those materials.

"As far as how we'll continue, that's an interesting question," Cintron continues. "We have a strong talent base on legacy Navision, and it would be far easier to continue with this than to invest a lot of money and time in training" on new Microsoft skills.

Ultimately, a partner company's reaction to the changes, along with its coping strategy, is individual and tied to the organization's willingness to withstand change as well as its appetite for risk. No blanket advice applies: Partners must work through the issues according to their own circumstances and outlooks.

Strategic Initiative
Standardizing the technologies in the Microsoft Dynamics product line is a strategic imperative for Microsoft's efforts to grow its revenues from business applications. James Utzschneider, general manager of Microsoft Dynamics marketing, says the company aims to not only increase the number of businesses -- of all sizes -- that use Microsoft enterprise applications, but also to broaden the usage of the software within each user company by promoting an interface based on users' individual work roles for all four products.

But the standardization of Axapta, Great Plains, Solomon and Navision creates big challenges for partners who built their businesses on just one or two of the four different applications. To reap rewards from Dynamics, partners may often need more than their existing expertise. Like McMurray, they must hire new people, train current employees or partner with others to get the know-how they need. Theoretically, those efforts can be worthwhile, leading to big financial payoffs. Meanwhile, standardization could make Dynamics more attractive to broad-based ISVs, who would be able to develop once for all four products. By virtually all accounts, Microsoft has pursued the migration thoughtfully and sensibly, using a high-profile national advertising program to smooth out any confusion that might linger from having four different products that essentially do the same thing (although their backgrounds and vertical strengths vary enormously).

"Having one name in the market has had a positive impact on customer perception," says Pilz, of Axentia. "It was confusing to have so many names. That didn't help with customer confidence."

DiBenedetto agrees that the name change has been beneficial. "It's a challenge for Microsoft to compete against Best, SAP, Oracle and Epicor when there is confusion in the channel," he says, citing other major ERP players. Selling all four Dynamics products is difficult from a skills-and-talent standpoint but is easier from an overall selling perspective, DiBenedetto believes. "We have the luxury of selling the one that we think is right for the customer."

Dynamics: By the Numbers
Source: Microsoft Corp., December 2006
Package Number of corporate users per product, worldwide
Microsoft Dynamics AX
Microsoft Dynamics GP
Microsoft Dynamics NAV
Microsoft Dynamics SL

The first phase of Microsoft's road map for Dynamics evolution, called Wave 1, is well underway. In September 2005, Microsoft announced the standardization of its ERP and CRM product names under the Dynamics moniker. Microsoft officials announced that they would standardize the user interfaces among the products, as well, to emphasize usability. Dynamics GP was the first to get the facelift, with the November 2005 debut of the 9.0 release. Dynamics AX 4.0 followed in June last year. Next up: a new version of NAV later this year, then SL.

Slated to begin next year, Wave 2 will focus on each product's back-end functions. One key takeaway message: Microsoft has a policy of supporting each of its product iterations for five years after first release. As the years go by and Dynamics upgrades fill the landscape, at some point, the 2013 end date will disappear from notice. The migration will be gradual and seamless, says Edson. Moreover, she adds: "No one will be forced to move before they're ready."

Before, during and after the acquisitions that led to its unique four-part stable of ERP applications, Microsoft exhaustively researched how and why people use ERP software. As an example, Utzschneider cites a survey of 271 businesses conducted by Boston-based AMR Research Inc. The mid-2005 study, which strongly influenced Microsoft's own long-term ERP direction, indicated that nearly half the companies surveyed had multiple ERP user licenses languishing untouched. That finding applied across the board, for products from all different vendors, for user companies of all sizes. Researchers said that most survey respondents were frustrated by their ERP systems, which they found too difficult to use.

Microsoft also conducted its own research on how people used ERP software, Utzschneider recalls. "We would photograph workers at their desks. Sometimes they would have eight, 10, 13 windows open for their ERP application to try to get something done. They would break down in tears trying to figure out how to use these products." There was a great opportunity, the Microsoft team realized, both in terms of selling software to companies that had not yet invested in it and in helping existing customers tap unused functionality.

The first wave, therefore, concentrated on improving usability. The introduction of role-based user interfaces was key to that goal. Microsoft identified 50 core roles -- such as sales manager, HR manager, financial analyst and accounts payable manager -- that are typically filled by users of its four applications.

The role-based user interfaces are pegged to each of these 50 user types, incorporating business processes and resources commonly used by individuals in those roles. In keeping with Microsoft's "People Ready" software initiative, the interfaces also will tightly integrate with flagship Microsoft productivity applications including Outlook, Word and Excel.

Some Microsoft partners call Redmond's recent publicity push useful for helping customers understand how the Dynamics products can help harness employees' creativity and problem-solving skills.

Still, it takes a lot of selling to show prospects exactly what each product does and how it will help their businesses.

Cintron heads of one of the smaller channel partners selling Dynamics. But he's got the right idea when it comes to specialization, according to Microsoft's Edson. Customers -- and software vendors themselves -- rely on channel partners to understand their industries and know how to deliver the enterprise application software and services that are the best fit for their business. She recommends most partners -- even larger companies -- restrict themselves to one or two Dynamics products so that they're not stretching themselves too thin.

Pilz, of Axentia, is a good example. His 45-person firm sells Dynamics NAV to small and midsize food processors and heavy-equipment manufacturers. Axentia is also an ISV, selling a dealer-management system add-in to the NAV product tailored to its target industries.

Some partners that sell only one Dynamics product might worry that Microsoft might not pick their product to standardize on in the long run, but Pilz isn't losing any sleep over that possibility. "We manage our business in five-year increments and this isn't really on the radar yet."

McMurray, whose company will invest heavily in order to sell all four Dynamics products over the next couple of years, it would be nice if the code convergence were closer to reality. "I'll probably be retired by then," he jokes of the projected completion date. "By the time we get to that, I'm anticipating enough of the front-end technology will be common across applications that the back-end code won't matter as much."

That pretty much sums up the attitude that Microsoft officials hope channel partners will take, says Microsoft's Edson, again citing the products' iterative releases: "We are committed to protecting the partner-based business opportunities."