Microsoft, MCS and Partners: A Most Delicate Dance

Microsoft makes another run at bringing in new enterprise-grade integration business via its consulting force. Will it work this go-round?

Watching partners watch Microsoft Consulting Services (MCS) reminds me of those courtly 18th-century dances that were long on decorum, bowing and smiling, but short on personal contact. These dances were more about being seen together in polite company than expressing intimacy or even amity.

MCS was begun around the dawn of Microsoft's enterprise dreams, when Windows NT entered the scene and Microsoft needed engineers in the field to keep up with the Novell Certified Systems Engineers, who briefly held the hottest ticket around. Perhaps because of the geeks who ran the company, however, Microsoft never thought much beyond computers to how the business world would use them. The computer was its own answer.

That led to a company that was, and still is, remarkably dependent on its partners to open commercial doors, largely because Microsoft took so long to develop a field sales force that could have a business -- rather than a computer-discussion.

With Windows OEM relationships generating vast gobs of cash, hiring a bunch of salespeople and technical consultants just didn't sound as profitable as developing more and better products. Although Microsoft's leadership recognized in the late 1990s that the computer was not always the answer, and that business customers had not only networks to run, but payrolls, marketing campaigns, factories and supply lines as well, the company was late to the idea of developing a huge consulting force that would become a profit center, a la IBM Global Services (IGS).

Since 2000, Microsoft has danced two steps forward and two steps back with regard to its consulting force. The big question: Would MCS become a prime contractor, running major integration projects directly? The answer: Yes, in 2001; followed by a quick no in 2002 when partners rebelled at the idea that Microsoft partners would be competing against Microsoft for big consulting jobs. Yes again, when it later hired an IGS heavyweight, Mike Sinneck -- and no, when he left less than two years later.

At last summer's Worldwide Partner Conference, Microsoft introduced some new steps into the dance.

Partner satisfaction is now part of Corporate Vice President of Worldwide Services Maria Martinez's scorecard. This may not sound like a big deal, but Microsoft COO Kevin Turner is big on scorecards. Every senior Microsoft executive has one. Every product group, every team of any size has one. Scorecards have some common metrics, so one person's results can be rolled up to a higher-level executive's scorecard. Martinez runs Microsoft Services, which includes MCS. So when her marks come in, they roll up to her boss's scorecard. Her boss is Kevin Turner. For the first time, Turner may actually know how happy -- or unhappy -- the 2,000 or so partners who work with MCS are.

MCS architects will now be sent into the field to help Microsoft account teams. The brains from Redmond may add extraordinary technical punch to the sales effort and teach partners a lot. Or they may just be duds in front of customers. But at least they won't be competing with partners while they're at it.

Service-line offerings will package up consulting services. You haven't heard much about the new service lines because they were mostly vaporware at the partner conference. On the other hand, if you were around for the "solution offerings" or "accelerators" of yesteryear, you'll understand service-line offerings. (In fact, one of the first solution offerings out is called the Enterprise Search Decision Accelerator.) Service-line offerings are supposed to pick the brains of Microsoft consultants and package all that smartness into a proof-of-concept or demo for a customer. Microsoft says it will for sure, absolutely, no-two-ways-about-it put these babies in the hands of partners -- as soon as it finishes them and finds partners who meet its standards for delivering them.

Service-line offerings could be a great boon to partners by transferring a lot of hard-won consulting knowledge from MCS. Or they could harm partners by commoditizing some bleeding-edge consulting jobs. While it's hard to say how these changes will pan out in the long run, overall, I'd call them positive steps for partners.

About the Author

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