Microsoft's New Deal

An overhaul of the Microsoft Partner Program is set to be unveiled at the Worldwide Partner Conference this month. The details are murky but "everything is on the table," including the program name--now the "Microsoft Partner Network."

A year after promising major changes to its partner program, Microsoft is set to lay out a major program overhaul this month at its Worldwide Partner Conference in New Orleans.

The changes will include a new name-the Microsoft Partner Program (MSPP) will become the Microsoft Partner Network.

"The Microsoft Partner Program is evolving. At the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in July, we're launching the Microsoft Partner Network, a community born from our continued commitment to serve the needs of our partners and help them reach their full business potential," Allison Watson, corporate vice president of the Worldwide Partner Group, said in an e-mail statement to Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

"Everything is on the table," Watson said, adding: "Working together, we continue to focus on creating innovative solutions that drive profitability and sustain competitive advantage."

Besides the name, details were still sketchy in mid-June. However, Watson did say the Microsoft Partner Network will provide the following:

  • "Opportunities to strengthen partner technical, sales and marketing capabilities." Some reports have this change including improved marketing of partner designations to customers.
  • "Expertise to help partners capture business opportunity with customers during the biggest launch wave in Microsoft history." Sometimes called Wave 14, the group of forthcoming products includes Windows 7, Windows Server 2008 R2, Office 2010, Exchange Server 2010, SharePoint 2010 and others.
  • "Communities that spark innovation and connection." This likely includes a heavier reliance on social media and online communities, especially Facebook and Twitter. Microsoft has already begun using Facebook and Twitter to promote the partner conference and facilitate networking in New Orleans.

The fact that Microsoft is ready to reveal much more of the next generation of its channel program goes a long way toward explaining why the Worldwide Partner Group seemed to have gone mostly dark this year, aside from dispensing some advice to partners on surviving the economy.

What's in a Name?
Rolling out the overhaul of the MSPP in New Orleans is evidence that the program has come full circle. It was in October 2003, at the inaugural Microsoft Partner Conference in New Orleans, that Microsoft laid out its vision and strategy for the current MSPP. The MSPP formally launched a few months later in January 2004. A major reason for overhauling the program at that time was the need to integrate the partners Microsoft inherited from the Great Plains, Solomon, Navision and Axapta acquisitions with existing infrastructure partners. New elements of the program in 2004 included the concepts of Microsoft Partner Points and the Microsoft Competencies.

Switching the name from a "Partner Program" to a "Partner Network" could have two other implications. One is more emphasis on driving peer-to-peer communication and collaboration. Another is that Microsoft is hinting that social-networking tools and methods will become much more important to its channel efforts in the near future. Microsoft follows several other major technology vendors-including Oracle Corp., Lenovo and Citrix Systems Inc.-in using "Network" to describe a partner program.

Telegraphing the Changes
Julie Bennani, general manager of the MSPP, previewed Microsoft's thinking about the changes for a cover story in the July 2008 issue, "The New Rules of Partnering with Microsoft." Bennani presented the changes as part of a three-year process driven by several factors, including the increasing sophistication of the Microsoft channel; a need to streamline Microsoft's programs; a need to deal with the emerging shift toward cloud computing and Software plus Services (S+S); and the challenges posed by the sheer size of the Microsoft channel. "We're trying to balance being complete with the goal of moving toward simplicity," Bennani said at the time.

Major areas of focus last year fell into three general buckets:
  • An attempt to restructure the partner program in order to recognize different levels of expertise in different competency areas. In the current program, a partner might be Gold Certified and have five competencies, but there's no programmatic way to differentiate which of those competencies the partner knows best or how the partner's expertise in each of those competencies compares to other partners' expertise. The initial concept was to rank partners as "Good, Better or Best" in a competency.
  • Realigning the competencies and expanding them to recognize industry-standard certifications outside of Microsoft's own certifications. An example was a project-management credential from the Project Management Institute, an international professional association.
  • An increased emphasis on Customer Satisfaction, or C-Sat. Driven by Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner, Microsoft has been pushing for more data on how satisfied customers are with their partners. Microsoft contracts with a third party to survey partners' customers, and provides the partners with criteria for putting the results in perspective. In the recently ended fiscal year, participation by upper-level partners was required for the first time. C-Sat apparently remains a big part of the new program.

Evolving the Network
In an interview with RCP a few weeks before the 2009 partner conference, Bennani declined to go into specifics about program changes but outlined the evolution of Microsoft's thinking since last year. "I'd say we're extending the thoughts that we had a year ago," she said.

One area where the thinking is evolving is the Good-Better-Best rankings, a topic that partners have expressed much curiosity about since Microsoft began discussing it last year. "We stopped using the words [Good-Better-Best]. We're evolving 'Good' into membership," Bennani said. Now the focus, she added, is more on determining "who are our most focused partners? We think about engaging with midsize and small companies as an example" of how each partner's focus will be emphasized in the new Partner Network.

Making the program simpler remains a goal, Bennani said. "We're actually trying to get more precise on what those partners need and value," she explained. "We recognize that sometimes we might be too complex. Sometimes we might be putting too much noise in the market."

But understandably, one of the hardest elements of the changes is to actually simplify a program with hundreds of thousands of partners and hundreds of vertical specializations.

"We're continuing down the path of building a healthy, broader community. I've noticed other companies that have channels going only to the biggest, best or top [partners]. We know that those partners are super important. But we also know that having a strong, broad community is also really important," Bennani said. "We value the difference in all [our] business models ... We have a widely varying ecosystem. That's a huge value for our partners and a huge value for our customers."

In other words, engineering simplicity for simplicity's sake seems to have given way to a more important set of questions for Microsoft. "Do we truly know those partners that are the best experts and committed to us? Are we engaging them effectively?" Bennani questioned.

In line with the "Network" theme, Microsoft is recognizing the explosion of social-networking sites like Facebook and tools such as Twitter. There was little emphasis a year ago on opening up the MSPP to social-networking tools. Now it's a major theme.

"I think part of the evolution of the program includes our online presence and how we approach that," Bennani said. Microsoft's online presence is currently the Microsoft Partner Portal. "How we drive that [online] experience is going to change," she added. Microsoft will pay much more attention to communicating and facilitating conversations "on forums, Twitter and other things," Bennani noted.

Not all of the changes will be effective immediately when the partner conference starts on July 13, but some of them will. "We're in the middle of the process. We tend to plan out three years. We tend to balance the near with the far," Bennani said. "When we make the announcement about where we're heading, it will have some very near-term changes."