In-Depth

From the MSPP to the MPN

Partners have 16 months to make the transition from the 6-year-old Microsoft Partner Program structure to the framework of the new Microsoft Partner Network.

A major overhaul to the Microsoft channel program has been several years in the making. Microsoft began hinting at its intentions to refashion the Microsoft Partner Program (MSPP) two years ago and laid out some vague guidelines just one year ago.

The company constructed the MSPP in 2002 and 2003 and had most of it launched by 2004. This was in an era before Software as a Service (SaaS), before virtualization went mainstream and before SharePoint became a billion-dollar product. MSPP was also a program created in part to handle the then-new integration of the channels for the business-solution products, now known as the Microsoft Dynamics line.

This July, Microsoft formally launched the MSPP's replacement, the Microsoft Partner Network (MPN). High-level changes include four new "landing areas" for partners that replace the three tiers of the old program; a streamlined and reorganized Competency system; a bigger focus on customer satisfaction, or C-Sat, data; and a new emphasis on social media.

Although the name took effect immediately, Microsoft's 360,000 MSPP/MPN members have some time to make the shift.

"You have a full 18 months to understand where you want to go so you can make the plans [that will help] you get there," Allison Watson, corporate vice president of the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Group, told partners during the announcement of the MPN. Because Watson made that statement in July at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference, there are now 16 months for partners to complete the switch.

The Golden Era Ends
The most surprising change in the MPN is the elimination of the popular Gold Certified Partner level. In discussions about coming changes to the program, Microsoft officials had said Gold Certified Partners enjoyed significant brand awareness with customers and had a strong chance of surviving the transition. Meanwhile, in a Redmond Channel Partner magazine Reader Survey published in March, 67 percent of respondents said that Microsoft should keep the Gold Certified level when changing the program. In the end, though, Microsoft decided to differentiate partners in an entirely different way.

Darren Bibby, a channel analyst with market research firm IDC, says the number of Gold Certified Partners -- 16,700 worldwide -- had gotten out of hand. "They just got to so many Gold Certified Partners, it was time for something to change," Bibby explains. "I don't think they anticipated how open the doors were to get into Gold [when they set up the program]." Bibby says the problem seemed especially acute within the Microsoft Dynamics partner channel.

Throughout the MSPP's history, Microsoft tiered partners into Registered Members, Certified Partners and Gold Certified Partners. When the MPN is fully operational, however, partners will be classed in four new "landing areas": Advanced, Standard, Subscriber and Communities/QuickStarts.

Julie Bennani, general manager of the MPN, provides more detail on the new program's four levels, which will take effect when partners re-enroll starting in October 2010.

Advanced will replace Gold Certified as the premier designation. Bennani says the Advanced level will be more exclusive than the current Gold Certified level, but Advanced status will come with specific commitments from Microsoft. Those include both partner account management, at least at the telePAM level, and opportunity support.

"That's a much bigger extension of contact with partners," Bennani says. "This is best-in-class. [Partners at this level can say,] 'I'm the best partner in customer relationship management based on customer evidence, customer satisfaction, a case study and participating in training.'"

Bennani says the Standard level will be for partners who achieve a Competency: "They'll get into brand. We'll align incentives. This is the point where coverage for opportunities will start."

Both Advanced and Standard will attempt to address a need partners expressed in the RCP Reader Survey. When asked how effective the MSPP was in differentiating partner companies and pointing customers to partners, respondents were lukewarm. On the question, nearly 23 percent of respondents selected "very ineffective" or "not effective," 44.6 percent chose "somewhat effective" and nearly 33 percent selected "very effective" or "effective." Those were low numbers, especially when considering that elsewhere in the survey, an overwhelming majority of partners were happy to some extent with the program and most rated the MSPP better than other vendors' channel programs.

The Subscriber level is an evolution of the Microsoft Action Pack Subscription and Empower programs and will cover a large portion of the existing Registered Member community.

The Communities/QuickStarts level will be very basic. "This is a toe in the water. [For example, someone who says,] 'I'm an individual interested in Windows 7.' We're going to be very simple and clean on what we ask them to do there," Bennani says. The level's only requirements to enroll will be an e-mail address, the role in the organization and the company name.

Also being retired is the Partner Points system that Microsoft used to mark partners' progress toward the Certified and Gold Certified milestones.

Redefining Competency
Microsoft will continue the use of the Microsoft Competencies, but is paring the list substantially from 17 Competencies and 46 Specializations now to about 30 in the near future. The new Solution Competency system will also encompass some previously freestanding programs, such as the Microsoft Small Business Specialist Community.


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Bennani says the MSPP Competency/Specialization structure was getting rusty. "Some of those areas of specialization are too narrow, and we have gaps. For example, today we don't have a landing place for marketing organizations," she notes. A new Solution Competency is called "Digital Marketing" and handles those partners. (See "Three New MPN Competencies" for a complete chart mapping MSPP Specializations to the new MPN Solution Competencies.)

Another group getting some recognition in the new Solution Competency regime is the 20,000-member Small Business Specialist Community. Small Business will be a full-fledged Solution Competency in the new program, rather than a freestanding, half-Competency/half-community as it is now.

Arlin Sorensen, chairman and CEO of Harlan, Iowa-based Gold Certified Partner Heartland Technology Solutions Inc., was enthusiastic about the small business category changes in a posting on his blog, Peer Power. "They're putting Small Business where it belongs -- as a real competency -- and appear to be raising the bar a bit, as well, which is welcome," Sorensen wrote.

Unlike the existing Gold Certified level, the Advanced level will apply to a specific Solution Competency. For example, a partner with Solution Competencies in both Server Platform and Unified Communications might only qualify as Advanced for one Competency and be a Standard partner for the other.

IDC's Bibby says the change addresses a genuine issue. "One of the problems they had was that a Gold Certified Partner who made it as a networking partner could get into business intelligence and legitimately call themselves Gold there too. Now you have to be a lot more accountable," he says.

On the Microsoft Dynamics side of the organization, partners will have the option of gaining even further differentiation. Although the specific industry verticals haven't been finalized, a partner could conceivably become something as specialized as a Microsoft Advanced Dynamics Enterprise Resource Planning Partner in Manufacturing for Kentucky, for example.

Moving from a blanket Gold Certified Partner to a Competency-specific Advanced ranking will be a shift in thinking for Microsoft partners, but Tiffani Bova, a channel analyst with Gartner Inc., doesn't think the change will cause too much confusion.

"This isn't something revolutionary in the channel. Cisco did it three years ago," Bova says. "Ultimately it will deliver a much closer interaction between Microsoft and those partners that are really investing in specific competencies. It'll help customers identify and compare partners that are out there in the market."

Timetable
Although they now belong to the MPN, partners will re-enroll in the existing MSPP tiers -- Gold Certified, Certified and Registered Member -- when enrollment begins for 2010 this October.

The first change many partners will experience is the requirement that any Gold Certified Partners enrolling or re-enrolling in the program must have participated in the Customer Satisfaction Index within the previous 12 months. This new condition will be required for Gold Certified Partners re-enrolling during the 2010 re-enrollment period.

Throughout 2010, Microsoft is encouraging partners to familiarize themselves with the MPN Solution Competencies and plan their transitions into that structure. The new MPN Solution Competencies will be available for the 2011 re-enrollment period, beginning in October 2010. At that time, partners will begin using new MPN logos, with existing logos retiring six months later. Partner Points will be officially phased out in October 2010, as well.

Keeping up with channel programs is a pain for partners, Bibby notes, citing Microsoft partners' occasional references to the "Microsoft tax" of investing resources in the program in order to do business. Nonetheless, having watched other vendors overhaul programs, Bibby says Microsoft appears to be doing several things right. "They're leaving a long time to let partners figure this out," Bibby says. Ample time should mean that Microsoft can avoid unpopular moves like being forced by time constraints to grandfather certain categories of partners, thus bypassing newly created quality hurdles.

Gartner's Bova also says that Microsoft appears to be on track, but the company's 360,000-member program poses unique challenges. "It's going to be all about execution," she says. "They just have more partners than anyone."