11 Key Things About the New Microsoft Partner Network

For Microsoft's roughly 400,000 formal partners, the changeover this month to a new partner program means that everything from business cards to business practices will change.

Change is coming to nearly every type of channel provider in the Microsoft Partner Network: SIs, VARs, Distis and everything in between. RCP has boiled all the noise down to the 11 points you absolutely must understand to make a successful transition.

1. 'Certified' Out the Window
The term "Certified" as a label for partners is nearly as old as Redmond's formal engagements with partners, but it's gone now. That means partner companies will no longer be Microsoft Certified Partners or Microsoft Gold Certified Partners. This is one of the most profound branding changes to the program, with implications for how nearly every Microsoft partner company presents itself to the world.

At a macro level, one example of how this change impacts the channel was the decision by the Microsoft partner networking and advocacy organization, IAMCP, to formally change its name. IAMCP went from the International Association of Microsoft Certified Partners to the International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners.

New logos officially go live this month, and partner branding for different levels -- such as the old Microsoft Certified Partner, Microsoft Gold Certified Partner and Registered Member -- is finished. Every company is simply a Microsoft partner now.

2. Eureka! There's Still Gold! (Silver Too)
One of the most controversial initial changes that was supposed to go live this month was the elimination of the term "Gold" from the MPN. For years, Microsoft executives have worried that the value of the Gold level was being diluted because too many partners had it.

In the partner community, feelings about the Gold level were mixed. Some larger partners asked for further differentiation through a "Platinum" level or some other specialized, high-level branding, and for a winnowing out of Gold Certified Partners. At the same time, many committed, smaller partners had traded heavily on Microsoft branding for their own marketing, and relied on the Gold badge for their corporate identities. What partners apparently didn't want, based on the backlash, was the Microsoft decision to remove the Gold branding entirely from the MPN.

Microsoft unveiled a major compromise on the issue at its Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) this July in Washington, D.C., with a change to the way it labels competencies. Competency labeling was an intense focus of internal debate in Redmond as the MPN took shape. Early on, Microsoft was toying with the idea of Good, Better, Best branding, but the implied negatives of the two lower terms outweighed the positives. The implication would be that a company was either "Best" or it wasn't worth working with.

For a while, Microsoft settled on having partners qualify on competencies at either a standard level or an Advanced and branded level. (In other words, either a partner had a competency in Business Intelligence or could use the Advanced Business Intelligence branding.)

But at WPC, Microsoft switched gears and revived the term "Gold" -- just not in the context it had been used in before. Now the label Gold applies to a specific competency, not a partner's overall business. Further, Microsoft expanded the precious metals concept for the first time to include Silver for what was formerly going to be called a standard competency (for example, Silver Business Intelligence or Gold Business Intelligence).

"In the last month we kept going back based on the feedback internally and externally," Julie Bennani, general manager of the MPN, told RCP in an interview at the WPC in July. "We just decided [that] with all of the other changes we're making as a company -- and also the fact that we're global; people understand a precious metal analogy -- let's just do the Gold, Silver, and it will be a softer landing."

She added: "You were a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner. In this model, you're now a Microsoft Partner, Gold -- in whatever competency you would obtain."

The idea of differentiating expertise within competencies is new for Microsoft and its partners.

3. Four Unique MCPs
The absence of Certified levels for companies isn't the only thing partners are noticing as they dig into the MPN.

A Glasgow, U.K.-based Small Business Specialist going by the handle Alisyme tweeted on Sept. 10: "Anyone been reading the new Microsoft partner requirements?"

Alisyme went on to express wonder at how many people have to take exams for a competency.

Small Business Specialists aren't the only ones who are alarmed. Partners have been communicating concerns about the headcount requirements of the new Gold competencies since they emerged (under the Advanced label) earlier this year.

To earn a Silver competency, partners must employ or contract with two Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs) who've passed relevant exams, as well as a person who has passed a Microsoft licensing overview assessment, and someone who has passed an online sales and marketing competency assessment.

The requirements ramp up for the Gold competency, for which partners must employ or contract with four MCPs. But here's the rub, from the fine print of the Microsoft Partner Portal: "Your employees or contractors who pass the applicable Gold competency exams are only eligible toward one Gold competency." (The Gold level also requires one more person to sit for the sales and marketing competency assessment.) That unique technical resource requirement inspired a flurry of intense conversations between partners and Microsoft partner executives.

At the WPC, Bennani and her new boss Worldwide Partner Group Corporate Vice President Jonathan Roskill were both firm about moving forward with an MPN requirement that Bennani herself called "aggressive."

 "We just decided [that] with all of the other changes we're making as a company -- and also the fact that we're global; people understand a precious metal analogy -- let's just do the Gold, Silver, and it will be a softer landing."

-- Julie Bennani, General Manager, Microsoft Worldwide Partner Group

"We're keeping the four-unique requirement, and a lot of that is driven by customer input and demand," she said. She added that the four-unique technical employee requirement addresses two main issues for Microsoft, its customers and its partners: expertise and scale.

"One is, we have the big piece of work to do with a lot of our partners as they [get] current on our technology. Are they aware enough? Can they articulate from a sales perspective the value propositions of our latest stuff? It doesn't mean you as a customer might need it, but are they aware enough of it that they'd be able to offer that as an option? Secondly, have they played with it enough themselves? If they're an ISV, have they tried to develop on it? If they're a solution provider, have they looked at it in scenarios such that they can offer that choice to the customer?" Bennani questioned.

She also pointed to the investments that Microsoft is making to drive demand through partners via the Pinpoint portal for connecting customers and partners and other initiatives.

"We've got a lot of feedback from customers -- and also partners -- who'd say, 'In the past, when we didn't have a number like that, [it was hard] to make sure partners had enough capacity.' I might come to you and say, 'I'd really like to partner with you or I have a need as a customer,' and you might not have enough capacity. That's what we're also solving," Bennani said.

4. Midmarket Solution Provider Competency
Some of the most vocal concerns about the MPN have been raised by small-shop partners that have served a geographic region well as a jack-of-all-trades Gold Certified Partner with several competencies.

In an interview with Redmond Channel Partner, Judy Kolde, Microsoft senior director of reseller strategy in the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Group, made the case that there's a legitimate place in the new MPN for small partners with a broad focus: the new Midmarket Solution Provider competency at the Gold level.

"We believe that the Midmarket Solution Provider competency will be one of our biggest competencies. We're projecting that we'll have about 16,000 of them worldwide," Kolde said. "Some will come up from the Small Business Specialist Community [SBSC] or over from Networking or Licensing, or some of the Information Worker Competencies."

Bennani unveiled a compromise at the WPC to help encourage small-shop, jack-of-all-trade partners to make that transition: a reduction in the unique requirement for only the Midmarket Solution Provider competency from four MCPs to three MCPs for the Gold level.

5. Show Microsoft the Money
Another significant change with the new competencies is a revenue requirement for partners who seek the Gold designation. The requirement launches this month along with the Gold-level competencies.

Paul DeGroot, an analyst with Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft and an RCP columnist, noted that a revenue requirement may be one of the most challenging changes. "Do you want me to be really competent or sell a lot of software?" DeGroot asked.

A big issue is how accurately Microsoft can account for which partner is moving how much software. "When you make specific revenue targets, I want Microsoft to have a bulletproof system to make sure the partner gets credit for every dollar of software they sell," he said. "I don't think [the company] has such a system."

According to Bennani, Microsoft doesn't have that kind of bulletproof, dollar-by-dollar system, and the requirement isn't dependent on creating one.

"People were discussing whether we were going to require a revenue commitment at Gold, and we are. But I want to clarify what that means, because I get a lot of questions from partners on this. It's literally a commitment that you're making as a business to Microsoft as a business," Bennani said. "We're not going to actively measure it on a transaction-by-transaction basis across our entire ecosystem."

More precise measurement may be coming later. "When we think about influence -- that revenue commitment for ISVs and solution providers and partners that may be like VARs, for example -- that's further out," she said.

Microsoft had planned to finalize the revenue requirements in September, but the figures would vary widely by competency and by geography. Bennani outlined the Microsoft general principles for the requirements: "We don't want it to be a ceiling, and we don't want it to be too high. We want it to be an intention of business and a commitment of business, so we're setting a threshold of what I'd call a reasonable and almost low base."

Using the example of security, Bennani said the U.S. number might be somewhere around $100,000, while the target for partners in Thailand might be in the range of $30,000.

"We're measuring it in some places, and some of it is a business intent. If partners want to actually do solution incentives and get them, they actually have to deliver pipeline though our partner sales exchange and deal registration," Bennani said. "What we're looking at now is a gentleman's agreement. We'll check in on it; we have resources that we call telecoverage resources that are not telePAMs [partner account managers], but they'll actually check in with the partners on a quarterly basis just to see how close are you, where do you think your Microsoft business is. We'll talk to partners who are way off. To be clear, we don't think it's going to be a big hurdle."

Bennani suggested that, despite its vague nature, the revenue requirement illustrates an important shift in thinking about partners for Microsoft. "The Microsoft Partner Program was very much an enablement: It hasn't been connected broadly into how we go to market together and sell together. That's a lot of why we're trying to bring channel incentives more tightly into the network. That's where we usually get mutual skin in the game and we're working together more tightly," she explained.

DeGroot's advice to partners is to keep PAMs at Microsoft up to speed on all accomplishments. "We recommend to partners that they tell their PAM every time they have a win -- they need to know you're performing," he notes. "They need a process in place that isn't burdensome to partners and customers."

6. Small Business a Community, Not a Competency -- For Now
More than a year ago Microsoft announced that Small Business would get its own competency. But, after going back and forth on the topic, the company decided that the SBSC was probably fine as is. With the Midmarket Solution Provider competency providing a new umbrella for SBSC members with larger customers, Microsoft decided to leave the Community as it stands.

Bennani said it doesn't make sense to shake up the SBSC right now. "When you look at our Small Business community, there's about 20,000 people in it right now. They've got two sets of organizations in there: We've got a set of companies that would've probably qualified in the competency and ... a lot of one-person organizations. We love both of those; they're very important, especially in small business. So what we decided to do -- as opposed to being too dramatic in that area -- both for the partners and for customers, was to just raise the requirements in that community and see how partners respond and [see] what it does for the customer," Bennani said.

7. Say Goodbye to Partner Points
Partners can forget everything they've learned about Microsoft Partner Points. Since April 2004, Partner Points have been the measure to record a partner's progress toward the next level in the program. With the levels retiring this month, there's no longer a need for Partner Points. As with any scoring system, smart partners figured out ways to game the system to achieve the Certified and Gold Certified ranks with the least investment (which was part of the reason Microsoft felt it needed to eliminate the levels). Old ways to game the system -- out. New ways to game the system -- sure to be coming soon.

8. Know How Your New Competency Maps to Your Old One
Most of the furor around competencies involves the names and requirements for the two types -- Gold and Silver. Equally as significant are the categories covered by the competencies. Microsoft consolidated all of its old competencies and their multiple specializations into just 30 new competencies.

While most of the new competencies have been available since May, many partners aren't familiar with the changes yet. The winners and losers are too complex to go into here -- it's better to just look over the list. If your current competency or competencies aren't included, it's time to do some fancy footwork to find the new competency that aligns best with your business.

The competencies that Microsoft launched in May are Application Integration, Application Lifecycle Management, Business Intelligence, Content Management, Customer Relationship Management, Data Platform, Desktop, Enterprise Resource Planning, Hosting, Identity and Security, ISV/Software, Learning, Midmarket Solution Provider, Mobility, OEM Hardware, Portals and Collaboration, Project and Portfolio Management, Search, Server Platform, Software Asset Management, Software Development, Systems Management, Unified Communications, Virtualization, Volume Licensing and Web Development.

This month, Microsoft will launch two competencies: Authorized Distributor and Digital Marketing. Next May, Microsoft plans to launch a Digital Home competency.

9. Cloud Accelerate
With Microsoft "all in" on the cloud, where does the cloud fit into the new MPN? There's no cloud competency in the relaunch for MPN. Instead, Microsoft created a badge called "Cloud Accelerate" that partners can use on their business cards, Web sites and materials to signify to customers that they're Microsoft-cloud savvy.

To get it, a partner must sign the Microsoft Online Service Partner Agreement or sign on as a CRM Software Advisor. A partner also needs three cloud-customer references and three deals involving a total of 150 or more seats. A further commitment is creating a Partner Solution Plan with the intention to reach at least eight deals with more than 500 total seats.

Partners with a competency can join for free; the program costs $1,850 to join for partners without a competency. In structure, the program is very similar to the Cloud Champions Club for U.S. partners, which launched in September.

10. Subscriptions
Like the new competency list, another set of changes that went into effect back in May affected Microsoft partner subscriptions. However, partners who re-enroll toward the end of the year may not have had reason to notice. At the end of May, Microsoft retired the Microsoft Action Pack Subscription (MAPS), a massive program with a huge and mostly adoring fan base. Microsoft also retired the much smaller but also highly regarded Empower for ISV programs. Launching in their places were two new versions of the Action Pack, the Action Pack Solution Provider subscription and the Action Pack Development and Design subscription. Two existing programs for startup companies -- BizSpark and WebsiteSpark -- also continued under the subscriptions umbrella of the MPN.

The bulk of MAPS users will likely end up in the Action Pack Solution Provider subscription. It's built on the existing Microsoft TechNet subscription program for IT professionals. The core of the program is a special TechNet for Microsoft Action Pack Solution Providers Subscription or TechNet for Action Pack.

Action Pack Solution Provider will also include visibility in the two main Microsoft partner directories for customers, Pinpoint and Solution Finder; opportunities to recruit students; online sales skills training; and access to quarterly support webinars.

11. Timing
Articles on the coming overhaul of the Microsoft Partner Program have appeared in the pages of RCP for years. Our first cover story on the potential changes arrived in the July 2008 issue. The changeover is finally happening in full in October.

After such a long run-up, however, the program is far from being locked down for its final release. For one thing, this is a Microsoft launch. It's a huge company with a lot of complex internal priorities to juggle, not to mention all the competing interests and complexities of a 400,000-member channel. Perhaps predictably, the October launch date for the program changeover seems uncertain. Already, in July, Microsoft executives hinted that the full transition infrastructure might not be ready to go until very late in the month.

Meanwhile the company still faces enormous pressure from different constituencies to change certain elements. Logically, it would have made sense for Microsoft to be able to lock down all the details before some of them began going into effect in May. In actuality, Microsoft was still announcing large changes in branding and structure at the WPC, and it's unclear how much is really locked down as this issue goes to press in mid-September.

One area where Microsoft is getting feedback is to group competencies so that MCPs can help companies qualify for Gold by being shared in similar competencies. Bennani was open to the sentiments behind the feedback, but, at least in July, seemed to want to push any changes into fine-tuning of the MPN.

"We'd prefer, as opposed to changing the requirement, to make sure the competencies themselves are unique and distinct enough, so that we wouldn't need to do that," Bennani said. "In the future we'll look at whether we've defined the competencies in a way that makes them that exclusive. But the intent is to be reasonably consistent on the requirements, with a couple of exceptions."

In a blog post, Eric Ligman, Microsoft global partner experience lead, netted out the practicalities of the launch date in an example involving partners pursuing a Silver competency: "The date that you'll need to meet the requirements for the Silver-level competencies by will be your anniversary date in the [MPN], not the initial launch date of the [MPN]. So if your anniversary date is Jan. 31, 2011, then you have until then to meet the requirements at the Silver competency levels that you wish to achieve."

Barring major, last-minute changes, the new MPN should roll out late this month or in early November -- in plenty of time for the usual re-enrollment cycle, even if this particular re-enrollment cycle is far from usual.