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In-Depth

Keeping Up with Microsoft in the 'Rapid Release' Era

Coping with Microsoft's newly frantic pace of cloud product updates, partners are thrilled to at last be moving as fast as the competition, but the pressure is on to get better at advising customers. 

With Microsoft's introduction of Office 365, partners finally had the opportunity to offer customers a true subscription solution. Promising continuous functional improvements through rapid release cycles, those partners who chose to follow the cloud were in for a crash course on how to support customers in the face of unstoppable change.

In the on-premises world, major version releases happened about every three years with three or four service packs released in between. Microsoft poured marketing dollars into rolling city-to-city launches for versions including Microsoft Office 2000, 2003 and 2007, helping partners promote the new functionality to customers and drive upgrades. Training on new versions, both for consultants and customers, spanned years.

Officially launched in January 2011, Office 365 replaced Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite as the subscription-based cloud application. With the release of Office 2013, Microsoft expanded its focus from enterprise accounts to all businesses and general consumers -- with an emphasis on the rolling release model. In June 2013 at Microsoft's Build conference, then-CEO Steve Ballmer began Microsoft's rapid-release mantra: "If there's not one other message that I reach you with in my opening remarks, it's about the transformation that we are going through as a company to move to an absolutely rapid release cycle -- rapid release, rapid release."

What Does Rapid Release Mean?
With Office 365, functionality for each of the software's components (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and so on) is released on a continuous schedule as announced on the Microsoft FastTrack Roadmap. Customers have the option to manage how the users in their organization receive updates. They can elect to have everyone or only certain individuals in the organization receive updates first. Or, the organization can opt to remain on the default release schedule and receive the updates later.

For Dynamics CRM Online, the releases are coming about twice a year, tracked on the Microsoft Dynamics CRM Roadmap. As with Office 365, customers can control, to some degree, when they receive the upgrades. The 2016 spring release of CRM Online was a major update with the integration of two recent acquisitions -- FieldOne for field service and Adxstudio portal solutions for community engagement.

The Need for Rapid Response
As the consumer-driven appetite for constant application improvement replaced the caution of businesses who viewed upgrades as risky, painful and time-consuming, many partners were concerned about Microsoft missing the opportunity.

"I remember sitting in a Cloud Champs summit about three years ago and being extremely vocal about the fact that we were getting our tails kicked by these point solutions in the cloud world," says Reed Wilson, president of PTG. "While we had core productivity and OS nailed, we were losing the people that mattered. The business decision makers outside of IT were going to point solutions like Basecamp for project management or Dropbox for document storage. These solutions were easy. They were feature-rich. They weren't stagnant and they were really easy to go procure."

PTG serves the small to midsize business (SMB) market which has proved to be fertile ground for subscription software. "While Microsoft certainly still is developing for the enterprise, their cadence has become more suited toward SMB and midmarket," explains Wilson. "Now when our customers bring up a solution like Salesforce, we can talk about Microsoft Dynamics CRM that is just as feature-rich and just as easy to integrate with Office 365."

A Painful History of New Releases
With a history of upgrades that includes Clippy and Vista, it's understandable that partners would be skeptical that Microsoft could effectively support a rapid release cycle. Because partners are on the front lines with customers, their customer relationships are directly linked to the quality of releases.

"When rapid release first came out, we were not happy. It was a big concern for us, as well as other partners," says Ken Farmer, president of xRM3. "We didn't really know how Microsoft was going to be able to deliver. They have gone from major releases in the product every two or three years to all of a sudden declaring they were going to go twice a year."

"The old Microsoft -- and I firmly believe there is an old Microsoft and now a new Microsoft -- the old Microsoft would have never been able to deliver on twice-a-year releases without massive chaos," explains Farmer. "However, the merging of product teams has worked effectively at Microsoft and they seem to be able to deliver quite well."

For partners like xRM3, whose business is built around the Microsoft product set, trust in the quality control is critical. "When you put all your eggs in one basket, you only support the one product and the one vendor, and that vendor is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. You have to put a little faith and trust," says Farmer. "We had to figure out how to embrace it and how to take care of our customers. Truly, this last release [of Dynamics CRM] was fantastic. The new functionality with field service and portals and all the work they have done around customer service is going to benefit us as a partner. It's going to help our customers stay engaged with the product."

Staying One Step Ahead of Customers
A common thread from partners when talking about continuous change of software is the importance of partners focusing on their advisery role with customers. An advisory role suggests that you have more knowledge of the topic than the customers. With new functionality being released continuously, staying ahead of the customer becomes a lot harder.

"In the on-premises world we were used to the cadence where versions were released every three years or so. There was lots and lots of time to prep for upgrades and understand the changes coming with each release," says Naomi Moneypenny, chief technology officer at ManyWorlds Inc. "With the cloud, we've moved to the consumer model of continuous release and the pace of change will be increasing even more."

"If you think of change, it's like a river coming toward you. A common first reaction is to try and put a dam in front of it," says Moneypenny. "But instead of being the Hoover Dam, you want to think about being a sponge. A sponge filters rather than stops. That model of change supports continuous improvement for customers."

"Second, the ability for a partner to keep in front of what a customer is seeing is becoming harder and harder. The emphasis is on partners to think about how they deploy the technology internally. The first-release program allows you to experience some of the key changes in Office 365 for four to six weeks before they hit general availability," continues Moneypenny. "As a partner, you should have first release deployed to all of your internal users. Then you allow yourself to experience the headaches before they come for other customers, as well as identify improvements and new functionality."

At PTG, it's using the power of the Internet to build its understanding of releases. A new role within the organization, the customer success manager is dedicated to gathering expert perspectives and disseminating that information to employees and customers.

"It's a relatively new role for us and that person's job is to stay up to speed on what's going on with the services. I think if you don't have a person dedicated to it, it's easy to fall behind pretty quickly," says Wilson. "If you think about all the ways that information gets published now about changes and new functions added to the Microsoft cloud services -- it's all on the Internet."

The content aggregation service Feedly is the primary tool PTG's customer service manager uses to collect information about product enhancements, functionality and customer impacts. "We still use sources like Partner University, Partner Learning Center, the Microsoft Partner Network and Yammer, but our No. 1 source is aggregating the data that's coming from folks who get paid to do this every day," adds Wilson. "We're pulling from sites like WindowsCentral.com, the Office blog and the Windows blog."

For partners with solution specialties like SharePoint, tapping into the practitioner communities has become critically important to staying up-to-date. Staying connected to the informal communities like the MVP community, Microsoft user groups and meetups like SharePoint Saturday provides additional depth to keep employees informed.

Communication Beyond IT
The next challenge comes with communicating new functionality to customers -- helping them filter through new releases to apply the software to their unique business requirements. For most partners, communication isn't a natural strength.

"Partners entered the technology industry because we like working with computers. Fundamentally we enjoy working with computers and programming. We understand what applications can do and how to drive information around the business. That's our big challenge," says Moneypenny. "The new reality in the cloud world is that your job is no longer about technology, it's about understanding technology. Your job has never been more about people than it is now."

Not only do partners need to hone their communication skills in general, they also need to align their messages to the interests and needs of the audience. The comfort of working with the IT teams who look at the world through a shared interest in technology has been replaced by a cacophony of people -- from corporate leaders to business unit managers to office workers -- each with a different agenda.

"I wouldn't say IT is being marginalized, because in a well-run organization, they're still governing it," says Mike Gilronan, CEO of Collacrity LLC. "But there's definitely more parties at the table for the dialogues about new capabilities, new functionality, new workloads and how to solve the problem. Which makes that business adviser role even more complex and important."

"I don't think you can ask your average network administrator to be well-versed on every component of Office 365 in a way that's going to meet all their constituent's needs," adds Gilronan. "To have advisers at their disposal, to be able to bounce a question, or get some advice about direction, timing, priorities, I think is a very valuable role for us as advisers."

As a tactical strategy to help include users into the educational process of release, Moneypenny recommends using the external group capability of Office 365. "For example, if you're thinking about deploying Office 365 for a customer, one of the value-adds you could use is to support a community internally that provides a forum for the changes. You're able to create community and give them access to the expertise within your organization. That replaces some of the formal communication burden with an ongoing drip."

Building Business Value for Customers
In the end, the partner role in the rapid release world has to include bringing additional value to the customer. With subscription software, the days of upgrade projects are gone, so partners have to find new ways to institutionalize or package their services.

xRM3 offers multiple managed services packages to help customers address different levels of change management and system support. "One of the fixed-fee managed services we offer is called CRM AdminAssist," Farmer says. "Users hate change. That's sort of the first rule of consulting. CRM AdminAssist provides support and administrative-level services to help user adoption and satisfaction."

As part of the service package, xRM3 helps customers establish and monitor data governance, provides user support and delivers training. In addition, it meets with the client project team every six to eight weeks for proactive planning and strategic discussions.

At PTG, service offerings include "Be My IT Team" or "Support my IT Team" to appeal to different customer needs. The managed services group is divided into teams that include a strong technical engineer designated as the technical account manager. As part of the managed services packages, the technical account managers hold quarterly business reviews (QBRs) that include both executives and IT representatives.

"We do a full-day prep for QBRs and won't do them if the executive team can't attend," says Wilson. "Let's say we're talking about cloud app security during a QBR. The IT manager or director of IT will get excited about this new feature or new service with the executive sponsor in the same room. The sponsor may say, 'Yeah, why aren't we lighting that up yet,' or 'Yeah, that's probably not the right fit for us today, but we can put that as a Q2 or Q3 kind of a priority.'"

As technology has become ingrained in every aspect of business, inclusion of decision makers from across the organization needs to be part of every partner's communication efforts.

"I think we're being asked to be better advisers than we've been before," says Gilronan. "We can take a more holistic view, and invest the time to get direct context around that client's business problem, their organizational dynamics, the seasonality of their business, the people dynamics. Microsoft is taking on more of the technology work, and leaving us more of the advisory work. That evolution is happening. The need for capabilities to stack and rack solutions in a client's datacenter has eroded really fast. If you're not prepared to take that step into being an adviser, it's going to be a real challenge."

The cloud has changed the way partners do business in so many ways. All of those changes appear to lead to the increasing importance of the partner role as adviser. Partner value as the critical link between Microsoft and the customer -- translating functionality into actual business value -- increases with the faster pace of change. The challenge for partners now is to build the internal mechanisms that keep them one step ahead of customers in the face of continuous change.

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