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Microsoft Partner Takes Action To Bridge Gender Gap

While many partners are making progress attracting and retaining women in the Microsoft ecosystem, a visit to most any partner's leadership page reveals a continuing challenge: Women are not proportionally represented in leadership roles.

Recognizing the problem, one partner moved beyond rationalizations to look for specific ways to break down barriers and tap the value of its entire workforce.

In a recent Inc. article, Tribridge CEO Tony DiBenedetto described facing the realities of Tribridge's employment data. The pride in achieving a 40 percent representation of women in Tribridge's workforce was tempered by the absence of women represented at the leadership level.  DiBenedetto wrote, "The company I spent years building may have failed some of our women team members. As CEO, I'm holding myself accountable for the mistakes of the past and helping to drive much-needed change."

Facing the realities of gender disparity in your own company is hard. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella famously illustrated last year, the perceptions of advancement in the workplace are different for men and women. Most CEOs undoubtedly think that they provide equal opportunity. The hard data for most partner organizations do not support the success of those good intentions.

At Tribridge, a cloud and Dynamics system integrator, uncovering the root causes of why women were not advancing into leadership roles was the first step. "The conversations were extremely uncomfortable for a long time," said Holly Grogan, vice president, People Team at Tribridge. "We weren't sure how to talk to the team about it. We weren't sure how to talk to each other about it. It was the elephant in the room and it was uncomfortable."

"But we didn't stop. We kept going and now we are really glad we had the conversation," Grogan said. "We are seeing real benefits -- not just the women, but for the entire organization."

Through confidential interviews, Grogan and her team uncovered communication challenges and unintended barriers that women in Tribridge felt were holding them back from advancement. Grogan noted that during the interviews, the women consistently said that they did not want preferential or different treatment. 

Based on feedback and recommendations, Tribridge took action to implement programs and cultural development to help every team member -- men and women -- achieve their full potential. Communication training, paid maternity/paternity leave and the Tribridge Women's Network (TWN) are just some of the outcomes that are advancing balance within Tribridge.

Tangible Benefits of Bridging the Gender Gap
Grogan said that Tribridge is realizing significant benefits for all team members through the initiatives. "One of our initial goals was to make sure we had an easy way for women to develop their career path, finding and applying for new positions," she said. "What we have found is that the changes we made have benefited everyone."

Promoting recognition and respect for different communication styles, a common concern exposed during the interviews, is another top priority. Grogan said team members have seen a significant improvement in collaboration, sharing knowledge and learning from one another more effectively.

The TWN has been a particularly well-received program. With a multi-pronged focus on recruitment, retention and development, the TWN is supporting gender initiatives inside and outside the company. Working with the Boys & Girls Club, Tribridge women are giving back to the community and helping the next generation embrace technology.    

On the business side, Grogan said that Tribridge believes diversity makes its workforce more creative. That creative energy is a competitive advantage to differentiate Tribridge from the rest of the market. Many competitors aren't yet tapping the full value of their workforce.

For partners trying to foster a more inclusive corporate culture, Grogan suggested looking objectively at the data for your organization as a first step. "Regardless [of] the size of your business, you have to be willing to own your numbers and realistically set goals for improvement," Grogan said. "If it's a general lack of women in the organization, then recruiting should be your focus. If women are well-represented in the workforce but not in leadership roles, look for barriers that may not be obvious to you."

Above all, partners need to start the conversations, uncomfortable though they may be, to understand how to promote a more inclusive corporate culture. In his article, DiBenedetto cited a study that found most employees don't think their CEOs make gender diversity a priority. What would your team say?

How are you promoting diversity in your organization? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on December 09, 2015 at 12:13 PM0 comments

Microsoft CSP Program Demands New Mindset from Partners

Vendor programs of the past were designed to make it easier for channel partners to sell a set of solutions as one "package." While the intent of Microsoft's Cloud Solution Provider (CSP) program shares that goal, this time partners have to complete the package on their own. The CSP requires a new mindset, where partners must clearly define the role they want to play in their customers' future.

For those partners used to a transactional rather than strategic relationship with their customers, the CSP program represents a transformational business model change. Microsoft's intent with the CSP program is to drive long-term consumption, which means promoting user adoption and expanding workload footprint. Those partners wishing to gain the attention of Microsoft need to develop their CSP offerings with those objectives in mind.

"CSP is the value model. You cannot view this as a transaction, like you would through a traditional disti sale," observed Ric Opal, vice president of Peters & Associates. "This program is such that you buy the technology and you control the billing. You create your special offering -- management, sensors, custom applications, development change management, custom SharePoint...whatever -- and you sell the whole value."

One of the factors that makes this transition so challenging for partners is that there is no cookie-cutter way to proceed. The services that a partner is likely to add on top of an Office 365 subscription can be as simple as adding in a monthly fee that provides the classic managed services of user support and backup/recovery. Or those add-on services can be as complex as partner-created intellectual property (IP), SharePoint deployment or unified communications. The options can be overwhelming.

"Managed services means something different to every partner based on segment or vertical or capability," Opal said. "For me, managed services means that I want to own IT operations. I want to participate in strategy and drive them to a better value prop by taking my high-end, well-trained talent and spreading them over my managed service clients. That gives my customers access to strategic technology expertise that is relevant and current. In turn, it gives me a highly utilized bench."

With no template to follow, partners have to objectively evaluate their strengths and resources and define the value add they can deliver to customers. More than just a new offering, the CSP program requires partners to design the business model that will take them into the future.

"It's incumbent on partners to offer services that are relevant to our customers," Opal said. "Figure out what your long-term value proposition is. Then you can walk it back to determine if you have the right people and processes to support that model."

With the addition of Azure and Dynamics CRM to the CSP program lineup, the options continue to expand. "With Azure, the sky is the limit. From five seats to 5,000, and across industries," Opal said. "Customers are looking for integration, mobility and security experience. These are high-value, high-margin services where customers need a partner to help them apply technology that will give them competitive advantage."

CSP is likely to be the most transformational program that Microsoft has ever offered to partners. It requires an evolution in mindset -- from vendor-driven solution packaging to partner-driven value solution packaging. A unique opportunity for partners to plan their future on their own terms.

How are you driving value as a CSP? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on November 11, 2015 at 10:45 AM0 comments

E-Mail Migration Opportunities Evolve for Microsoft Partners

As the floodgates open and massive amounts of data move to Office 365, the nature of e-mail migrations has changed forever. Instead of being the primary force of migration projects, e-mail has become just a small piece of the migration opportunity. The cloud, and specifically Office 365, is driving a fundamental shift from data-centric to user-centric migrations.  

Historically, e-mail archive projects involved migrating one on-premises legacy archive to a more efficient, space-saving archive solution. In the early 2000s, growth of archiving took off as compliance requirements meant that more data had to be retained along with the e-mail. The high cost of storage created a strong market for efficient archiving. 

"The market for on-premises legacy migrations was huge," explained Dan Clark, chief strategy officer at QUADROtech. "There were hundreds of projects going on every year, each migrating well in excess of 8TB of e-mail, which means hundreds of millions of e-mails."

When Office 365 was introduced, after being proven out through BPOS, many businesses realized that they didn't need to use an enterprise archive anymore. Office 365 delivered the same benefits and more than on-premises archiving -- inexpensive storage and compliance at a level that could support e-discovery, plus the elimination of expensive-to-support hardware.

QUADROtech, a gold application development Microsoft partner, provides migration tools to the Microsoft partner channel that have supported that dramatic shift to the cloud. "We've seen a huge exodus of data moving to Office 365 as an archiving solution," Clark said. "Customers are pushing hundreds of terabytes to Office 365."

At the same time, Office 365 has allowed customers to take a more strategic approach to migrations. While they are centralizing data, businesses want to take the opportunity to improve the accessibility of data and the corresponding productivity of workers.   

As companies migrate to Office 365, they no longer view e-mail as the focus of migration. They want to migrate the user experience along with all the data that they need. With data that supports workers' daily tasks spread out in multiple places, from SharePoint to Shared Files to CRM, customers want a user-centric migration.

Clark sees this as a fundamental shift for partners. "Instead of just migrating buckets of data, now it's about moving the functions and processes that go with it," explained Clark. "To make the switch to a user-focused migration process, partners need to understand the dependencies between the systems and how users work. You're migrating more than one system, so you need to understand how the users interact with each one."

With the opportunity to refresh processes, customers also often express a desire to improve their data structure. The customer doesn't simply want an exact copy of their data moved, they want to restructure to support more efficient processes. To achieve that end, Clark recommends that partners use a tool that allows the data to be restructured as it goes through the migration.

To successfully support these new customer expectations, Clark believes that those partners who focus on active upfront engagement through project pilots and trial migrations are the most successful. "Through trials, the partner gets a better understanding of how the customer wants the data to be structured in the Office 365 environment. The customer can see if what they think they want is really what they want before a full migration," Clark said.

One of the barriers to Office 365 migrations for enterprise organizations has been the concern of data moving through potentially unsecure cloud-based tools during the migration process. "QUADROtech has addressed this concern by designing our migration tool as an 'exclusive' controller," explained Clark. "It controls the migration, but no data goes through our platform. It all goes directly to Office 365."

In today's market, QUADROtech sees well over 60 percent of migrations moving data to Office 365. "There doesn't seem to be a slow-down; if anything, it's going faster," Clark said. "In addition, there is the opportunity for partners to go back to customers to migrate data to Dynamics and other applications in the cloud."

The nature of e-mail migrations has changed and so has the opportunity for partners. Businesses want users to be at the center of the Office 365 experience, merging data with business processes to make work easier and more productive. Partners can play a key role helping customers design user-centric experiences, so that the Office 365 migration is just the beginning of the conversation.

How are you building relationships through migrations? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on September 30, 2015 at 1:46 PM0 comments

How Office 365 Changes the Focus of Technology Service Delivery

For technology providers, the cloud is changing the nature of service delivery. Office 365 removes the application and infrastructure limitations, allowing customers and partners to focus on business outcomes instead of technology features.

To deliver services in the cloud era, partners are taking a user-centered approach to business analysis supported by a commitment to continuous learning. 

"A fundamental change that I have seen with Office 365 is that the user moves to the center of the conversation," said Erica Toelle, West Coast strategic account developer for Protiviti. "Instead of talking about a feature of SharePoint, for example, you focus on how all of the parts of Office 365, from Dynamics CRM to Power BI, can come together to improve the user's daily work experience."

Since the real impact of productivity improvement comes at the user level, the design and solution development process should start with making each worker's experience easier. Technology features move to the background and conversations focus on specific business outcomes.

"We're moving away from the era where the products were competing with each other. In the Satya [Nadella] era, it's more about having solutions that complement one other," added Toelle, a regular presenter at SharePoint and Office 365 events around the world. "The boundaries of the solutions are not important, it's how they work together to make the best user experience for each unique situation."

"As a foundation, you want to make the user experience as seamless as possible," Toelle said. "Once a client's Office 365 system is stabilized, with Azure Active Directory set up, single sign-on working and information being exchanged with other systems, you can have the process conversations."

The common projects that Office 365 clients want to start with include automation of manual processes, simple document storage, enabling project management or setting up a lightweight extranet. "The first step is helping the company create an overall strategy and roadmap for the solutions that they want to build," Toelle said. "Those are conversations that technology providers are used to having, like the roadmap and project prioritization."

Workflows are a place to quickly build and ROI for clients. It's easy for the customer to make a business case for replacing manual processes with automation. "I think that's why companies tend to go with workflows first," Toelle said.

As most IT service providers are finding, business analysts have become an essential part of the delivery team. "You need a strong business analyst or business process engineer to support workflow design," Toelle said. "It's not difficult to build the logic behind the process, like the approvals. It's the exceptions that are important. Things like, 'What happens when this person is on vacation or doesn't respond?' Asking the right questions to uncover all those little exceptions is what makes the business analyst role so important."

As customers look to cloud service providers for process improvement, partners need to be building depth in business consulting skills just as much as technology skills. Traditional technology consultants and project managers generally don't have the skill sets to define user-based experience activities. That means hiring people that have business skill sets, which is new territory for most partners.

Another fundamental change that Office 365 partners face is a learning curve that never ends. "The continuous release model of cloud solutions, requires continuous learning," explained Toelle. "Quarterly meetings just don't hack it any more. Partners need to have a way to disseminate information across the consulting team quickly, so consultants can share lessons learned as they happen."  

Fortunately, the continuous learning model matches up well with the preferences of the gen-Xers and millennials who make up a growing percentage of consulting teams. Partners will find willing participants to use the social sharing tools that older consultants were reticent to adopt. "Using Yammer or something similar is key to setting your workforce up for success today," Toelle said.

Helping customers overcome the silos of information and cumbersome processes caused by separate applications provided years of revenue generation for technology service providers. With Office 365, the barriers are coming down but opening a new set of opportunities for partners. To support that unified platform, partner service models are changing to deliver user-centered business analysis and a commitment to continuous learning.

How are your services changing to meet cloud customer expectations? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on August 27, 2015 at 8:25 AM0 comments

Microsoft Floods Partners with Real Data on Cloud Business Models

Taking an important step beyond anecdotal evidence, Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Group (WPG) has created several cloud profitability tools based on substantive partner research. An overdue investment in empirical research, the Microsoft Cloud Profitability Scenarios and Financial Models provide insight into the real world of partner experiences with cloud business models.

The Microsoft Cloud Profitability Scenarios project is an outgrowth of partner interest in the Microsoft-sponsored IDC research released last year in the "Successful Cloud Partners 2.0" e-book. Jen Sieger, senior business strategy analyst for WPG, said, "Last year's IDC e-book had a lot of good insights on the business models but partners wanted to know how they could pursue those models with Microsoft."

The research supporting the Microsoft Cloud Profitability Scenarios was conducted in two parts. "We surveyed 1,260 partners worldwide, speaking to them about the scenarios and the service revenue they were attaining with those scenarios," Sieger explained. "We augmented the survey by conducting 66 in-depth interviews with our top cloud partners."

The results of the research are presented in two decks, the "Microsoft Cloud Profitability Scenarios Research Summary" and the "Microsoft Cloud Profitability Scenarios." The Research Summary provides key findings and presents tabulations of the results. The Scenarios deck takes the research a step further, looking at the partner opportunity for 20 different service offerings, ranging from Datacenter with Microsoft Azure to Business Intelligence.

For each scenario, the 77-page deck includes descriptions of the types of project services, managed services and packaged intellectual property (IP) partners are currently offering based on the data gathered through the survey and the in-depth conversations. Average revenue and margins realized by partners for each level of service are also included.

One standout finding from the survey is that 48 percent of partners say they are already combining project services, managed services and IP through "packaged service" offerings. "I know that our partner ecosystem is evolving quickly, but that level of transformation was surprising and encouraging," Sieger said. "The idea that partners are adding their own IP to the mix is really good."

Packaging IP to add to cloud-based services, which has been a consistent theme from Microsoft, appears to be validated through the survey. "According to our survey, partners applying that model are achieving 65 percent gross margin on services," Sieger added. "There is a healthy ecosystem of partners who are successfully transforming their business models."

Financial Models
In addition to the scenario research decks, Sieger's team developed Excel-based Financial Models that partners can use to evaluate service options for their own practices. There are four models available:

"We have received a lot of good feedback on the financial models," Sieger said. "They help partners see how a new practice with Microsoft would impact their business."

Quantifying cloud business models is particularly important in the current channel environment, according to Sieger. "There is a lot of merger and acquisition activity in the channel right now," Sieger said. "The impact of recurring revenue on the valuation of a partner's business is significant. The financial models will help them build out a business case."

Sieger said that this year's findings and tools are just the starting point. During fiscal year 2016, Microsoft will be building out a broader set of scenarios to reflect the variety of ways partners are building on Microsoft online services.

"Our hope is that these resources will provide partners with more insight into the opportunities across the Microsoft online stack," Sieger added. "In the cloud, it's all about customers for life -- all the ways that partners can serve their customers and increase profitability. These resources allow partners to learn from one another." For more on Sieger's perspective, see her blog post on the profitability modeling models.

How are you building profitability with new business models? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story. 

Posted by Barb Levisay on July 30, 2015 at 10:42 AM0 comments

Cloud Opens ISV Expansion Opportunities: Plan for Success

The cloud is removing barriers and allowing ISVs across the globe to enter new markets. But success in unfamiliar markets requires much more than just access. Careful planning from the beginning and consistent execution can save you from cultural missteps and costly mistakes.

With the cloud as an international platform, ISVs should consider internationalization from the start, recommends Bart van der Horst, partner and managing director for iChannel, a strategy consulting firm that helps technology companies expand into new markets.

"Most ISVs today develop for the cloud and the cloud doesn't stop at borders. If you want to be a market leader, you have to think internationally," said van der Horst. "Make sure you take data security and international regulations into account."  

Language considerations can be more complex than expected, like making allowances for the number of characters in descriptions and field entries. While there are machine translations, including one offered by Microsoft, language is a tricky business that needs to be tested by humans. Working with a professional translation firm, especially one with expertise in the industry that you serve, will save you time and money in the end.

Planning for Expansion
"When you are evaluating new markets, it's imperative to do a competitive analysis," explained van der Horst. "Many U.S. partners just think about the U.K., which can be a fine place to start, but they should think about how they will follow into continental Europe, the Middle East and Africa."

Thorough competitive analysis by country should include research on industry events, professional associations, Microsoft's focus and current partner engagement. Speaking to Microsoft reps, local partners and associations will help develop your insights into the market.

"You should build a three-year plan, which may seem long for our industry, but it's an iterative process that will change over time," van der Horst said. "When you are investing in international expansion, consider not only the potential profits but the value you build in the product and your organization." Features and functionality that are built for foreign markets may be attractive to your current user base. Alliances that you forge can benefit your customers and partners across markets.

Other considerations that van der Horst suggests you include in the planning process are:

  • Localized marketing messages, along with a Web site content management system that will help you manage your content across markets.
  • Pricing designed to meet local standards and currencies.
  • Understanding of how to compensate partners in line with local norms.
  • Executive sponsorship and communication with employees about your progress.

When you are ready to execute on the plan, van der Horst suggests not trying to go it alone. "Hire local people, a business exec or project leader, as an interim manager or employee to help you enter a new market," he advised. "Trying to set up with your own folks as expats in a new country usually doesn't work out." You'll also need a local tech resource to support your partners and a marketing agency familiar with the region.

Since most ISVs have limited resources, the most realistic way to enter a new geographic market is through a channel strategy. Finding partners in your market is a significant challenge, but focus on quality instead of quantity. "Build a partner P&L that lists out your value to their organization," van der Horst said. "Clearly define how you are going to help your partners make money. Plan to deliver more sales help in the beginning until they become proficient."

To maximize the value you can receive from your Microsoft partnership, choose your market niche carefully. "It's easier for Microsoft to work with you when you focus on a vertical. You don't have to have the best solution to be the market leader," van der Horst added. "Together with Microsoft and your channel partners, you can make a real impact on your specific market."

The cloud puts international expansion within the reach of every ISV. Play to your strengths in choosing a vertical focus and plan ahead to take advantage of the boundary-free opportunity. How have you built a presence in new markets? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on July 08, 2015 at 1:35 PM0 comments

Microsoft's Top Communications Partner Leads with Skype User Adoption

With a new brand presence, Skype for Business simplifies the unified communications message for partners. Promising much more than just a name change, Microsoft's Skype for Business team wants the Office 365 suite to be at the center of all business conversations -- written, audio and video.

For some advice on how partners can take advantage of the growing opportunity led by Skype for Business, we looked to Enabling Technologies, Microsoft's 2015 (and 2009, 2010, 2012) Communications Partner of the Year.  

"We are seeing success because we are in alignment with where Microsoft is going, and must go -- user adoption," said Bill Vollerthum, president of Enabling Technologies. "About a year ago, we developed a formal organizational change management program which we call 'Lights, Camera, Adoption.' It's been a very effective way to promote user adoption, even creating passionate users who are excited about evangelizing the new tools."

The first step in Enabling Technologies' "Lights, Camera, Adoption" program is to work with stakeholders to develop the project success criteria. Next is creating an effective user communication plan, which identifies the users most likely to champion the new technology and help other employees who are more resistant to change. Quick reference guides used in admin and end-user training are customized to support the client's unique business processes. At the end of each client's change management program, a user survey helps identify any problem areas that should be revisited.  

Interest is reflected in the numbers, with 80 percent of Enabling Technologies' clients opting for organization change management as part of their project engagement. Offered for Office 365 and SharePoint engagements in addition to Skype for Business, a dedicated Enabling Technologies team builds a customized program for each client.

"It is a fully staffed team devoted to change management -- and we anticipate that team growing by 100 percent over the next year," Vollerthum said. "We have trainers and documentation specialists, as well as a CIO advisor who leads envisioning sessions to ensure the technology investment is aligned to the business strategy."

Enabling Technologies is adding an impressive 10 to 12 new Office 365 and Skype for Business clients every month. With a run rate of 100 to 120 new customers per year, maintaining service levels has to be a top priority.  

"It comes down to execution first. If you don't have the very best talent, you won't have the best team," Vollerthum said. "We have best players from sales to the technical experts to execute on our game plan. As a result, we have the highest levels of customer satisfaction."

The benefits that Enabling Technologies reaps from that level of satisfaction include clients who are willing to provide testimonials on the Microsoft Pinpoint partner directory, host reference calls and participate in case studies. "But the most compelling evidence that we help our clients achieve their goals is reflected in collections," Vollerthum added. "Less than half of 1 percent of our billings are uncollectable. That is a testament to delivering on our promises."

As many partners find, Skype for Business serves as a foundational engagement that opens the door for long-term client relationships. Communications touches every part of the business, which can lead to further engagement for SharePoint, Dynamics and managed services opportunities for partners.

"A big part of our growth is coming from managed services following implementations. Clients don't want the day-to-day admin responsibility -- they'd rather focus on strategic IT projects," Vollerthum explained. "In addition, clients are looking for custom development to integrate Skype for Business with other applications, like CRM and ERP."

As to the recent name change, Vollerthum is enthusiastic, "Changing the name to Skype for Business was a great move by Microsoft. Skype is a strong brand -- people even use 'to Skype' as a verb. That comfort level with the technology will help with adoption in the business community."

The way businesses think about communication is changing and Skype for Business appears to be well-positioned to enable the shift. Perhaps more than any other technology, to be successful, communication tools have to be universally adopted across an organization. Partners can capitalize on the Skype for Business opportunity by helping their clients build out that user engagement. 

Posted by Barb Levisay on June 24, 2015 at 4:57 PM0 comments

ISV Sees Partner Opportunity in Predictive Analytics

There is no doubt that data analytics is coming of age, turning the wealth of data that we are collecting into meaningful input that guides the direction of business. Though it's still early for mainstream data analytics adoption, this is the time to understand and build on the opportunity.

The low cost and high availability of computing power have brought machine learning to the masses. Microsoft Azure Machine Learning opens the door for any business and every partner to experiment and test without a big investment. Combine that with the increasing availability of public domain and commercial datasets, and you have the ingredients to support predictive analytics projects. The challenge so far, though, has been how to convince clients to take on those projects when the end game is unclear.

One ISV with unique insight into the market for predictive analytics shares its lessons learned.

"It seems that the whole world is trying to figure out how to make better use of analytics," said Bob Bedard, president and CEO of deFacto Global Inc. "Even the firms leading the charge, like Microsoft and IBM, are still working out how to make money in areas like predictive analytics. It's no wonder that partners aren't sure how to help their clients through the world of big data analytics."

For deFacto, whose Performance Management solution helps businesses improve budgeting and forecasting, predictive analytics and machine learning are a natural extension. "Traditionally, financial forecasting was a rudimentary process, with lots of room for improvement," Bedard explained. "There weren't the tools or they were too costly. The whole arena of predictive analytics was really out of reach for mainstream business."

"That has changed dramatically. Affordable computing power, large datasets and the tools like Azure Machine Learning are coming together to make it practical for all business to take advantage of the benefits," continues Bedard. "The next two years are very promising for everyone in the BI [business intelligence] and analytics space."

Not all customers are good candidates for predictive analytic projects. Since this is a developing field, customers have to be open to exploring possibilities, even where ROI is harder to predict. Management must have some level of trust in the guidance provided by machine-led forecasting. Old-school companies that prefer the gut-instinct approach to forecasting and decision-making are unlikely to embrace predictive analytics.  

In addition, predictive analytics projects require a broader perspective than traditional BI projects. "The methodology for machine learning and predictive analytics project is a different path. You have to take a more global approach," Bedard said. "In the past, customers and partners were focused on using the data from inside the company. For predictive analytics, high-level value comes from understanding how external data interacts with or enhances the quality of internal data."   

Microsoft is building the availability of those datasets that partners can tap into on the Azure Marketplace. Also in its infancy, the breadth of datasets available for businesses to apply through machine learning will surely explode over the coming years. 

"It can be overwhelming," Bedard said. "But that's where methodology comes in. How do we bite off what we can chew and step through it in a logical fashion? There is tremendous value in that practical guidance to help businesses take the first steps into predictive analytics."

For partners taking on predictive analytics projects, that larger perspective is where they can bring tremendous value to clients. Understanding what data is available, from industry-specific sources to something as ubiquitous as weather data, and how that input can be applied through machine learning takes BI to the higher level of predictive guidance.  

Now that predictive analytics is within reach of every business but still early in the adoption curve, the opportunity for partners is here. Gartner identifies "Advanced, Pervasive and Invisible Analytics" as one of its Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2015. Microsoft partners are in the unique position, with Azure services and learning paths designed to prepare staff, to get ahead of the new age of data.

How are you helping clients adopt predictive analytics? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on May 20, 2015 at 9:48 AM0 comments

After Microsoft Ignite, How Do You Fan the Flames?

When you leave a Microsoft event like Ignite, Convergence or the Worldwide Partner Conference, the flame is definitely lit. You feel invigorated and ready to take your business to new heights.

You may also feel a teensy bit guilty. Yes, it's four days of intense learning -- sessions, the Expo, meetings with Microsoft, more sessions -- but it's also a ton of fun. With a little planning before you leave, you can share the wealth of knowledge and maybe even ignite some fun for your own team. 

Put a Plan in Place Long Before You Go
The right time to start planning is when you register. As soon as you commit, decide how you are going to extend the learning and the jolt of enthusiasm across your team. A few ideas to get you thinking:

  • Schedule a mini-Ignite in the office. While you can't afford to send everyone to Chicago or Orlando, a single day in the office dedicated to learning will be worth the investment. Review and choose the best sessions to stream to the group. Engage the team to discuss how the topic can be applied to specific customer engagements.
  • Connect to the team during the event. Your schedule is so full during the event that it is tough to stay connected, but it can pay off. Your employees will likely be following the event on social channels and may have a specific question that they need answered.
  • Build the excitement with a party. You get to do a bit of partying during the event, so why not make your event debrief more fun than just a company meeting? Even if it's beer and pizza, thank your team for holding down the fort while you were gone. 

Take Full Advantage of the Resources
During the event, you've discovered a ton of resources and people that you didn't know about. How are you going to share them when you get back? Set aside the time to review and deliver newfound information to the right people in your organization. Make introductions and follow up with key contacts. 

During Microsoft events, you're likely to meet Microsoft employees and MVPs who can be valuable resources for your team. Following those people on Twitter or through their blogs will give you and your employees an inside view to announcements and developments of the solutions you support. Many of the MVPs do continuing outreach during the year. For example, Office 365 MVP Christian Buckley has organized a series of CollabTalk tweetjams this year that attract an impressive group of MVPs and thought leaders who share their perspectives on current topics.

Attending Microsoft and other vendor events plays an important role in keeping your organization abreast of the latest developments, as well as building personal relationships. When you come home after four days out of the office, it's easy to get sidetracked and not get around to sharing the experience. Take the time to plan before the event to ignite the energy in your own business.

How do you bring vendor events back to your team? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.  

Posted by Barb Levisay on May 07, 2015 at 7:33 AM0 comments

The Journey to Dynamics CRM: A Partner Perspective, Part 2

As Microsoft continues to encourage partners to widen the suite of applications that they support, Dynamics CRM, as part of Office 365, is an obvious choice.

Last week, we followed the journey of Microsoft national solution provider RBA as it added Dynamics CRM services to its portfolio in response to changing spending habits of customers. A critical adjustment that took RBA multiple years to complete was aligning the right roles and people, in both sales and delivery, to achieve the full potential of the practice.

Different Conversations Require a Different Sales Approach
When the sales conversation moves from the IT department to other business units, technology is no longer the focus of the conversation. "Prior to 2011, the majority of our sales were to IT," said Jay Lendl, director of CRM solutions at RBA. "With CRM, we are talking to the business manager and the technology is in the background. They are looking for ideas to help them achieve outcomes. It is a subtle but dramatic difference."

The transition to selling CRM-focused engagements has been one of the more challenging aspects for RBA. The expectation that the entire sales team would begin to seek out the CRM conversations didn't materialize. In addition to adding dedicated CRM sales specialists, the company has found their real success with "solution leads."

"We've added the role [of] solution lead that is similar to Microsoft SSP [solution sales professional]," Lendl said. "They come from functional and technical roles with experience in the business problems that our customers are dealing with. They are subject-matter experts providing sales support and facilitating conversations."

Apparently, the strategy is working. According to Lendl, "We have not lost to Salesforce in a compete situation. We create a complete vision for how the company can achieve the outcomes they are looking for. It's all of Microsoft, not just Microsoft Dynamics CRM. That's how we win."

Building the Functional Support Team
To build its CRM service support team, RBA started with the acquisition of a small firm with a core group of Dynamics CRM experts. "Then we added functional experts, plus business strategy people who understand the problems that we are trying to solve with this platform," Lendl said.

In addition to outside hires, three of RBA's SharePoint business analysts have chosen to cross-train on Dynamics CRM. As with SharePoint, the role of business analyst is the foundation for the success of Dynamics CRM projects. 

RBA looks for three characteristics in the business analyst. First is the ability to facilitate and document requirements. Second is a strong functional understanding of the platform to provide context. That context includes understanding what can be configured and what requires customization. The third quality is configuration skills.

"We believe that context matters. When people are buying Microsoft Dynamics CRM, they believe that there is value in the platform. You are not starting with an empty sheet of paper like custom development," Lendl said. "When we are going through discovery on a CRM project, we need to be able to explain what is out of the box, what takes simple configuration and what takes development work. A functional business analyst needs to lead the organization through requirements with that context."

For RBA, the addition of Dynamics CRM to its service line has been an excellent opportunity for employees to apply and expand their skills. "We've seen such a great carry-over of skills. One of our lead .NET technical architects moved into the CRM group last January to become the CRM technical lead," Lendl said. "Because Dynamics CRM leverages so much of the Microsoft technology, he was an expert from the technical standpoint within a quarter. It's a gap that these really smart people can cover quickly."

For partners considering a similar journey to RBA's, Lendl recommends first putting in place the functional experts, including business analysts, functional configurators and technical people who can handle data integration and migration. The good news is that there is plenty of overlap with the other technologies that a Microsoft partner supports.

As RBA has learned, the shift to supporting Dynamics CRM requires some fundamental business process changes. The essential change -- supporting conversations with business managers instead of only IT -- is one that all service providers are having to make regardless. As technology recedes into the background, partners have to be able to speak the language of business outcomes.

Is the role of business analyst becoming more important to your projects? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.


Posted by Barb Levisay on April 22, 2015 at 4:10 PM0 comments

The Journey to Dynamics CRM: A Partner Perspective, Part 1

Changes in IT spending, cloud technology and the growing importance of digital customer engagement are all factors prompting system integrators (SIs) to add customer relationship management (CRM) to their service portfolios. For many partners, the obvious choice is Microsoft Dynamics CRM, with its easy availability through Office 365.

What does it take to build a CRM practice? One partner shares its journey, three years in, as Dynamics CRM takes its place in the company's next generation of services.

The tagline on RBA's Web site, "A digital and technology consultancy," reflects the journey that the Microsoft national solution provider started in 2011. "We were a classic SI partner doing migrations to Office 365 and capitalizing on the hockey-stick growth of SharePoint," explained Jay Lendl, RBA's director of CRM solutions. "As we were planning out our next steps to grow the business, Gartner released a report predicting that CMOs would be spending more on technology than CIOs over the next few years."

While RBA had noted a transition in IT purchase decisions, its observations were focused on discretionary spending. "It wasn't so much that IT wouldn't spend money, it was that most of their budget was fixed in things like hosting and online services," Lendl said. "We didn't envision that the CMO's spend on IT would increase every year, but they did have more discretion over their funds than the CIO. A large percent of the CMO's spend involves choices -- like deciding to focus on retaining customers with a loyalty program or acquiring new customers with a digital push."

Based on its own observations of changes in technology purchases and market predictions, RBA acquired a digital marketing agency. The agency's expertise was in helping companies engage with their constituents, whether they be patients, customers, vendors or dealers. The acquisition also built on RBA's experience in helping enterprise clients with loyalty programs.

The acquisition led to a year of learning about how the technology that RBA had focused on, like SharePoint and mobile solutions, would apply to customer-facing digital interactions. "Our perceptions changed. The agency became more like us and we became more like them," Lendl said. "It was an important first step in the journey. We really needed to adjust our lens. The process was as much about what we were selling as it was about how we were selling it and who we were selling to."

Customer Data as the Pivot Point
The common denominator was customer data. "Microsoft Dynamics CRM was the natural extension since it is built on the Microsoft technology, including SQL, .NET and Office 365," Lendl said. "The technical stuff was easy for us, but we realized that we needed more functional expertise. We acquired a small CRM practice which added the folks who understood the functional capabilities and business problems we needed to address."

With the addition of Dynamics CRM and customer-focused expertise to its solution set, RBA is now able to talk to the business decision-makers about customer engagement. "From a technology standpoint as well as strategic design, we can have much more meaningful business conversations," Lendl said. "While everyone these days seems to be saying they are doing that, we have put the pieces in place to support it. It has been a very interesting journey."

For partners who are considering adding a CRM practice to continue services for customers once they have switched to Office 365, Lendl offered some advice: "Unlike Office 365, Microsoft Dynamics CRM is not something that you just light up. Provisioning and migrating data is just a small part of a Microsoft Dynamics project. Clients are looking for guidance. They expect you to help them define their sales process, not just configure it."

As current Dynamics CRM partners have found, a significant part of a CRM practice is in providing that guidance to improve business processes, which should align with the strategic direction of most technology service providers today. As technology recedes into the background and buyers focus on business outcomes, partners need to be equipped to deliver process improvement.

"The great news about Microsoft Dynamics CRM is that you get to leverage all of your technical folks. It's phenomenal that way," Lendl said. "But you need to have a few experts that truly are focused on CRM and understand what it means to the customer and how to promote adoption. Start on smaller opportunities to build expertise."

Part 2: Staffing the CRM Practice
Through its journey, RBA found that it takes a different set of skills in both sales and delivery to support the Dynamics CRM practice. In Part 2, we'll look at some of the staffing lessons that RBA learned.

How are you transitioning your business to tap into changing markets? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.


Posted by Barb Levisay on April 16, 2015 at 11:35 AM0 comments

IAMCP Kicks It Up a Notch

In January, the International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners (IAMCP) inducted a new board of directors that is putting plans in place to take the organization to a new level.

With 80 regional chapters around the world and a rapidly growing number of Women in Technology (WIT) communities, the IAMCP already has an established presence in the channel. The current board has committed to providing relevant education and enablement initiatives that support all Microsoft partners, with special emphasis on representing and adding value to the unmanaged partner community. 

As the newly elected president of the IAMCP, Gail Mercer-MacKay led a recent planning session in which the IAMCP set out a five-year plan to take the organization to a new level of influence representing the broad spectrum of Microsoft's channel partners. Following a theme of "IAMCP is Open for Business," Mercer-MacKay and the rest of the board have made structural and operational changes to increase the transparency and impact of the organization.

"IAMCP International is open for 'partner-to-partner' and 'partner-to-Microsoft' business. We are excited by the growth we have seen in the past year. New chapters have formed and new communities (like IAMCP WIT) are broadening member reach and impact," Mercer-MacKay said. "Members tell us their IAMCP membership has helped them grow their business, with returns that range from 2 percent to 30 percent or more. I would urge any Microsoft partner who is not a member to find out more about us. Attend a meeting or register for a webinar and find out how we can help you."

Initiatives for the Coming Year
Demonstrating value to both members and sponsors is the driving force for the renewed energy of IAMCP's board. Some of the initiatives the board is undertaking for the coming year include:

  • Quarterly webinars to provide exclusive content and insights to members.
  • Increased involvement and presence at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC).
  • Broader communication with membership.
  • Promotion of the IAMCP Partnering Maturity Model (.DOC here), a concept outlined in the whitepaper written by past IAMCP president Per Werngren, that provides guidance for partners on developing their business models.   

In response to a survey of members, one of the year's early initiatives will be a social media education program. "Even though many of our members are socially savvy, they don't feel that they are fully leveraging social media to help their business," Mercer-MacKay said. "We're going to provide training on the specific steps they should be taking."

Growth of WIT
One of the high notes for the IAMCP over the past couple of years has been the growth of the WIT communities, which are a subset of the regional chapters. Currently, there are 20 WIT communities, with a goal that every chapter will have an active WIT community by year's end. Three quarterly WIT-sponsored webinars have been well-received, with over 150 registrants each. With an increasingly prominent presence at WPC, the WIT panels and luncheon are very popular, providing women in the channel encouragement and support.

Chapters Making an Impact
To help guide the direction of the organization, the IAMCP board is looking to build on the success of standout chapters like Southern California (SoCal) and Spain.

With a 20 percent growth in membership, SoCal chapter President David Gersten attributes much of the draw to the "Partnering for Success" program. SoCal's 102 members, representing over 65 companies, take partnering past simple lead sharing to include introductions, mentoring, joint marketing, joint product development and more.

"Partnering is the No. 1 reason why people join IAMCP in SoCal," Gersten said. "It 100 percent aligns with the connect/learn/grow concept and direction of the Microsoft channel."

[Click on image for larger view.] The annual social event of the IAMCP Spain chapter in May 2014 in Marbella, Spain.

Spain's IAMCP chapter has experienced an impressive 44 percent membership growth over the past 14 months. "What members value the most is doing business with each other, not just networking," said Jose Maria Moreno, president of the Spain chapter. "And many benefit from a better relationship with Microsoft considering that many of them are unmanaged."

According to Moreno, IAMCP members are growing their Microsoft business 2.5 times faster than non-members as a result of working together and building a tighter relationship with Microsoft. As the chapter has grown in membership, they've seen a corresponding interest and level of involvement from Microsoft.

With a refreshed set of goals, the IAMCP hopes to achieve a greater presence and influence in the channel. Through a focus on member training and enablement, the goal is to revitalize their relevance to partners. The move is well-timed. Microsoft continues to look for effective ways to reach the broader, unmanaged partner community and IAMCP is in a good position to provide that connection.

What benefits do you get from your IAMCP membership? Leave a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.  


Posted by Barb Levisay on March 11, 2015 at 11:24 AM0 comments