Microsoft Partner Network (MPN) in a Modern World

Posted on February 20, 2014


If you are in the Microsoft Partner ecosystem you will be familiar with this time of year, it’s that mad scramble to tick the box’s to ensure your continued membership is renewed ad critically at your chosen level of Certification – Gold or Silver being the two classes of real value.

Some of you will probably have also received email notices of some Competencies having just expired. In our case it transpires that our Microsoft Certified Professionals for one of our Gold Competency no longer qualify with their certifications for that competency. No notice, no details not a partner friendly experience. Enforcing on us a time consuming detective process to find out why. One of many inconsistencies endemic in the system, why can we not have visibility of this as we do with Customer Reference expiry? Customer References are easy to spin up, we are all active in the market and have great customer relationships, but the Certification takes time, billable resources side-lined into training and exams.

This is not the first time someone has flipped a bit at the backend of the portal and rippled some premature or undesirable changes across a whole group of Partners if not the whole network.

It is time this stopped. Partner have better things to do, the world has moved on, the Microsoft Partner Program ‘Microsoft Partner Network’ (MPN) is proving to be ill suited to it. Yes it can muddle on, but it will lose traction and impact the effectiveness of the Partner ecosystem.

The current version of the Microsoft Partner Program ‘Microsoft Partner Network’ (MPN) was launched at the Microsoft Partner Conference (WPC) in Washington DC in 2010. So it is somewhat prophetic that I find myself sitting in ‘The Walter E. Washington Convention Center’ in that very same capital of US and global politics Washington DC. And for a short week in July this year it will once again be the epicentre of the Microsoft Partner world as Microsoft revisit this landmark venue for the 2014 Microsoft partner Conference (#WPC14).

Each year since the seminal 2010 MPN launch, MPN has gone through significant retrofitting and adaptation exercises, with at least one significant identity rebrand. This costs Partners and impacts profitability no matter what value Microsoft may attest to the program. At WPC 2014 in July we are being promised once again a rehash as MPN struggles to keep pace with a fast move IT world and reflect Cloud in the program. Change that will impose further cost and burden on those Partners fit and willing enough to jump through MPN’s hoops. For that is where it’s got to for many Partners, a necessary exercise that delivers questionable direct value, and impose onerous costs if you aspire to the highest Gold standard. The $5,280 (£3,900) membership fee pales into insignificance when the costs of the certification burden on companies is calculated. For the average Systems Integration Partner the cost for certification is over $100,000+, and for some of the other Partner types such as Dynamics, can be as much as twice this PER ANNUM.

The reality is that for all the investment in MPN Partners struggle to articulate value when questioned. Many customers do not look beyond the Partner status, and those that do they look for Gold and then rarely go any deeper into the actual competencies that Partners are Gold in. MPN is regarded more as an internal tool for Microsoft to manage its partner ecosystem prioritised as its own internal resources, to talk strategy with partners around its products and drive technical competency amongst others such as qualifying for incentives.

Yes there is a fist full of product licences that in commercial terms would come in at over £50k, but the reality is with the majority of Microsoft partners sitting in the 15-30 company size, the Internal Use Rights (IUR) are seldom fully tapped, and let’s face it there is a quid pro quo in Microsoft ensuring its Partners have every reason to use its product.

The point is MPN is not servicing its Partner audience and is proving to be ill fitted to the modern IT world that it is trying to support. I hear this across both the managed and unmanaged Partner categories, the Microsoft Partner relationship is drifting apart. There are so many other options out there in the market today, MPN is not delivering.

The effort to maintain Microsoft Partner competencies is disproportionate to the profitability contribution. MPN activities do not directly point to profitability for Partners. This needs to flip, each requirement on a Partner should be judged against how that requirement drives profitability.

I have great respect for the effort, diligence and time taken by the Microsoft MPN team in defining this program all those years ago. It was not rushed, it was deeply researched and widely consulted within the Partner ecosystem paying great respect to the impact that it would have and the need for it to work well into the future. The problem was the market outside was at an inflection point, infract x3:

  1. Cloud was bursting onto the scene, with all its service oriented operational demands and subscription based financials.
  2. Marketplaces were becoming the defacto focus for application retail, reviewing and marketing.
  3. Social the buzz word (excuse the pun) changing the whole cadence of how consumers and businesses alike evaluated purchases, develop new trust models, and start-up business started carving fat slices out of the traditional big vendors with high visibility and agility social media ‘community’ based marketing.

MPN for all its polish and nurturing into life sadly did not, out of the box, perform against any of these new classes that continue to define our industry. One it maybe could have adjusted to but all of them hitting together in Internet Time has proven in retrospect too much to absorb. The retrofitting has seen some degree of Cloud acknowledge through the program but that has not instilled much confidence, akin to slapping a GTI 16 Valve badge on the back of a 1.0 Litre and swapping out for some wider rubber, it does not really address the inadequacies under the bonnet.

I could go on but I would prefer to look forward at an opportunity this offers.

How then does MPN service the Partner ecosystem and Microsoft across these key criteria and the needs of a modern IT marketplace? My thesis is that the orientation has to be on Partner Profitability and customer/market experience. This focuses on building a marketplace as the hub of a program.

There is opportunity for a bold decision to be taken, a decision that would show some blue ocean thinking and send a clear message across the industry, an industry that is hard set in its ways of old style vendor certification and accreditation. Microsoft could once again put some day light between it and the competition who are coming at these self-same challenges from different directions.

A decision to set the pace and not follow the crowd, in the new real time Cloud, subscription based experience driven market place.

But first like any good strategist, as the old saying goes ‘Make sure you can feed the bear’. This would require a commitment and tenacity that cannot fall foul of cultural contamination, brow beating or budgetary cuts. Commit, execution, deliver and reap the rich harvest.

  1. Vet and acquire (or license) third party platforms:
    1. Marketplace.
    2. Payment systems. There are plenty of them out there servicing banks that are up to date, compliant and fit for banking so would service Microsoft Online Billing requirements in their sleep.
    3. IT Community platform. (ie:Spiceworks).
  2. Integrate the platforms which becomes the go to resource for partners, customers and Microsoft for anything Microsoft replacing MPN Portal, current fragmented marketplaces, PinPoint and the Microsoft Account platform.
  3. To be a Partner you would need to transact your Microsoft business through the Microsoft marketplace, yes ALL classes of partners.
  4. Partner accreditation is attached to real time transactional and end user experience review criteria. Partners would be ‘invited’ to join as Gold or Silver as their criteria met set thresholds. The marketplace categories define their competencies de facto the marketplace reviews and their service/product offerings.
  5. Marketplace will ID Partners in the most honest way, market forces. By all means grandfather over Partners for 6 month’s to keep the peace.

A high risk approach is for Microsoft to reinvent the wheel and write their own. If there is something you have that is off radar and is tried, tested and proven in anger as many of these third party solutions are then fine don’t ignore that. Otherwise this would be a challenge for Microsoft, too many egos and techies, but go for the path of least resistance, kick out blockers and promote the doers. You need this yesterday.

The exciting dimension to this formulae is the reality that I believe it could occur in a single fiscal cycle (if not faster). We have seen banks set-up in shorter periods of time so don’t tell me this could not happen for a Partner Channel system.

Amongst many other benefits it could deliver:

  • One Microsoft marketplace.
  • One Microsoft resource directory. (Pinpoint the current Partner Directory can be retired).
  • One Microsoft view on its Partner pipeline.
  • A modern agile approach to the market that is familiar and accepted by consumers and business, making reviews and customer satisfaction as simple as it is on eBay or any other ecommerce site.
  • Pain goes away for partners. For the majority of small partners it will also mature the final mile of their marketing, sales and billing management and for the bigger partners and API in good old Cloud fashion to interoperate with their ERP systems.

It needs something. The above may be a pipe dream, but something has to happen, the current MPN is struggling and as Einstein said, ‘keep doing the same thing and expect a different result = insanity’ or something to that effect….

I have a suspicion that if MPN was pulled tomorrow, 90% of the Partner activity would continue unaffected. That is the degree of detachment the program has from reality. Now put a marketplace in the mix and tools that help partners drive their profitability the that becomes core and influential.

For now Partners it’s just more of the same. See you at WPC 2014!