Why Microsoft is going all-out on advanced partner specialisation

Rodney Clark -- recently appointed as corporate vice president of Global Channel Sales at Microsoft -- offers exclusive insights into key channel priorities ahead
Rodney Clark (Microsoft)

Rodney Clark (Microsoft)

Continuously championed yet endlessly exaggerated, the concept of specialisation triggers mixed emotions for a partner ecosystem that frequently confuses perceived in-depth knowledge with the reality of surface-level expertise.

Blasphemous preaching perhaps but when side-stepping marketing rhetoric and assessing revised customer priorities, the channel as a collective appears off the pace in the skills game.

While a small selection of standout providers are adept at manoeuvring around such broad sweeps of the technology brush, the vast majority house hollow portfolios and modest technical horsepower.

“Customers are in such a state of transformation meaning we must work with and prepare the channel to capture the opportunity ahead, which is uniquely different to what it was five years ago,” said Rodney Clark, corporate vice president of Global Channel Sales at Microsoft.

Addressing the partner ecosystem across Asia Pacific during an exclusive interview with IDG -- spanning ARN, Channel Asia and Reseller News brands -- Clark cited the importance of partners building out new levels of specialisation in response to evolving market demands post-pandemic.

But this wasn’t the predictable and conventional rally cry of a new worldwide channel chief -- appointed to the role in early April -- rather acknowledgment that partner profitability and advanced specialisation are now inextricably linked.

“Customers require partners that are deep not just in security but also threat protection, deep not just in modern work but Teams or Viva,” Clark advised. “Taking into account that customers today are becoming increasingly technical and upping investments within this space, the concept of advanced specialisation is now a currency for partners to engage in our co-sell process.

“That’s not to suggest that competencies are no longer important -- they are critically important and remain a continued investment area. But over time we’ll start to see customers adopting technology at an accelerated rate which will in turn require partners with deep specialisations.”

According to most recent EDGE Research findings -- commissioned annually by ARN, Channel Asia and Reseller News in partnership with Tech Research Asia -- customers across the region are increasing reliance on partners to meet enhanced strategic priorities during the months ahead.

Security ranks as the leading investment priority for end-users across Australia and New Zealand, followed by customer experience, digital transformation, cloud migration and application modernisation.

As a result, 57 per cent of organisations on both sides of the Tasman are tasking partners to deliver more IT projects -- on the basis the channel aligns to the “deep skills” core selection criteria -- with security, cloud migration and data management the most in-demand expertise from an outsourcing perspective.

Meanwhile in Southeast Asia, key end-user investment areas centre around digital transformation and security, ahead of cloud migration, application modernisation and data analytics. This translates into a whopping 81 per cent of businesses ASEAN-wide tasking the channel to deliver more IT projects, once again on the condition of providing “deep skills”.

Demand for partner expertise evidently exists post-pandemic yet such demand comes with a caveat, justifying Microsoft’s accelerated investment in specialisation enablement during the past 12 months.

“The backdrop to this is actually the customer requirement,” Clark acknowledged. “Look at the number of data scientists and application developers being hired -- they are being recruited at a faster rate by non-tech companies than the channel. We have to basically match that level of partner engagement with our customers and we’re doing that through a balance of enablement and recruitment activities.”

Despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, a silver lining has arrived in the form of a re-skilling surge with partners maximising the chance to reallocate employees and build expertise into more strategic areas of technology focus.

“Whoever has the skills, wins,” advised Mark Iles, executive analyst of Tech Research Asia, speaking ahead of EDGE 2021 in November. "If you have the skills and service offerings then you will be ahead of the pack -- unless your market and sales execution is terrible, of course.

“New skills are difficult to find and partners capable of wrapping up such skills into incredibly tight service offerings -- which are aligned to the market -- will be extremely successful."

Enhanced enablement

As documented by Clark, Microsoft closed the year with approximately 1100 partners housing specialisations which represents “significant growth” on a year-over-year basis.

“We’re seeing partners create deeper levels of investment but also more partners earning second, third, fourth and fifth specialisations which is a trend we expect to continue,” he observed. “This demonstrates to customers using our marketplace that we have partners with advanced specialisations behind the solutions -- these are positive early signals that we have true experts in our ecosystem.”

Clark was quick to stress that this didn’t translate to a standard certification or badge, rather multiple certifications capable of meeting an advanced level of expertise.

To maintain momentum, the technology giant has unveiled plans increase enablement investment by more than 250 per cent year-over-year to support more partners during the up-skilling process.

“This is how we’re increasing partner profitability,” Clark added. “Firstly with accelerated enablement investment through virtual workshops and all-hands sessions, plus support to train technical specialists and engineers.

“This increase in funding is allowing partners to build business applications, Azure specialisation and security expertise which is helping indirect and solution providers who have been on the journey for quite some time.”

The other approach -- as outlined during Microsoft Inspire -- is the reduction of commercial marketplace fees from an industry standard of 20 per cent down to three per cent.

“A specialised partner operating within our marketplace will now enjoy higher margin and revenue opportunities,” Clark confirmed. "The feedback we received from the ecosystem wasn’t to reduce the fees, rather help make us more profitable. We believe these are significant swings that will help partners.”

Strategic priorities

Today, more than 95 per cent of Microsoft’s commercial revenue flows via the channel, delivered by an ecosystem housing 470,000 entities which identify as partners across the world.

“And that number continues to grow,” Clark added. “We’re on-boarding approximately 300-400 new partners on a daily basis which is a pretty staggering number. Alongside this growth our programs and opportunities continue to evolve, moving from competency-based to advanced specialisation.”

In a direct address to the regional partner ecosystem, Clark cited five core areas of channel focus during the next 12 months, all of which are built on the foundations of profitability and advanced specialisation.

Microsoft Cloud will enable digital transformation across industries and our differentiation from cloud to edge will provide a unique opportunity for partners to build distributed solutions on our platform,” he said. “This isn’t three clouds, this is Azure, Dynamics 365, Windows, Power Platform, PowerBI -- all part of a single Microsoft Cloud which is a standout value proposition for us.”

Secondly, Clark emphasised the importance of leveraging a cloud built for the “new world of work”, referencing the value of Teams and Viva in creating new potential for independent software vendors (ISVs) to build solutions on top.

Staying within the context of the cloud, innovation from cloud to edge is also set to be accelerated further through leveraging an expansive data centre footprint around the world, with notable new region announcements in New Zealand, Indonesia and Malaysia among others.

“We have more data centre regions that any other cloud provider which allows partners to capitalise on offerings such as Azure Arc and Synapse to drive expertise and growth across productivity, applications and analytics,” Clark explained.

Fourthly, trust and security will continue to rank highly on the Redmond agenda item with Clark emphasising the value of plugging end-to-end solutions into multi-cloud platforms to enhance threat protection levels.

“This is an important pillar for us, evident through recently reaching the $10 billion revenue mark in security,” Clark added. “Digital sovereignty -- as well as data -- is also a priority for our channel going forward.”

The final piece of the partner puzzle is anchored around creating the “most effective, partner focused business platform” aligned to the primary aim of boosting profitability via marketplace incentives and digital engagement engines.

“Our investments are designed to ensure partners are ready for the wave of tech intensity that is coming down the line from our customers,” Clark advised.