In the past, Microsoft encompassed a huge variety of different software platforms each targeting a different set of potential customers, partners, sales channels, industries and market segments. This natural segmentation was further exacerbated by acquisitions they’d made over the years, creating autonomous business units within the same company, much like many large enterprises.
Several years ago, a group of Great Plains ERP customers and partners formed a meeting (500 of them) they called Stampede. After Great Plains purchased Solomon, and Microsoft purchased Great Plains (as well as Navision and Axapta) the event blossomed into a much larger gathering aptly named Convergence. Unlike its other events, Convergence was content to simply target ERP and CRM partners who mostly resisted all efforts to consolidate their products into a single package. GP shops became Dynamics GP, Solomon partners sold Dynamics SL, and so on. For a company with an existing issue with silos, this meant that the partner community remained increasingly walled off. Microsoft Business Systems, where future CEO Satya Nadella worked, was an ambitious group but one that remained distinct from partner to partner, customer to customer.
Each year Convergence was held, the individual parts of the Microsoft partner community would descend to watch a series of keynotes, eat lunch and then depart into rooms next to one another. The conference was useful (especially as multiple partners supported the single CRM product, Dynamics CRM) but did little to connect the larger Microsoft strategy to the business leaders at organizations across the globe.
This year was different.
Almost from the opening keynote (Satya Nadella returned after an 8 year hiatus, this time as CEO) the audience could tell this conference was much better than in previous years. Instead of showcasing products with a Dynamics logo emblazoned on them, each speaker got up to show how businesses could use the entire Microsoft set of solutions to be more productive and drive home actionable intelligence to compete more effectively. Product names were largely behind the scenes, leading analysts and partners not in the know to speculate wildly about the functionality of particular items.
After the first session, the last year of Microsoft’s conference strategy had become apparent and it dealt with the ecosystem fragmentation problem. Several months ago, when Microsoft consolidated its disparate technical conferences into a single conference (Ignite, in May) the thought was that they were somehow “cutting back” or “trimming corners”. But at Convergence, the strategy became quite simple: each conference Microsoft throws targets a different type of individual. Technical decision makers are the ones wined, dined and educated at Ignite. Developers are steered towards the Build conference to learn and network. The partner channel, as usual, will continue to attend the Worldwide Partner Conference in the summer, to help celebrate a year’s worth of work alongside their Microsoft colleagues. Business decision makers, the key to the future of Microsoft, will now be the target at Convergence.
The switch was swift and effective: almost every customer I saw at Convergence spoke positively about the solutions (and, yes, products) at the conference, despite many of the featured technologies having been built months earlier, and debuted at WPC or TechEd (the precursor to Ignite). These were CIOs or technical folk however: they were vice presidents of sales, the head of marketing, CFOs and controllers. What were they excited about? Common business problems being solved: collaboration with colleagues, personal empowerment on the road and using mobile devices, through to deep analytic and predictive capabilities. The specific product names were unimportant but the effect was easy to see: Microsoft had been building solutions for these individuals and organizations all along, but just hadn’t shown them the specifics.
The partner channel will need to be just as swift in ensuring customers pain points are addressed, because the vision is now a holistic one rather than a low-value addition. Those partners that are “all-up” Microsoft partners will have an advantage, in that they can rapidly pivot to any number of solutions without feeling constrained to a particular “flavor” of solution. And that can only benefit customers further, meaning that the Microsoft ecosystem has just been given a huge shot in the arm. Best of all, the technology flows both ways: partners should expect many more opportunities at Build and Ignite from the enhanced collaboration and networking effects. In the future, it won’t be difficult to envision a “One Microsoft” approach to every single product in their portfolio. The partners who succeed will have to adopt a similar stance.