Revamped Microsoft business intelligence platform boosts data handling and builds trust

May 27, 2021   |  

Imagine an important meeting where you spend most of your time discussing the accuracy of metrics and reports. That was too often the reality for many Microsoft teams before the launch of Microsoft Sales Experience (MSX) Insights, a Microsoft business intelligence platform.

Now MSX Insights serves a single version of the truth to more than 30,000 users: salespeople, their managers, leaders, and multiple operations and finance teams across Microsoft.

Based on Microsoft Azure technologies, including Azure Data Lake, Azure Data Factory, Azure Synapse, Azure Analysis Services, and Microsoft Power BI, MSX Insights is managed by Microsoft Digital, the organization that powers, transforms, and protects Microsoft.

Toomey is in front of a wall, half-standing behind a desk and looking at the camera with a relaxed smile.
Michael Toomey, senior director of Business Operations and Programs for Microsoft Worldwide Sales Engineering, led the creation of the innovative internal Microsoft business intelligence platform known as MSX Insights. (Photo by Michael Toomey)

“Once we began using Azure and then Power BI, the technology limitations that had been holding back our data unification were eliminated,” says one of the project sponsors, Michael Toomey, senior director of Business Operations and Programs for Microsoft Worldwide Sales Engineering. “Was it finally possible to get to a single view of our commercial business that everyone could understand?”

That’s exactly what happened when Microsoft Sales, Microsoft Finance and Data Experiences, and Microsoft Partner and Sales Experience Engineering collaborated to create today’s comprehensive Microsoft business intelligence platform: MSX Insights.

[See how Microsoft automated its legacy revenue processing systems with optical character recognition (OCR) technology. Hear from IT experts about driving sales efficiency with Dynamics 365 and Microsoft AI. Find out how Microsoft reinvented sales processing and financial reporting with Azure.]

Reports and metrics that didn’t add up

At Microsoft, it’s critical that decision-makers have access to sales pipeline, contract, revenue, and consumption data they can trust. But when reports are pulled from separate systems or use data updated at different times, the numbers and results won’t match.

“We used to have a lot of complaints,” says RJ Smith, a principal group engineering manager in Microsoft Commercial Business. “I talked to people in Paris, Munich, Sydney; they said these reports don’t load, they don’t show the right data.”

Praveen Vittalrao Ambekar, a principal group program manager in Microsoft Partner and Sales Experience Business Insights, also analyzed the MSX customer experience to find out what was driving the support volume.

We needed a 360-degree view of our customer to correctly evaluate key metrics. We wanted end-to-end visibility.

– Mamata Bhopatkar, Microsoft vice president, Business Operations and Programs

“Reports were powered from multiple data platforms,” Ambekar says. “The insights were not aligned across sellers, managers, and leaders, and this was causing a lot of churn for the team. The groups were looking at the data from different angles.”

Those weren’t the only problems. The scope of the available reports didn’t fulfill the needs of senior executives.

“We needed a 360-degree view of our customer to correctly evaluate key metrics,” says Mamata Bhopatkar, vice president of Sales Operations and Incentives at Microsoft. “We wanted end-to-end visibility.”

Although teams were highly empowered to develop their own reporting platforms, there was broad duplication of effort and cost. “It was a highly federated budget model,” Toomey says.

It was also risky. As people develop one-off solutions using copies of datasets, it becomes harder to secure the information and enforce compliance with standard data handling practices.

“The more you have replication, the less likelihood you have that everyone’s compliant with the rules,” Ambekar says.

The insular systems also impacted the engagement and satisfaction levels of Microsoft partners and customers.

“Close coordination across sales teams, partners, marketing, and operations is critical so that our customers get a connected experience,” Toomey says. “It’s impossible to achieve that if we have multiple datasets with mismatched opportunities, consumption, licenses, revenue, etc.”

Multiple waves of data handling improvements

After the company began using a standard system, teams were able to migrate from competing products and use the same software regardless of department.

The solution has stood the test of time.

“Power BI as a product is almost 10 years old and so is our platform,” Toomey says. “It has successfully adapted through the transitions of Microsoft’s core business model and the priorities of multiple engineering leaders and our commercial business. We always need a central place to go and get insights.”

Then Microsoft Azure cloud computing services were launched about six years ago, making it easier for users in different departments to access the same source of data.

“We started to take the approach of giving people what they need based on roles,” Toomey says. This could be a seller who wants to see their scorecard broken down by account, a manager who needs an aggregate of the entire team’s pipeline, or a leader who is looking for patterns and trends over time.

Microsoft Azure was a major enabler for this new direction. Microsoft Power BI was the team’s choice of a front end for the evolving business intelligence platform.

“We had a Quarterly Business Connection, an event where we bring all the executives together, area by area, segment by segment,” Toomey says. “Several of us got together and worked for six weeks to automate the data handling for this. We moved everything into Power BI and ran visuals there.”

The proof of concept was a success. The next step was to make a cultural shift to get to an aligned environment.

To that end, the team built a community around Microsoft Power BI practitioners in the field. This BI round table community gets together a few times a month to share best practices, what is being done locally and has potential to be scaled.

“We tried to connect with the people building the tools and explain that this was a better way for them to be successful,” Toomey says.

The team also focused on increasing the speed of the tools for users around the world.

“It’s not a problem anymore,” Smith says. In fact, performance metrics have improved 50 percent. “We spent a lot of time on performance to make sure that the JavaScript implementation in the browser works well.”

In November 2020, representatives of the three most involved teams, Sales, Finance and Data Experiences, and Microsoft Digital Engineering, came together to address the remaining issue: getting the data right.

“It was a result of partnership and alignment between the three different teams,” says Diego Ulloa, a data strategy lead for Microsoft Worldwide Marketing and Operations who works on MSX Insights. “Together we consolidated data, set business rules, and designed the architecture.”

The group started with a proof of concept using an existing portal known as the One Commercial Platform, with Microsoft Power BI as the front end.

Power BI as a self-service tool has enabled more consumption of the insights. You don’t need layers of people to pull it into Excel.

– Praveen Vittalrao Ambekar, principal group program manager, Microsoft Partner and Sales Experience Business Insights

“We had to make hard decisions,” Ambekar says. “We had to align to one or the other’s hierarchy.” The team divided the rules and definitions up by functional area.

In the past six months, 80 percent of the user complaints associated with data hygiene and report accuracy have been eliminated due to this robust business intelligence platform.

The ease of use is also getting better. “Power BI as a self-service tool has enabled more consumption of the insights,” Ambekar says. “You don’t need layers of people to pull it into Excel.”

Collaboration continues to improve data quality and integrity

The group that built MSX Insights isn’t done yet. There is a robust roadmap planned for the MSX Insights team in coming months and years.

More trends and customer reports are on the agenda. MSX Insights and the Partner Sales Experience are still evolving, and several other teams are now contributing to those platforms.

“We will continue to evolve the user experience,” Ambekar says. “We want the user interface to really match how people are working and where, embedding insights more directly. We are looking at mobile apps for various roles.”

The collaboration across teams is working to avoid duplication of efforts.

“Because we hold each other accountable when we go through and talk about the designs, we’re doing it once and doing it well,” Smith says. “It’s better by virtue of us working on it together.”

The path ahead for MSX Insights includes continuous rollouts of additional services and functionality using the latest capabilities in Azure Synapse and Power BI.

“By introducing the ability to partners,” Ulloa says, “we are allowing more teams to create a comprehensive set of reports. We are taking our narrow vision and extending it to a One Microsoft model.”

See how Microsoft automated its legacy revenue processing systems with optical character recognition (OCR) technology.

Hear from IT experts about driving sales efficiency with Dynamics 365 and Microsoft AI.

Find out how Microsoft reinvented sales processing and financial reporting with Azure.

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