IBM Emphasizes ‘Deeper Skills’ in New Business Partner Program
May 24, 2010 Dan Burger
Because complex issues intertwine business goals and IT capabilities, established companies struggle to keep pace with the modern world. Knowing exactly how to integrate systems, undertake virtualization projects, and implement new hardware and software can exceed the speed many companies can handle, so they seek providers with the expertise to get companies over business barriers. And that’s why IBM and its business partners are increasing their emphasis on skills, education, and certification.
More than ever, companies are focused on IT providers who can demonstrate experience and credibility when it comes to architecting systems as opposed to having an aptitude for installing hardware and software. Confidence is key and companies will select providers they can trust will solve their problems.
To solve their toughest business challenges, companies are taking a longer look at IT solution providers that offer expertise–some of it billable and some of it in the category of value added to the sale of hardware and software–rather than attempting to tackle those challenges themselves. IBM, as you would expect, knows this well. Its research proves this to be true. One example is its Global CEO Study that demonstrates how companies are managing complexity and finding opportunities for growth. According to the study, more than 60 percent of CEOs surveyed cite industry transformation and the information explosion as the most significant factors facing their organizations during the next five years. And IBM says its customers are asking for more help in dealing with their challenges. (See Creativity Is the New Business Kool-Aid, IBM CEO Study Finds for more on this CEO survey.)
So IBM is altering its channel investments so resellers can boost their ability to provide business solutions on a customer-to-customer basis. IBM says its business partners and its end users are asking for it. Being responsive to customer feedback never hurts.
“Just as our partners are making an investment in IBM, we continue to invest in our business partners through skills development, streamlined processes, and new opportunities to collaborate as we work together to create solutions for our clients,” said Rich Hume, general manager of IBM Global Business partners and mid-market, in a prepared statement.
Companies that work with IBM gain by having better qualified, business solution-oriented people to turn to when it comes to solving problems; business partners gain by selling information and expertise in addition to selling products. At least that’s how it works in theory. That element of trust must still be available in large supply.
“Customers want IBM and its partners to have deep skills in solving business problems,” says Ed Abrams, IBM’s general business midmarket vice president of marketing.
He’s talking about skills in broader solution areas than ever before, but not skills or business solutions like those taught in business degree programs at colleges and universities in case you were wondering whether the current iteration of the Whiz Kids were going to show up at your door.
“The skills go beyond every speed and feed of a system,” he says. “It’s about whether you can install and leverage a system to effectively build a collaboration solution or build out a virtualization capability. It’s taking the technical skills and applying them to solve real solution-based problems.”
Abrams defines business solutions as dealing with things such as collaboration, virtualization, analytics, business resiliency, and smarter business infrastructures that, for instance, would be more energy efficient. Companies, particularly midsize companies, are asking for help in areas such as CRM, ERP, and supply chain.
The difference between the deep product knowledge, which was once the language of customer interaction, and business solution knowledge is the difference between knowing how and where you apply a product versus only knowing what the product does. Now customers want to work with people who talk in their language, which is based on solving business issues.
And that’s where IBM’s partner program gets a tweak.
“The skills IBM is giving its partners are designed to reduce complexity, overhead, and learn how to do more with less,” Abrams says.
Training and certification programs for business partners are provided by IBM as part of the partner benefits package. According to Big Blue, more than $2 billion is invested annually in channel sales, marketing, education, and technical resources.
“IT is becoming central to business growth,” says Michael Harwood, vice president of marketing at Sirius Computer Solutions, an IBM business partner. “Sirius is emphasizing the need to have the right skills and IBM is creating the skill paths, education, and testing.”
Most industry experts would concur that more emphasis on services will be required in the future. Abrams says a small but growing number of companies are interested in outsourcing IT, but that is not the driving force behind the new emphasis on building skills in the partner ranks.
“In certain areas, there is the need to outsource skills. Clearly our customers of all sizes are looking at cloud computing, reduced IT expense, and improved infrastructure. They need to reduce complexity, overhead, and learn how to do more with less.
“They are looking to IBM and partners to help them be more efficient, but I would not directly correlate that with software as a service or cloud-based offerings or reluctance to expanding IT departments. That depends on the individual end user and the environment,” Abrams says.
“We’re getting more benefits from getting more qualified and certified people in the organization,” says Dan Fortin, general manager at Relavance, another IBM business partner specializing in software solutions. “Before, there was more emphasis on the revenue side.”
The biggest change in IBM’s business partner program is in its incentives. Partners attain higher levels in PartnerWorld, IBM’s name for its partner program, by scoring points. Formerly the point total was skewed toward revenue. The fastest way to score points was to generate revenue. In the revised program, education and certification in skill areas can accumulate points just as fast as generating revenue.
“That way we can be more assured that the message we want the customers to receive is getting there,” Fortin says. “Relevance will provide added value because our people have better product knowledge and the knowledge of a solution that will benefit the customer.”
IBM calls its recent round of channel partner investments–which include expanded access to senior-level IBM executives, a more robust library of market intelligence resources, and greater availability to materials and individuals with specific expertise via social media and search tools–a continuing commitment to provide education and incentives that help business partners deliver increased value to clients.
There’s also an incentive program called the System x Specialty that’s designed to expand sales and technical skills related to that platform. Through this “specialty,” System x education, certification, and learning resources will be enhanced to provide “differentiators within the x86 market in which the System x platform continues to deliver unmatched performance and cost advantages to companies of all sizes,” according to IBM’s media materials, which are prone to overstatement every now and then.
“The System x Specialty helps build out the capabilities of a dynamic infrastructure,” Abrams explains. “It is the second dynamic infrastructure solution specialty that we are bringing to market.” The first was a Consolidation and Virtualization Specialty that was put into action in April 2009.
“The Intel play, while important to the midmarket, is also growing in importance in the enterprise,” IBM’s midmarket VP says. “Given its advancements in processing power, we see as much need in enterprises as in the midmarket. Larger enterprises have identified a desire to embrace the Intel platform as part of their IT environment.”
The reason there’s a System x incentive in the business partner scheme rather than a Power Systems running IBM i incentive (just as a for instance), Abrams says, is because IBM customers and partners asked for it.
“Make no mistake; we are going to continue to broaden our specialties around all of the hardware platforms as well as the key software and services offerings. Ultimately we are bringing the integrated IBM company to market,” he promises. However, no schedule for releases related to other platforms, software, or services could be discussed at this time.
For those wondering about the various levels within IBM’s PartnerWorld, business partners attain higher levels–which lead to increased program benefits–by improving employee skills, generating revenue, increasing customer satisfaction, and getting customers to be references for the products and services they’ve purchases. IBM says its revision of the partner program offers more ways to advance with fewer rules and minimum requirements.
For example, partners earn points for certification and progressively higher points for deeper skills attainment such as advanced and expert technical certifications. Skills points are also awarded for verified business partner solutions that combo IBM hardware, software, or services.
Another change that affects the partner program is some updating of the PartnerWorld portal, a repository for sales, marketing, and technical support materials. Feedback from frustrated users has led to new features that include live chat support and easier navigation and search capabilities. Social networking features have been increased and industry-focused networking groups and a Virtual Summit feature for staging online events have also been added.
A specific schedule for rolling out these changes was not released other than to say they will be deployed in phases beginning in July 2010.
IBM also announced the winners of its annual PartnerWorld Beacon Awards last week. These awards were created to recognize IBM business partners for innovative solutions based on IBM products and services. A listing of the award winners and finalists in 21 categories can be found at this link.