The IBM Partner World partner-focused event is for IBM’s indirect channel of companies that take what IBM and other firms make and build solutions, predominantly for the mid-market. IBM’s partner program is impressively large and, for a time, when I worked at IBM, I was missioned (along with several others) to fix several of the problems that the firm then had in this area. It is fascinating to note that many of those same problems survived into this decade even though I left the firm decades ago, showcasing how difficult they were to resolve.
Today’s partner program is vastly improved, and it enjoys direct support from the top of IBM. Responsibility still isn’t ideal but it is improved from the complex matrix mess my old team was trying to deal with. Back then, I concluded that key problems couldn’t be fixed because most of our time was spent playing whack a mole with problems that came up faster than we could pound them down. Today’s IBM Partner program is far better run and it is about to get much better.
Importance of Partners
Partners are a force multiplier. With a fraction of the staff required for a direct channel, a firm can maintain a network of partners that can operate independently, make their own investments to improve their capabilities, and often rival or even exceed direct channel efforts regarding completing complex focused projects particularly in the mid to small company markets where direct sales forces don’t scale well. On the other hand, partners can be fickle and shift between host vendors very quickly based on incentives, support, or other opportunities, so driving loyalty becomes incredibly important.
The problems associated with partner programs include conflicts between partners and with the firm’s direct channel, reconciling commissions when you have blended deals or a direct sales rep in the same account a partner services, assuring the partners’ employees are adequately trained, maintaining quality in the channel, and assuring the partners aren’t at a significant disadvantage against direct channel efforts. This is on top of the need to instrument the partners to assure the integrity of the firm’s offerings though the changes that every company goes through (both the host company and the individual partners) and make sure that neither side takes advantage of the other.
IBM Partner World Execution
Well-run partner events are often closer to revival meetings in terms of energy and focus. While I didn’t see that level of energy at the IBM event, it was tightly focused on the partners’ needs and providing examples of success and insight into IBM’s new product announcements. I got the sense that this will be one of the early places where IBM’s AI tools will be deployed to provide a level of assistance to the partners at a granularity and scale that just aren’t affordable with human staff.
Examples of these AI tools, largely based on IBM Watson, were evident throughout the IBM keynote and there were examples showing that the people who used them weren’t even aware they were talking to a machine. I was told that IBM would shortly be rolling out an AI-based dating system that would match partners with each other for complex deals. With a deep learning AI, this could not only match these partners by skills but by personality and eventually even suggest teams in the respective companies that might best work with each other. This kind of granular matching, in theory, could create dynamic teams between partner companies to rapidly build groups that could address complex customer problems across world geographies. This became just one of the ways IBM’s Watson technology could make IBM itself far more competitive with regard to acquiring, retaining and boosting the revenues and effectiveness of its partner network.
Wrapping Up: Working with Partners and Staffing Partners
Partner programs are very difficult to manage. I was impressed with IBM’s executive team running the effort and particularly with one executive, Rose Nunez, who was driving much of the impressive advancement into the program. If they execute against the plans, their program will be the one to beat and become a solid reference for how something like this should be done.
Some of the other things that IBM is doing, and announced later, could also significantly strengthen partner efforts. One of the most interesting was IBM’s P-Tech program, which starts looking at candidates in 9th grade and drives students into funded STEM and technology programs. These students then go out into the market working at IBM and partner firms to fill the massive number of unfilled technology jobs worldwide. They also have their new-collar education programs, which are now focused on bringing tech workers who left tech back into the fold and giving veterans the skills they need to succeed at IBM and with IBM partners.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+