IBM Maps Out New Vision for Channel Partners

Big Blue's Dynamic Infrastructure Specialty program aims to help partners upgrade their business and technical skills.

Prodded by the reeling economy, IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) has sketched a sweeping, grand design for its channel partners to upgrade their business and technical skills to deliver solutions that address a changing IT environment.

The new program, called the Dynamic Infrastructure Specialty, is founded on IBM's notion that global connectivity expands IT far beyond the data center to what the vendor calls a "marriage of information technology and the physical world."

IBM contends that a convergence of IT products and services with the world's physical infrastructure will present next generation opportunities for properly prepared business partners.

Based on data supplied by market researcher International Data Corp., IBM pegs the market opportunity of the converged marketplace at a lofty $122 billion by 2012.


The Changing Data Center

The initiative offers channel partners education, sales, marketing and technical assistance in key areas identified by the vendor such as virtualization, information management and energy efficiency. It builds on an earlier program offered late last year to business partners who provided transformation services for the data center.

"This is a historic opportunity to transform the way we do things," said Bruce Maule, IBM's worldwide director of business partner programs.

"The essence is that there's a connection between the IT world and physical devices, and understanding that enables us to move forward in a radical way," he said. "It comes down to having the skills to understand problems, potential and solutions in a different way than we've done in the past."

Accordingly, the company is offering its entire roster of solution providers six new certifications that hone in on consultative selling skills. Those that measure up will be rewarded with as much as $100,000 in market development funds.

Maule said that IBM's "strategy is directed at partners with a consultative, system integration approach. The best thing we can do is help them to move more in that direction so that they have sales skills to fully consult with their customers."


Meet the Early Adopters

An initial group of partners, which includes solution partners Vicom, MicroStrategies, Agilysis, Mainline and Sirius, recently completed the first round of certifications. Maule said that IBM expects as many as five percent of its overall partner roster will meet the new criteria this year with an eventual target of 10 percent. To date, about 125 partners have shown interest in the program and half of those have started it.

Maule said that IBM expects another 150 partners will sign up next year.

"This puts us in more of a consulting position than a tactical selling position," said Bob Verola, Vicom chief executive. "It's a little more strategic in that we'll be able to identify customers' pain points within business units and IT departments. With that in mind we can build solutions and bridge gaps based around green, cost savings and energy efficiency."

The certification program carries two levels. Channel partners with two employees holding technical certifications and two staffers carrying sales certifications will receive $25,000 annually in market development funds to defray the cost of training and education.

Those with four technical and four sales certified individuals qualify at the elite level and will get $100,000 in annual marketing support from the vendor. To qualify, entry level channel partners must purchase $1M in related IBM products and services; the bar for elite level partners is set at $2M per year.

"We don't want to set the expectation that every partner should do this," Maule said. "It requires a significant investment on the part of the partner. If a partner wants to engage us on this level we're more than happy to do that."

Vicom's Verola said he planned to hire another consultant with the additional funding.


Battling Big Blue?

Maule acknowledged that better prepared and trained channel partners may turn their attention toward accounts currently served by IBM Global Services.

"There is the potential for conflict because we are enabling partners with services capabilities that IBM also has," Maule said. "But we've developed our services program for partners in concert with our internal services people and we've asked the sales teams at the front lines to do account level planning with partners. We've made it clear with partners that we're not trying to target them into our largest accounts."

IBM's channel program announcement also included a number of new products including the IBM Service Management Industry Solution customized for seven industries; new Tivoli Key Lifecycle Manager software ; IBM System Director software to manage physical and virtual assets in the data center; and, Tivoli Monitoring for Energy Management software to automate the management and reporting of energy consumption by non-IT assets such as air conditioning or street lights.

Separately, IBM disclosed that software channel partners who fail to meet new technical and sales certifications may be barred from selling the vendor's products as the company transitions to a controlled distribution scheme. IBM said it wants to discourage partners from simply moving software products to customers in the absence of adding value with services.

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