IBM Unveils Major Channel Program Restructuring To Reflect Cognitive Transformation

IBM's push to infuse intelligence into its products through cognitive platforms will be reflected in a major revamp of its channel program.

The reworking of the technology giant's PartnerWorld channel program shifts the focus from products to solutions while simplifying the overall structure, Marc Dupaquier, general manager of IBM Global Business Partners, told attendees of its PartnerWorld Leadership Conference in Orlando, Fla., on Tuesday morning.

The changes were spurred by IBM's transformation to cognitive computing and cloud, technologies that require partners to build on top of the IBM platform by integrating deep industry expertise and adding value to the solutions they deliver customers.

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For two years, IBM has been talking about its transformation, the market shift, and the need for its partners to "change a lot of things. Basically everything," Dupaquier told partners gathered from 82 countries.

The focus on cloud and cognitive computing "forced us to completely rethink how we are helping partners," Dupaquier said.

Partners were following a certification path aligned to products, and that had to change. The value partners add doesn't come from product mastery.

"We realized while the product knowledge was absolutely necessary," Dupaquier said, "the essential thing was everything you build on top"

One partner welcomed the changes.

Rick Bailer, senior vice president of sales at Sirius Computer Solutions, an IBM partner based in Norwalk, Conn., said the new structure makes sense because once-disparate solutions are converging, and partners must be evaluated by a common criteria.

"The change is looking across the board at a partner's total involvement with IBM, including hardware, software, and now all this cloud stuff," Bailer told CRN. "It's looking at a common way to evaluate a partner so they can be rewarded for that."

Dupaquier said that while some partners in attendance haven't seen business growth while they worked to transform their businesses in line with IBM's larger vision, "they're still here, so they believe in IBM."

Now is the time for them to reap the rewards of all the work they've done, he added.

"We have transformed. We made being a business partner simpler," Dupaquier said. "I believe the market is coming our way."

The new IBM PartnerWorld program will go into effect in January 2017, introducing all new tiers, as well as skills, competencies, benefits and digital assets.

While partners have 11 months to gain new competencies, many of the credits they've already earned will apply to the new structure.

Dupaquier shared with CRN the details of the channel restructuring, which converts IBM's current three-tiered system — Member, Advanced and Premier — to one with four tiers to add granularity.

The new structure will have an entry-level tier called Registered. It's for partners with no real skills or engagements, and once they earn $25,000 in revenue and gain a competency, they advance to Silver.

Partners in the Member tier will automatically transition to Registered. Those in Advanced will go to Silver, and Premier will shift to Gold. All partners will have to earn new certifications to make it all the way up the ladder to Platinum, including a certification in client satisfaction.

After six months, until June 2017, they'll be evaluated to see if they have done enough to remain in the tiers in which they first landed, he said.

Beyond the new tier structure, IBM will introduce 44 different competencies.

That's not a magic number, Dupaquier said, and it eventually could change. Any competency that doesn't have many partners certified after a year will likely be removed, while new ones might be added.

Competencies, as opposed to products, are solution-based, he told CRN.

In the past, "you could be best in one product," Dupaquier told CRN, but the solution is broader than any one product.

IBM is still developing a system of benefits to reward partners as they advance up the tiers. Those will vary by country, and they will not be linked to earnings.

The benefits will help partners further differentiate themselves and continue to advance through the tiers. They'll include vouchers for additional classes and competencies, helping solution providers see more staff members earn certifications.

For a Silver partner, benefits will include a digital marketing assessment; at Gold, it will be assistance implementing the digital experience. And Platinum partners will have access to a "lab advocate" — essentially a direct connection to senior IBM engineers.

IBM has also "completely, completely redefined our curriculum" for PartnerWorld University, an online portal in which partners can develop sales and technical skills, Dupaquier said.

The new program structure should encourage partners to be more innovative, said Bailer, of Sirius Computer Solutions.

"IBM is going to reward us for that solution, so if we have IP that we're adding value with, we have an opportunity to make more money."

But some partners might struggle with the new approach that shifts emphasis to building unique solutions rather than simply reselling products. While some might not survive the process, new partners will join because they see the opportunities.

"There's a lot of partners that are caught up in an infrastructure-centric past," Bailer said. "Hopefully a lot of partners do morph."

That's what his company did over the last decade. In 2002, 90 percent of Sirius' business was related to the Power Systems server line. The company began to diversify in 2008.

"It's one thing reselling anything, but it's another thing innovating on top of it," Bailer told CRN.