Partners Attending IBM's Think Conference Prepping For Big Channel Changes Coming Next Month

As IBM prepares to implement its largest channel overhaul in years, partners have been conferring all week at the Think conference in Las Vegas with Big Blue's leadership, and each other, to ready themselves to take advantage of the program changes.

The revamped PartnerWorld program, revealed in January and going into effect next month, is being met enthusiastically by attendees of the PartnerWorld summit that's part of the larger conference, Jacqueline Woods, chief marketing officer for IBM Global Business Partners, told CRN.

Partners had long been clamoring for a streamlined structure that breaks down barriers across partner categories and products—one that better aligns with the evolution they have seen in their practices to delivering comprehensive solutions that often include components they've developed themselves.

[Related: IBM Introduces First of Several Watson Data Kits To Jumpstart AI Projects]

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The "2018 new generation ecosystem strategy," which goes live April 10, pares down IBM's channel structure to five distinct tracks, dramatically reducing the complexity of engaging with the technology stalwart.

IBM partly achieved that by marrying tracks for hardware and software resellers, which made a lot of sense given partners were typically selling integrated solutions.

Strict categorizations defining partner business models have also been abandoned, she said.

"We're seeing business partners don’t neatly fit into one category," Woods told CRN. "They're not just a reseller or ISV or cloud service provider or MSP or systems integrator."

Partners these days wear many hats, she said, often "depending on who they're talking to and the solution that they're selling."

IBM's new channel strategy looks to support the broader changes in the ecosystem across all program elements—metrics, margins, reimbursement, co-marketing, training and enablement tools.

"Our ability to offer models that can easily help a partner navigate between those specific types of business models is critically important," Woods said. "I think the advantage of what we have now is we're offering companies a number of different types of ecosystems that they can participate in."

The new program also was designed to encourage partners to embed IBM's next-gen products, especially cloud, data, analytics, and Watson artificial intelligence.

One of the biggest changes in recent years to Big Blue's channel is that many traditional resellers have become de facto ISVs—developing and bundling their own intellectual property.

Technology partners are no longer the only ones taking advantage of IBM's longtail ISV program, Woods said, which enables developers embedding IBM solutions with cloud credits and a development sandbox.

One solution provider that has strayed into ISV territory is Clear Technologies, which recently marked its 25th anniversary as an IBM partner.

Phil Godwin, the Addison, Texas solution provider's chief operating officer, joined Martin Schroeter, senior vice president for IBM Global Markets, on stage for a PartnerWorld keynote at the Think conference to discuss the journey.

Focusing on data center infrastructure "was great business for us the first 15 years," Godwin told CRN after the keynote. But around 2008, it became hard for Clear to differentiate itself in the market.

That's when the company's transformation started, leading to development of a product called Visual Storage Intelligence that's been a "huge part of our story over the last 8 years."

In the keynote, Schroeter talked about how 60 percent of IT decisions are now made outside of IT. Clear Technologies has seen that shift up close, Godwin said.

"We can now go have conversations with line of business people, where in the past we were focused on having technology conversation with technologists," Godwin told CRN.

Godwin has attended PartnerWorld for the last 17 years. At every previous conference his focus was on meeting IBM staff, but this year he's spent as much time meeting other partners.

The reason is his peers are bringing to market the company's home-grown solution. And Clear is doing the same with products built by other solution providers.

"Now is the time more than ever that we need to be partnering with partners," Godwin said.

"The ecosystem is becoming more valuable as we try to transform because our transformation journeys are all taking us to different places. We're selling other people's stuff and they're selling our stuff, and the common thread that holds that all together is IBM," Godwin told CRN.

This month, Clear Technologies is launching Clear Intelligence, Godwin said, a new product leveraging IBM technology to take the company into the future around IoT and AI.

"I think IBM is staying on the forefront of what's taking place in the marketplace," Godwin told CRN.

One way IBM is supporting those partners navigating massive changes in the market is through a co-marketing program it revamped last year, Woods told CRN.

IBM is investing $80 million dollars across 2,200 partners driving 12,000 campaigns annually, Woods said.

Another imminent change that has been met with enthusiasm by partners comes in the reimbursement process.

"They used to have put their leads in in order for reimbursement to happen," Woods said.

That could be challenging, especially for small companies for whom cash flow was critically important.

"It takes time to generate pipeline, time to generate leads, so that's not a condition of them being reimbursed anymore," she said.

Partners now only need to provide proof of performance of an approved activity.

"They can get their money back more quickly," Woods said.