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COLUMN: IBM’s Channel Focus Gets A Boost

The Channel Company’s Executive Chairman Robert Faletra says for the first time in years, IBM is getting its channel mojo back.

For the first time in well over a decade, I’m seeing signs that IBM understands its need to broaden its reach through strategic solution providers.

As we approach the two-year anniversary of closing its acquisition of Red Hat, Big Blue is beginning to get its channel mojo back. I’m not ready to declare it’s firing on all cylinders. But the changes at the top of the organization that were long overdue and seem to have come along with the Red Hat acquisition have started the engine.

Arvind Krishna, IBM’s new chairman and CEO, might be exactly what is needed as a leader of IBM.

After a 10-year period where IBM seemed less than maniacally focused on its solution provider channel, Krishna seems intent on leveraging the partner base. Krishna is coming up on his one-year anniversary as CEO and has agreed to come to The Channel Company’s Best of Breed conference this fall to meet and talk with the channel partners in attendance. That in and of itself is a huge indicator of where he places the importance of the IBM channel. In a recent interview with CRN depicted in this issue’s cover story, he was also clear in his desire to drive more business with partners.

[RELATED: IBM CEO Arvind Krishna’s ‘Deeply, Deeply Passionate’ Plan To Make IBM-Red Hat No. 1 In Hybrid Cloud, AI]

I’ve been covering the high-tech channel since the early 1980s and while I’ve only had one long conversation with Krishna, I’m pretty good at reading sincerity—and Krishna seems to have just that in his desire to drive more through partners.

But he and IBM have some challenges. For a company that arguably was the original builder of the indirect channel in PCs, it has lost huge channel share over the last decade, all while competitors like Dell Technologies were focused on gaining share.

IBM’s acquisition of SoftLayer Technologies eight years ago was squandered, and Krishna seems focused on ensuring the same thing doesn’t happen to Red Hat, an acquisition he spearheaded prior to taking on the CEO role.

His focus on the channel and his visibility to it will be important in sending a message both externally and internally as to partner importance. But his bigger challenge is to make sure the internal mechanism at IBM gets on board and doesn’t reject the need to have a viable channel. After all, IBM is a salesdriven company, and direct-sales-minded people always want control, something that is more challenging in an indirect sale.

So the real test will come from what happens between Krishna and the street—a long road that is fraught with twists and turns.

Krishna needs to be sure compensation internally and through the channel is addressed in such a way that neutrality is paramount. Making sure rules of engagement between IBM and the partner community are clear is also a task that needs addressing. No one expects any company to be without channel conflict, but clarity on where partners should expect a no-conflict zone and where they should understand they may be competing with IBM is important.

Ultimately, who Krishna puts in place to shepherd his vision of how he wants the company to go to market in direct and indirect channels is crucial. His communication internally is critical, and his actions to back that up will be the determination of whether the troops fall in line.

But he also needs to be visible and honestly blunt with the partner community, all while making sure IBM has the right product lineup to battle it out in the market.

Krishna has some real advantages inside the company as well, including President Jim Whitehurst, the former CEO of Red Hat, who also gets the importance of how going to market with a two-pronged direct and indirect approach beats direct only.

Only time will tell, but the early signs look positive.

  BACKTALK: Make something happen. Robert Faletra is Executive Chairman of The Channel Company. You can contact him via email at rfaletra@thechannelcompany.com.

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