IBM Channel Chief Woolley: Our AI Is Not For ‘Writing Poems About Your Dog’

‘This is not about trying to be everything to everybody. This is not about writing poems about your dog. This is about curated models that can be tuned and are very targeted for the business use cases that we want the enterprise to use them for,’ Kate Woolley, IBM ecosystem general manager, tells CRN.

As IBM seeks to differentiate itself in the ongoing artificial intelligence gold rush, solution providers will be a key part of its go-to-market, channel chief Kate Woolley told CRN.

AI based on open technologies, trust, accuracy, promising customers control and ownership of their data plus targeted use cases for businesses are ways that IBM and its partners will separate themselves as the Armonk, N.Y.-based vendor increases access to its AI tools.

“This is not about trying to be everything to everybody,” said Woolley, whose formal title is IBM ecosystem general manager. “This is not about writing poems about your dog. This is about curated models that can be tuned and are very targeted for the business use cases that we want the enterprise to use them for.”

[RELATED: IBM Think 2023: Watsonx Promises Enterprise AI At Scale With Trust]

IBM AI Partner Opportunity

Bo Gebbie, CEO of IBM solution provider Evolving Solutions, No. 135 on CRN’s 2023 Solution Provider 500, told CRN that he is interested in seeing how IBM’s AI offerings benefit the security and infrastructure business, which have been in demand for Gebbie’s company lately.

Customers have asked Gebbie’s team about using generative AI tools such as ChatGPT—made by Microsoft-backed OpenAI—and automating tasks related to human resources, Gebbie said.

“If IBM can help bridge the gap between how we make meaningful use cases and we can make money at it helping clients, I think that’s the part we’ve got to do some more homework on,” he said. “The reason I’m excited and interested to learn more is we know there’s a skills gap and shortages with skilled employees still. [We need to learn] how does this help make certain tasks less labor-intensive so that we can redeploy the right people for the harder tasks and harder work?”

Two products within the IBM Watsonx AI suite became generally available in July—the studio for foundation models, generative AI and machine learning and the data store for scaling AI workloads with an open lake house architecture.

The Wastsonx.governance product for directing, managing and monitoring an organization’s AI activities is expected to become generally available in November, according to IBM.

IBM’s Partner Plus program, which was introduced in January to replace PartnerWorld, is a “building block” for how IBM plans to scale AI through partners, Woolley said.

“Whether that is through skilling our partners … but then also providing a very simple and transparent program that’s easy for our partners to understand,” she said. “So as they take our AI technology to market, they know exactly what support sits around that, how they get skilled. Then they have a very clear line of sight to that predictable earnings around, for example, our software stack and what that looks like.”

IBM celebrated a slate of milestones for Partner Plus in a July 27 blog post, including:

*The addition of more than 3,000 new IBM registered partners over the past six months

*New co-marketing benefits to make the best use of funds available at each program tier

*70,000-plus enrollments in one or more IBM badges across partner organizations since October, when IBM introduced new skilling capabilities

*More than 40,000 completed badges since October

*The ability for partners to embed Watson Natural Language Processing (NLP) and other core IBM AI technology to make application experiences more intelligent

*The ability for partners to embed Watson Discovery to automate more core business workflows

*Watsonx proficiency badges, product training and new marketing kits

*A new developer page of free generative AI educational courses and content

And although itself is GA, for now users only have access to its non-generative Slate family of encoder-only models for fast enterprise NLP tasks, according to IBM.

Models coming soon include:

*Granite models based on a decoder-only, GPT-like architecture for generative tasks

*Sandstone models with an encoder-decoder architecture meant for fine-tuning specific tasks

*Obsidian models with a new modular architecture developed by IBM Research that provides high inference efficiency and levels of performance across a variety of tasks

The AI opportunity applies to IBM global systems integrators and smaller partners as well, Woolley said.

“It’s across the board,” she said. “I have not spent time with a partner recently that is not having conversations with their clients about AI no matter what size the partner is. I’ve been with some of our biggest partners who are having these conversations, but also with some of our smallest niche partners in certain areas of the IBM portfolio.”

Here’s what else Woolley had to say about the role of IBM partners in bringing the vendor’s AI offerings to market.

What should partners know about IBM’s AI investments?

As we look at AI and how we’re thinking about unleashing the intelligence of AI, there’s so many ways in which that is absolutely critical from an ecosystem perspective.

The value of the ecosystem’s only going to grow with that. And I don’t see that stopping anytime soon. I only see that accelerating.

Ecosystems are really important from this perspective in terms of how we think about building skills and enabling our ecosystem around the power of AI and around the Watsonx platform.

But also around how we continue to drive more collaboration across the AI landscape with meeting clients where they’re at and making sure that we are doing that together with our partners.

So whether that’s through embedding our AI technology, or building centers of excellence with our systems integrator partners and that type of thing. The power of this is only going to accelerate.

Sounds like Partner Plus is going well?

The partner program with Partner Plus from a channel perspective is a fantastic building block for how we think about scaling AI.

So whether that is through skilling our partners … but then also providing a very simple and transparent program that’s easy for our partners to understand.

So as they take our AI technology to market, they know exactly what support sits around that, how they get skilled.

Then they have a very clear line of sight to that predictable earnings around, for example, our software stack and what that looks like.

But a lot of our AI-enabled products with Watson Assistant, Watson Orchestrate—all of those types of products—they have a very clear and easy way to take those to market.

What should partners do today to get ready for the IBM AI opportunity?

Where I would really focus our partners today is around the education and the skilling around AI and how they can actually build that skill and capability with IBM within their teams.

And then I would strongly encourage our partners to be jumping into the opportunities that we have together around the AI portfolio.

Not just the Watsonx platform but … take the Watson Assistant product that we have—we see increasing demand in that call center, customer care space—and how do we actually work with our partners to engage their clients on opportunities in that space? That’s just one example.

But I think educating, making sure that they’re building their skills with IBM—but then let’s move to opportunities for sure. And having those conversations with their clients because everyone’s thinking about it.

There’s hype everywhere in the market. It’s going to very quickly move to reality. But we want to be with our partners at the table having those conversations.

What should partners know about IBM’s differentiation in the AI market?

As we think about where IBM is focused from an AI perspective and where we want to work with our partners to be focused, this is not about consumer AI.

This is about how we actually scale AI across our client enterprises. But do that with trust.

And I think that the trust piece is the most critical piece that everyone isn’t quite sure where this is going to go and how to deal with that trust element. That’s where we see the biggest questions from our clients.

So as we think about the IBM differentiation against that, there are a few areas where I would encourage our partners to focus.

The first one is around open—how IBM’s AI technologies are based on the best AI and cloud technology that’s available.

If you look at, for example, our Hugging Face partnership, where all of Hugging Face’s models are available as part of

The second piece I would say is around the targeted nature of IBM’s AI technology. So this is about being focused on targeted use cases. This is not about trying to be everything to everybody. This is not about writing poems about your dog.

This is about curated models that can be tuned and are very targeted for the business use cases that we want the enterprise to use them for.

Third piece is trusted … what is the security and the data protection? And if you look at the Watsonx.Governance element ... this is about the governance, the transparency, the ethics of all of this.

And I personally believe this is going to be the biggest and most important issue that our partners and IBM together are going to have to overcome with our clients. And that’s where I do think IBM is differentiated. … The fourth piece is about the empowering nature of it.

And what I mean by that is this is a platform where our clients can bring their own data and tune their own data.

It can run anywhere. But it empowers the client with their own data. And their data is their data. It doesn’t belong to us. It doesn’t belong to anyone else. It belongs to our client.

And I think across that kind of open, targeted, trusted and empowering—that’s where I would encourage our partners to focus on with their clients. That’s where we truly think IBM’s AI portfolio is differentiated.

Do you include hallucinations under trust?

The ability for an enterprise to be able to have confidence in how the algorithms came to the recommendations that they came to, where all of the data came from.

So as we think about regulations that may come out around AI, enterprises are going to have to know exactly what data was used and where it came from and what the source was.

That gets at this whole point of how do you actually eliminate the hallucinations and the potential mistrust in the AI? I also think it plays into the piece around being targeted.

Because as we think about using models and curating models that are very focused on targeted business use cases, it means that they’re tuned around delivering outcomes in those targeted use cases.

Hallucinations occur when we’re going outside the boundary of what the AI capabilities or knowledge is. And that’s when they start making stuff up.

These are more reasons for partner involvement in bringing AI to market, right?

IBM technology and IBM Consulting are working closely together as we think about taking this to market.

But just as importantly, we have deep strong relationships with so many services partners. And if you take, for example, our global systems integrator partners—so many of our GSIs—we’re working very closely with them as they establish, for example, generative AI centers of excellence.

We’re working very closely with them to make sure that IBM is a core part as they establish their own practices around generative AI.

We’re already at the point with many of our GSI partners where we have specific clients where we are going together—GSI plus IBM technology —to solve AI challenges. … So we are working across the board in terms of the services partners as well.

You see AI as an opportunity for smaller partners, not just GSIs?

It’s across the board. I have not spent time with a partner recently that is not having conversations with their clients about AI no matter what size the partner is.

I’ve been with some of our biggest partners who are having these conversations, but also with some of our smallest niche partners in certain areas of the IBM portfolio.

They’re all having these conversations. And there’s absolutely a role to play across the board—from our largest systems integrator partners to our smallest resell partners—everyone’s having these conversations.

Should IBM partners think about deepening their Red Hat practices for AI?

From an IBM and Red Hat perspective, we’re working very closely across the IBM and Red Hat portfolio around AI.

And when you look at the many of the AI capabilities within the Red Hat portfolio, they’re going to be absolutely critical from an AI strategy perspective for so many of our enterprise clients.

So I do think continued opportunity for our partners where our partners sit across both the IBM ecosystem and the Red Hat ecosystem, I think that’s a huge opportunity for them to be thinking about that collectively.

What should partners know about the partner program looking ahead?

We will continue with making sure that all of our training and enablement materials are available to all of our partners and that includes all of the AI space as well. … Marketing, obviously, making sure that our demand generation kits, marketing kits, partner marketing kits, have all of the AI capabilities and content—absolutely, we will do that as well.

The other piece that I think is absolutely critical here is the shifts that we’re making to ensure that our ecosystem engineering team and our client engineering team are deeply skilled with a significant amount of resources dedicated toward WatsonX and AI.

So within our ecosystem engineering organization, where we have our engineering resources that support all of our systems integrators, all of our ISVs, all of our strategic partners.

We are pivoting and skilling a significant portion of them to only focus in this area. So that is available to our partners, working with our partners day in, day out.

In the client engineering organization, which works with our clients and our partners hand in hand, we are shifting a significant amount of resources within our client engineering organization to only be focused on WatsonX and AI opportunities with our partners.

So that’s another big piece that our partners will continue to see more of from IBM.

And we also need to continue to, with our resell partners, continue to invest in the hands-on training. … The upcoming September IBM TechXchange will be a great opportunity for many of our partners to be involved and be hands-on with the IBM team as well. … As we think about where we’re focused around AI, it’s not just the WatsonX platform, but also infusing that through our products. … For example, if you take Watson Orchestrate, which is automation software, we have the power of AI within that to free up individuals from tedious tasks.

And that’s infused into that product. So we actually, IBM, were client zero with our HR function. And what we’ve seen across clients with that product is up to a 40 percent improvement in HR productivity.

So as you think about specific products that are ready and have AI infused, our partners are only going to see more of that come through in the products that they’re working with day in, day out with their clients.

How about the IBM security opportunity for partners?

This is a critical area where we want to continue to infuse our AI.

So as you think about QRadar, ReaQta, Guardium—all of those products that we have within the security portfolio—we will continue to develop, evolve those products to ensure that we’re taking the best of AI.

And I do think this is a critical area for us to continue to double down on with our resell partners, also with our MSSP partners—the managed security services around those products—absolutely critical. And we see a lot of growth in that area.

Will the distributors play an important role as you continue to grow the partner program?

As I look at the role that our distributors play in the IBM ecosystem, and as I think about how that plays into Partner Plus, one of the big things where I think we have a huge opportunity with our distributors is to continue to grow our existing partners.

But also find new partners. … It’s about continuing to grow and evolve and give our existing partners a program that’s easy to engage in.

But with the launch of Partner Plus and the new partner accelerator that was part of that—which was somewhat of a six-month, white-glove support to get new partners into the IBM ecosystem, get them productive really quickly—our distributors play a really big role in doing that hand in hand with us.

So that is one of the big areas that we are focused on with our distributors. … Around AI, as we think about making sure that we’ve got more partners playing in these spaces, our distributors are going to play a key role there.

As IBM continues to build up IBM Consulting, is that competition for partners?

We don’t see competition between our resell partners and IBM Consulting. The spin-out of Kyndryl was what took out of IBM either perceived or real conflict with our resell partners.

So I don’t see any conflict there. … We do see in some instances where our resell partners, IBM Consulting would be providing the services around the products that our resell partners are reselling. So we absolutely see that happening in spaces.

Anything partners should be preparing for around quantum computing?

As we look at where quantum is heading and the opportunity that we think this provides, I think with some of the announcements around some of the quantum offerings—so for example, around Quantum Safe … As we continue to grow this or as it becomes more mainstream in terms of how our clients are thinking about it, we are definitely going to want our partners to be engaging in how we think about quantum and how we think about taking it to market.

I do think that’s going to continue to accelerate over the next several years. … One of the first things that clients are wanting to know from a quantum perspective is this piece around is my business safe from what could come in the future from a quantum encryption standpoint?

What could be broken in the future from an encryption standpoint, therefore, is my business safe right now? That’s the first place for a lot of where a lot of enterprises are starting from a quantum perspective.

Are there particular types of partners you are hoping to recruit near term?

It differs by geography and by market. We are making sure as we look at where we have our partners, what they’re focused on, what skills they have, what industries they’re focused on.

We are in certain markets making targeted efforts around this part of our portfolio—we want to make sure that we’ve got new partners.

But I do think that partners broadly, if we think about hybrid cloud and AI as IBM strategy, we want to make sure that our partners are focused in that same area.

If you then take that to the next level and you think about data and AI, automation, security, modernization—partners focused in those spaces is where we want to play.

What’s your message to potential IBM partners—why become your partner now?

The Partner Plus program gives us an incredibly simple and predictable way in which to engage with the IBM ecosystem.

And it’s a way in which it makes it very simple for our partners to engage with us and have a clear line of sight to a very attractive financial earning opportunity with the support surrounding that.

There’s no better time to be an IBM partner on that front. I do also think as we look at the environment in which we’re operating right now and the hype around AI, I do think IBM has a very differentiated value proposition from an AI perspective.

And so as partners are thinking about what their clients want from an AI perspective—and who they want to partner with—I do think IBM is an incredibly attractive option for our partners.

Both in terms of having a program that they can understand easily, engage with and have line of sight on. But also having a product portfolio that is attractive and that is going to take their clients into the future as we look at where AI is heading.