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Will IBM business partners sink or swim with the company?

IBM executives at the vendor’s PartnerWorld Leadership Conference (PWLC) 2016, winding down today in Orlando, Fla., sent the 1,500 IBM business partners in attendance a clear message about the company’s strategic direction: It’s all about cognitive business solutions, i.e. Watson + analytics to solve business problems.

As IBM chairwoman, president and CEO Ginni Rometty said in her keynote speech, “Digital is the foundation to drive business but it’s not the final destination.” Why? Because when every company is a digital company no one wins, no one stands out as offering a unique business proposition.

Going forward, it’s the cognitive era that will enable differentiated business solutions, she offered. “It stands to be the most disruptive for business and also the most differentiating,” Rometty contended.

What’s cognitive? It’s about taking data and using, in this case, IBM Watson’s cognitive technologies, to understand it, reason and learn from it in order to make a difference. Another shorthand to describe cognitive: It’s digital business plus digital intelligence.

And with that, the CEO went on to talk about the digital foundation required for the cognitive era — big data analytics, cloud, mobile and security, which together made up 35% of IBM revenue in 2015.

She also noted that IBM business partners, who also embraced transformation, grew their business by 20% on average. Here, Rometty was specifically relating to the 350 partners who took the IBM Business Transformation Initiative workshop that’s geared to help partners transform to higher value solutions and “as a service” delivery.

However, the opportunity to truly leapfrog competitors is to embrace the cognitive era, which Rometty described as both a business era and a technology era.

So, that has us wondering: When it comes to IBM business partners, who will travel the yellow brick road to Oz along side IBM?

That answer is unclear now but it’s likely to come into focus over the next year or two, especially after the new IBM PartnerWorld Program rolls out in January 2017.

“It’s not an easy task to build a partner ecosystem that’s predominately tasked with selling customer value in the form of analytics, which is a completely new line of business for most partners,” said Anurag Agrawal, CEO and analyst at Techaisle.

In the process, he added, many partners who are in the business of selling cloud infrastructure, mobility, security and storage may get the short end of the stick because the messaging and mindshare will increasingly gravitate towards cognitive.

That said, the 40-plus new competencies included in the revamped PartnerWorld Program should help partners get a handle on their path to success. Partners will be required to transition to a new membership tier model from the existing one and make the necessary adjustments to move forward in the new program.

“We find that there are four different IBM partner segments — those who have already made the leap, those who are still evaluating, those who are withdrawing, and those who are caught unawares,” Agrawal said.
It will be interesting to see how IBM’s business partner community takes shape. Marc Dupaquier, general manager with IBM global business partners, said partners have until January 2017 to get with the new program. Laggards may be given additional time, or until June 2017, to meet their requirements.

Clearly, IBM’s business transformation is a work in progress as it sheds its hardware skin to emerge as a cognitive solution and cloud platform company.

But IBM isn’t alone there as Rometty noted in her keynote. “I tell you about our digital foundation strategy because it’s in stark contrast to what some of our competitors are doing. You see two of them coming together on yesterday’s business model and you see another one breaking up on yesterday’s business model.”

The big technology vendors may get the entire spotlight but without partners the show doesn’t go on.

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