Partnering among partners has been a common practice for years in the IT channel, and at IBM, the strategy is gaining new attention.
Since 2017, IBM has embraced a channel strategy that involves a broad and growing population of partner business types. Partner business models range from the traditional, such as value-added resellers, to emergent companies focused on digital transformation and AI. As IBM continues to support a wide spectrum of partner needs, the vendor is now also investing in resources and business processes to make it easier for IBM business partners to create alliances with one another. The initiative, dubbed IBM Business Partner Connect, looks to enable partners to share their respective skill sets and expertise when tackling increasingly more complicated customer opportunities.
"I think, as we continue to see integration of key processes across the enterprise, we are going to see more and more of this teaming" among partners, said Jamie Mendez, director of IBM partner ecosystem.
Mendez said IBM first launched the IBM Business Partner Connect initiative in 2018 with three objectives. The initiative aimed to develop a Watson-based tool to assist IBM business partners in identifying channel firms to team up with, host face-to-face matching events for partners and build business processes and resources to support partnering activities, she said.
IBM Business Partner Connect was sparked by partner feedback, Mendez noted. Partners reported an uptick in customer opportunities that demanded more complex solutions, she said. These solutions, as a whole, required skill sets that partners often lacked in-house, so they were looking to link up with other partners to fill the gaps. IBM business partners said finding and coordinating partnerships was a time-consuming process.
"They were looking for ways to team far more efficiently than they have been doing," she said.
IBM puts an AI spin on partnering with partners
At the IBM PartnerWorld 2019 conference in February, IBM showcased its new IBM Business Partner Connect matching tool.
The tool, which lets partners search for other partners across the IBM ecosystem, uses IBM Watson's AI capabilities in the back end. Watson essentially gleans information from partners' registered IBM profiles and then analyzes that data against several attributes to identify potential matches. Among the attributes partners can search for are a partner's location, a product- or solution-specific focus, industry and credentials, Mendez said.
"I think that the use of AI to help partners team and create market opportunities is absolutely unique and differentiating," Mendez said.
IBM piloted the Partner Connect matching tool in the fall, trialing it with a number of partners in all geographies, except for Japan and China, Mendez said. During the pilot, the company began to see patterns in the types of matches and capabilities partners sought. AI and data analytics emerged as popularly searched-for competencies. Customers "need a lot of help from their partners in those spaces, and partners therefore are adding [those] capabilities by partnering," she said.
Partner Connect is open to all registered IBM business partners. The tool itself, however, isn't limited to identifying capabilities strictly around IBM products, Mendez noted. "We know there are very few 'all blue' partners anymore, and the world that they are working in isn't all blue," she said. IBM encourages partners to use the tool to find partner expertise in non-IBM environments -- for example, a Salesforce environment, she said.
As IBM continues to refine the matching tool, Mendez said the company will make Partner Connect more responsive and harness more data to validate partners' capabilities.
Building API-based partnerships
The primary purpose of IBM Business Partner Connect is to help partners team up for market opportunities, but Mendez said the tool has a second function.
"We have a lot of partners that are creating APIs. That's their core competency. And they want to make these APIs available to the clients," Mendez said.
IBM believes that Partner Connect can help API-focused firms forge channel partnerships to gain client reach.
Partner Connect "has an added value in that partners can team together to create these new ways of working by constructing and deconstructing APIs that are out there," she said. "That is another way the [IBM Business Partner Connect] platform is being used."
How Partner Connect helps IBM
The IBM Business Partner Connect initiative has clear benefits for IBM's channel strategy.
Charles Fullwoodsenior director of software practice, Force 3
For one, IBM Business Partner Connect could help IBM and its partners stay ahead of the constantly evolving marketplace. As skill gaps develop, partners will have an easier time of identifying potential collaborators among their peers. "The reality is: We are not sure where the gaps are in the market," she said.
IBM Business Partner Connect could also help partners tap into the many microecosystems formed around specific IBM products or vertical markets, Mendez noted. IBM wants to create great visibility into those microecosystems so a new IBM business partner can use the Partner Connect tool to navigate them, she said.
IBM's partnering initiative also strives to streamline business processes in partners' engagements. For example, Mendez said IBM is trying to open up its "very specific authorization requirements and restrictions on who can access what products and services as part of their transactions." These updated processes will ultimately make doing business in a team of partners easier and faster.
Jim Dixon, vice president of software and servers at Mainline Information Systems, a solution provider headquartered in Tallahassee, Fla., has a long history with both IBM and partnering with other partners. "Where we have a need for expertise that we don't have in our own … firm … we will go and partner with another partner. We have been doing that for years," he said.
Partnering with partners is a "requirement in the marketplace," Dixon noted.
Partner Connect makes sense from IBM's perspective, he said, "because the more that partners can effectively partner with each other, the broader skills portfolio they will have access to, the more competent or comprehensive solution that can be offered to customers. A lot of good things can come out of it, particularly from the customer's perspective."
'The difference between winning and losing business'
Charles Fullwood, senior director of the software sales practice at Force 3, a solution provider based in Crofton, Md., said partnering with other partners is "very important" to the practice areas he leads: big data and analytics, cloud computing and enterprise applications.
"We work with other IBM business partners today to be able to deliver on [projects] where maybe our resources are maxed out, or maybe there is an area where we don't have quite the right skill sets," he said. "We need to be able to work with other IBM business partners."
"Having the ability to match and find an IBM business partner in a short period of time could be the difference between winning business and losing business," Fullwood added.
Fullwood, who was part of the Partner Connect matching tool pilot, said the tool was initially not helpful in the matches it would generate. He said, as the tool improves, it could eventually play a strategic role in Force 3's business. "Something like Partner Connect working properly with Watson … could be a big advantage, a very important tool to the partner community."
On top of connecting partners with modern capabilities, Fullwood noted that the tool could also be useful to find skills in legacy IBM technologies. He said the breadth of IBM's ecosystem includes partners that work with some of IBM's older products.
"There is a lot of stuff out there that customers still rely on and use, and not everyone can have expertise in every area," he said.