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IT channel training and certification: Priorities shift in 2016

Leading IT vendors such as Microsoft and Salesforce are looking to transform how they deliver channel training and accredit their partners this year.

Training and certification have long been a routine part of doing business for channel firms, but in 2016 those routines will change.

For starters, there's an industry shift in channel training priorities away from vendor-specific certifications and toward industry certifications and skills development. Additionally, the delivery of education is becoming less rigid to help partners raise the knowledge bar at their firms.

There's consensus among industry participants that technical certifications are falling to the bottom of the priority list as nontechnical skills development rises to the top. "Technical certification that we all hung our hats on in terms of how you got to the Gold and Platinum [membership] level -- they're still table stakes but they're not the future direction or even the huge concern of the vendors," said Diane Krakora, CEO of consulting firm PartnerPath.

Measuring partner performance

Gavriella Schuster, Microsoft's general manager for worldwide partner programs, said Microsoft is pivoting away from the strict rules of the past that required partners to have a specific number of technical-certified individuals. The company is weighing partner performance more heavily instead and is looking to train differently. "In the past, we built the MPN [Microsoft Partner Network] and the competencies around training and certification because it really was the only way of managing quality with our partners," she said.

That's not the case anymore. Today, the vendor has more mechanisms to do that, especially with online services.

"We actually see the telemetry of the customers that [Microsoft partners are] managing and how well those customer environments are running or the performances of them. We can track the customers who call for support to Microsoft versus the customers who call for support through their partners and then the kinds of calls that the partners make to Microsoft," Schuster stated.

These metrics provide Microsoft with a new way of judging and managing the quality of their partners and assessing who is good, who needs more training and who needs more support from Microsoft. As a result, the company's paradigm has shifted considerably to focus more on partner performance to determine their competency and qualifications.

"And what we're looking at with the training and the certification is how we help them to judge their own quality," the Microsoft channel chief said.

At Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference 2015, the vendor removed the requirement to track unique Microsoft Certified Professionals per competency.

Certifications evolve with emerging technologies

Krakora and Carolyn April, senior director and industry analyst at CompTIA, agree there's a shift away from vendor-specific certifications to upping skills in new and emerging areas. These areas include mobility, big data and analytics, cloud and Internet of Things.

April attributes the shift to cloud computing. "It's taken away the specific brand or product importance," she said. She added that CompTIA's Cloud Certified Professional certification has gotten a lot of uptake.

It's no longer plausible to get people to sit in a room -- particularly technical resources -- for a week to take technical training.
Mike Hurstsenior vice president, Avnet Global Services

She also pointed out that the hot CompTIA certifications include the Security+, the A+ and Network+. Interest is growing for the organization's newer certifications, such as Mobility+. Earlier this month, CompTIA launched new exams for its A+ certification, a vendor-neutral skills certification that's morphed over the past 10-plus years from having a break/fix focus to now covering data migration, storage and security topics.

"There was always great troubleshooting content in A+, and it was very hardware focused. Now it's more software and networking focused to support complex infrastructures," said James Stanger, senior director of product development at CompTIA, adding that there's still hardware content in A+.

Channel training and certification goals

Krakora noted many vendors are talking more about partner skill development around sales enablement, understanding the overall value proposition, selling to line-of-business decision makers and selling vertical market capabilities.

In conversations with partners, she said they have expressed the need to improve customer satisfaction and presale capability. Many partners have also expressed interest in managed services, how they offer service-level agreements and how to find the right talent in managed services and cloud.

"They're also more concerned about digital marketing, social media, cloud capability -- more industry than technology," Krakora added.

Charles Stafford, vice president of technical operations at Matrix Integration, a 30-plus-year-old VAR based in Jasper, Ind., that today focuses of data center and virtualization, unified communications, managed services and network infrastructure, said the company is always focused on maintaining certification levels to ensure participation in vendor partner programs.

This year's channel training and certification goals are to make sure technicians stay on course with where the market it going, primarily with security as the cloud proliferates and also collaboration. About 5% to 10% of a technical professional's time is spent on training.

"Our emphasis is on keeping our pulse on where the client is heading," he said.

 Salesforce certifications made compulsory

IT channel training and certification recently got a boost at Salesforce, when the vendor made certifications mandatory for its consulting partners. While Salesforce has offered certification training to partners for the past five years or so, requiring certifications is new.

"It's how we measure expertise and can give our customers the confidence that the partner they'd like to engage to help them with a Salesforce deployment is in good standing and has the right expertise," said Neeracha Taychakhoonavudh, senior vice president for partner programs at Salesforce. The company requires a minimum of two certifications for its consulting partners.

In 2016, training -- badging, certification and accreditation -- is a top priority for consulting partners at Salesforce. The reasons are two-fold: to ensure customer success and because technology is increasingly complex given the pace of innovation. Salesforce, for example, has three product releases per year and partners need to stay up to date, Taychakhoonavudh explained. Partners are required to take online maintenance exams for all new releases of Salesforce.

In the first quarter of 2016, Salesforce will release the full certification and curriculum for its new Marketing Cloud Consulting Certification. Training focuses on how to integrate Marketing Cloud with a Salesforce environment and legacy apps.

The vendor introduced the Salesforce Partner Program for Consulting Partners in Feb. 2015, which went into effect on April 1, 2015. The company has more than 15,000 consultants in North America. More recently, in June 2015, Salesforce overhauled its Salesforce Partner Program for ISV Partners, which is still getting off the ground, according to Taychakhoonavudh.

Salesforce offers partners a matrix of channel training options from self-service to in-person, covering product, industry, role and geography.

The most difficult Salesforce certification to attain, the Technical Architect, of which there are about 150 holders worldwide, is the focus of a new initiative at the company. The objective is to break down the certification content into digestible chunks and offer a clear path to getting certified.

"This change came about because of a push by our partners to offer it in a way that made more sense," Taychakhoonavudh said. By mid-year, the vendor will begin to release more consumable content, or what Taychakhoonavudh called "domains," in the Technical Architecture curriculum.

Microsoft training made easier, flexible

Modernizing and expediting how Microsoft delivers channel training, partners will get "snack bites" of content and facts at its fingertips to keep up with the cycle of information, Schuster said.

Three specific areas where Microsoft is making investments in training and education include Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), getting more labs online and making the training experience easier for partners.

MOOCs offer scale, are hands-on, and have "office hours" with subject-matter experts, reducing the cost of travel and time away from work for partners. Online labs would allow partners to experiment with "what if" scenarios and observe how implementations perform. Labs are also a way of getting reviews and feedback from peers and creating community involvement, all in more of a real-time environment.

To help make the training experience easier, Microsoft rolled out a new training platform on Dec. 1. "We use multimedia to deliver content. Students can watch videos and PowerPoints separately or together. … We can provide learning paths and learning plans, or they can create their own, or the organization can create them for the individual," Schuster said. "We've tried to create a more flexible environment so partners can track the people they want to track so they're driving the people they want into the training."

Microsoft is rethinking education by looking at ways to modify certification paths to make them more dynamic and validate student capabilities more quickly. Traditionally, it took about nine months to get an exam delivered to the market. "That doesn't work anymore when the technology is changing every three or four months," Schuster said.

Certification exams are also moving to online proctoring versus having to go to a testing center.

Microsoft is also looking at ways to build out an individual's credential to encompass multiple educational endeavors rather than to offer one rigid path to certification. For example, if an individual has done a peer review of their work, hands-on labs or a MOOC with a validated assessment, the vendor is trying to figure out how to accredit these efforts.

The role of distributors

Finally, distributors play a key role in providing ITchannel training. Avnet Inc., for example, earlier this month announced the acquisition of ExitCertified, a provider of certified IT training in North America, to complement the portfolio of training delivered by Avnet Education Solutions through the 3-year-old Avnet Academy.

ExitCertified offers training delivery on-site as well as self-paced and instructor-led online training with its MVP/iMVP virtual training platform.

"It's no longer plausible to get people to sit in a room -- particularly technical resources -- for a week to take technical training. Today, you've got to be able to provide more flexibility that best suits the needs of the individual," said Mike Hurst, senior vice president of Avnet Global Services.

He pointed to the iMVP virtual platform of ExitCertified, which provides interaction and engagement with the instructor virtually.

Matrix Integration turns to its distributors, such as Ingram Micro and Synnex, for training. "They have avenues and mechanisms for you to not only maintain visibility of those training but they also offer classes and online training," Stafford said. Distance learning allows partners like Matrix to retain some costs while getting people up to speed.

Like most partners, Paul Cronin, senior vice president and partner at Atrion Networking Corp., said certifications are part of the cost of doing business, but he emphasized that it's important that vendors understand the time and investment partners make to maintain their vendor relationships as well as the risk. Atrion is a $120-million partner with 257 employees and focuses on midmarket customers.

"I need to have my vendor-partners understand that we need to put together a program to help me absorb some of those costs," Cronin said.

Additionally, he explained that often the return on new technology or a new vendor is about 16 months before profitability kicks in.

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