Can IBM’s Redesigned PartnerWorld Move the SMB Needle?

ibm pw logoEast coast weather and flight issues foiled my attempts to attend IBM’s annual PartnerWorld Leadership Conference last week. I was disappointed, as IBM took advantage of the event to formally launch its newly revamped PartnerWorld program, which focuses on helping partners drive business in strategic areas, most notably in cognitive and analytics. However, I was able to talk to Brig Serman, IBM’s Director of Global Commercial Business, about what these changes mean for IBM, its partners, and small and medium business customers.

Here are some of what I consider the key changes that IBM made, followed by my perspectives on them.

  • Introduced the newly named “commercial segment.” This segment includes the former midmarket segment (businesses with less than 1,000 employees) and “white space” larger enterprises in which IBM has a small or non-existent footprint. IBM has consciously moved away from identifying this segment based on company size, and calling it “SMB” or “midmarket.” Big Blue made the shift because it believes that this segment—which it sells to via the channel—is not well-defined by size, and that other characteristics such as different buying and consumption behavior, including self discovery, self-service transactions, a preference for cloud, and partner involvement.
  • Committed to a channel only model for the commercial segment. IBM has committed to serving this segment by driving higher value solutions exclusively through its global business partner network. Brig’s group includes 450 IBM sales people. Each is responsible for a territory, from understanding market requirements to driving engagement with business partners to increase penetration in that territory. IBM sellers will only be compensated if the sales transaction goes through a business partner.
  • Redesigned the PartnerWorld program to help partners provide more value to this segment. IBM is offering partners refined “roadmaps” to help partners identify and build skills in selected areas in a more simplified and integrated way. These roadmaps direct business partners to invest in software asset certifications for all software brands, with a focus on analytics, cloud, security and mobile solutions. Partners will earn incremental incentives for sales in these areas, offering margin opportunities that are two to three times higher than for hardware sales. The goal here is to help partners move away from hardware only sales towards higher value solutions that include IBM software, industry expertise, their own IP and/or integration. IBM is also providing Business Partners with the shared best practices of its most successful partners, so they can model skills investments, lead generation, presales and post sales support more effectively and make investments that will pay off.
  • Announced new digital programs to help partners build skills. IBM is expanding digital partner benefits. It has overhauled the PartnerWorld University portal, which offers web-based training for both sales and technical skills, adding new courses and certifications, and giving users more tools to track and manage their progress. IBM is also adding Digital Marketing workshops to help partners use digital and social media more effectively. Big Blue is also expanding its Business Transformation Initiative (BTI) to help more partners move up the solutions value chain. Finally, IBM is offering developerWorks.Premium at a reduced price to help developers more easily tap into the IBM ecosystem and build new applications on IBM Cloud.


Although IBM has changed the name, the Commercial segment really has the charter as it did before the name change: to help IBM more effectively reach the millions of businesses that it doesn’t sell to today.

IBM’s new channel programs and directions will certainly help IBM increase its footprint in the large enterprise “white space,” where its worth it in terms of deal size for the business partner and IBM to make the investment. The new initiatives are also a step in the right direction in terms of making gains in the SMB market, as partners are clearly IBM’s best bet to grow, scale and make headway in this diverse and complex space. Boosting partners’ technology, sales and marketing expertise will help them make some inroads with prospective IBM customers. These tactics should also help partners more easily surface solutions that might be a good fit for SMBs who are looking to solve a problem.

But IBM also has a big perception problem in the SMB market. Many SMBs believe IBM lacks solutions that are relevant, consumable, and priced right. While IBM does have some solutions, such as SoftLayer, IBM Verse (for collaboration) and cloud-based Watson analytics that are suitable for SMBs, and has recently begun offering free trials for a handful of them. But, most SMBs are blithely unaware of them, and while IBM has the vision, it really doesn’t have mechanisms in place to stimulate the type of viral adoption that vendors such as Google, Box and Slack have enjoyed. In fact, IBM’s cloud marketplace is just in the early stages, and having IBM solutions in third-party marketplaces is also nascent.

Furthermore, all businesses (regardless of size and whether or not they are IBM customers) are doing much more research, comparisons and shopping and purchasing online. IBM is changing its high-level value proposition (e.g. easier to discover, shop for, buy and use) to accommodate this evolution, and intends to make the necessary business model and solution changes required to execute on it. But, this type of tectonic shift will take time, and in the interim, it will be difficult for IBM raise awareness about the relevancy of its solutions for the broad SMB market.

Given these realities, helping business partners to invest to accelerate skills development and marketing and sales movement will only go so far. To really move the needle, IBM needs to fully execute on significant cultural, business model, sales and marketing and product design changes. Whether or not IBM has the will to put enough time, energy, commitment into the market to make bigger gains this time remains questionable.

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