PartnerWorld kicked off in Las Vegas yesterday and, for the first time, colocated with IBM’s Think main event. The 1,000-plus partners who packed the MGM Grand Arena heard some great messaging around simplified programs, reduced contractual requirements, and a direct sales team who was finally getting channel religion delivered through its paychecks.

In the hallways and closed sessions afterwards, IBM channel executives pressed further that partners’ transformation needs to keep pace with their organization’s business transformation. IBM has stacked its channel team with great talent, from both internal and external hires, to build the partner program of the future.

Here are my thoughts on what that may look like:

  1. Busting out of the echo chamber. The executives talked about traveling the world doing listening tours and pulling together partner advisory councils. Hearing from new voices as well as those who have successfully made the change will help guide future programs.
  2. Sailing into demographic headwinds. I walked around the arena during the keynotes doing a very unscientific poll — estimating the age of the 1,000-plus audience. My final tally was fewer than 5% Millennials, 20% Gen X, and the rest Baby Boomers. When I go to cloud IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS events, the numbers are inversed. My take is that a large contingent of partners were across the street in the solution areas hosting customers at the Think event.
  3. Catching up to table stakes. Some of the announcements around opening up sandboxes, engaging developers with open APIs, incenting direct sales teams, reducing complexity, and minimizing contractual battles will engage partners at a deeper level.
  4. Playing in the Field of Dreams. Many vendors now realize that success in SMB and shadow channel recruitment lies in pursuing partners in their own communities. IBM will need to attract partners beyond the channel program and actively participate in the different partner associations, media properties, peer groups, and online forums.
  5. Adding up the numbers. In addition to the demographic challenges above, IBM will need to accelerate the types and sizes of partners. IBM has a broad and impressive emerging technologies portfolio and there are hundreds of thousands of shadow channels rushing into this space that will need to be engaged.
  6. Engaging in traditional thinking for untraditional partners. Shadow channels such as XaaS ecosystem partners, industry-based service companies (accountants, digital agencies, etc.), ISVs, born-in-the-cloud, and even startups don’t participate in programs in the same way. They won’t take the time to sign on to a bronze level, negotiate a contract, get onboarded, and certified over six months. They definitely won’t have patience for traditional incentives and co-selling or co-marketing motions.
  7. Eating their own cooking. IBM owns the technology that could be the biggest game-changer of any channel program on the planet — Watson. The channels of the future want a frictionless, real-time, and self-service program that is predictive and prescriptive and provides timely, automated, and context-specific air cover to win deals. This eliminates the cost of human-based coverage and the workflow gates that frustrate traditional partners —and are a nonstarter for potential partners.
  8. Take advantage of vectors. IBM sampled some of the many partners that “get it” onstage at PartnerWorld. From disease-fighting farming drones to visualization technology that saves millions of dollars in lost/stolen milk crates, millions of potential opportunities exist across subindustries, lines of business, sectors, segments, geographies, and technology stacks. IBM will need to encourage their partners to build their own partner programs to fully realize these permutations in the market.

After spending 17 years of my early channel career at IBM and Lenovo, I can empathize with many of the challenges above. Breaking into new communities and understanding what shadow channels read, where they go, and who influences them is critical to building a channel of the future.

The strategy is simple — the execution is painfully hard. IBM will need to realign its talented partner and alliances team to build a parallel channel. The traditional channel will need continual nurturing, but the focus needs to be on those that will drive the IBM emerging technologies portfolio into millions of new customer discussions.