Provocative Thoughts From The IBM Partner Analyst Summit

This week IBM had an Analyst Summit focused on their Partnership Efforts.  Ironically, when I worked at IBM, one of my projects (I missed a lot of meetings) was to try to fix what, at the time, was a truly broken effort and, while I’d like to say I was successful, the IBM executives didn’t think this was important enough to change their horrible behavior and my effort, with some exceptions, wasn’t very successful.  That was then, and IBM is a very different company now, and I rank them as one of the best partnering firms in the industry. They are also partnered with many firms that also seem to partner well like Cisco, Microsoft, and Samsung, as well as a firm that is arguably the worst at partnering in the industry and another firm that I expect, will be in a ton of trouble soon (we’ll leave those two firms off the list as I’m not in the mood to piss folks off this week).   

Let’s talk about how to do a partnership right, and I’ll reflect on one partner that has the potential to dramatically improve IBM’s prospects if both parties continue down the path they are currently on.  

What Makes For A Good Partnership Program?

A partnership is very much like a good marriage if it is done correctly and very much like a bad one if it isn’t.  The best partnering companies enter the relationship as pears and prioritize figuring out what their Partner wants, and executing against those wants, over a long period.  The worst see themselves as superior and instead are focused only on what the Partner will do for them. Though this last year, one company demonstrated that you could get even worse than that which is like someone that not only doesn’t care what their Partner wants but works to kill them.  Granted, as far as marriages go, that would be the worst, but you do have to choose your partners wisely. 

What you mostly see in Partnership programs is a lot of excitement at the beginning, and an effort to get the Partnership done as if that is the goal and then one or both parties treat the effort as complete and either very little results or the thing implodes because one or both parties doesn’t realize it isn’t a date it is more like a Marriage.  Unlike a Marriage, both parties can have other partners, but they must be careful not to lose track of the importance of each one and resource the effort as opposed to jumping from bed to bed like a modern-day Casanova.  

Finally, both partners have to have a reasonable idea both of what they are capable of and what the Partner is capable of otherwise there will be missed expectations and, if you have a traditionally bad partner, regardless of how attentive you are, they are likely going to stab you in the back, and there are several companies somewhat famous for backstabbing partners.  

But a good Partnership program, one that is executed between peers, is a wonder to watch and becomes a force multiplier in that the total is greater than the sum of the parts.  You can often see marriages like this where both parties have each other’s backs and don’t even prioritize their own families over the Partner. This is more difficult in a company and often creates unintended conflicts.  

One historical and fascinating Partnership was between Dell and EMC, where the two parties broke up but remained friends, and even though they’d broken up, when EMC needed critical help, Dell rode to the rescue, and the result was arguably the most successful large scale merger I’ve ever covered.  In a world of bad stories, it was an amazing alternative.  

IBM’s Partner Program

One of the first things I picked up on at IBM’s event is that they truly seem to get the value of a partner program.  It is Quality over quantity and executed to a level so that they can provide the assistance and support they also expect from their partners.  While I could argue they could be more selective because a couple of their partners were disasters waiting to happen, there was no doubt about their commitment or properly resourcing the effort.  

They even have the potential to recreate one of EMC’s most successful projects, VCE, if they provide the effort with a dedicated sales force.  VCE was a game-changer, but it, unfortunate, was one of the few problems with that merger showcasing that even the best mergers can have some problems.  

IBM’s Most Interesting Partnership-Samsung

One of the mistakes I think Sam Palmisano made, and he made several them, was spinning out the PC company because, for many, the ThinkPad was their only visible connection to IBM.   IBM, when it was strongest, always had branded products in the office be they terminals, monitors, printers, or PCs and the PCs so, when you walked into an IBM account, you knew it was IBM, and it reinforced the brand.  (I should add that Sam also torched IBM’s marketing organization, which was potentially even more catastrophic, and the combination of those two moves put his successor in a horrible position because they destroyed IBM’s visibility).   

I’m reminded of the story from the turn of the last century surrounding the CEO of the then leading candy company.  Sitting on a train with a young employee, the employee asked, “Sir, you are the top company in your industry whey do you spend money on marketing?  You could save a ton by cutting that expense” the CEO replied, “the train we are in is going 60 miles an hour, why don’t we stop fueling the engine because we are going plenty fast?”.  

It still amazes me how few top executives fundamentally don’t get the importance of marketing.  But to the point, Samsung is one of the best device partners in the market. They have had issues moving into business and moving into the North American market in particular with PCs and, when they work with IBM, they are willing to build what IBM wants to sell and their tablet effort, using a combination of IBM and BlackBerry technology for the German Military would be vastly better than most other solutions for Military, government, healthcare, and finance as those firms need an affordable more-hardened solution than they currently have available (for peace of mind, security, and compliance).  

A similar phone could address the current unmet need for business focuses phones that CEOs in these industries and government organizations have been screaming for and, given it would increase sales, I expect Samsung would allow dual branding.  And Samsung would likely be willing to co-fund the effort. Given the lack of an affordable, adequately hardened product in these markets, this could be not only a critical game-changer. It could better protect those firms from both breaches and malware, which have plagued more commonly available offerings.  

Wrapping Up:  

I’m of the view you either do Partnerships right or don’t do them, much like I’m of the view that if you don’t like parts of marriage unless you like paying alimony and enjoy having someone who knows a lot about you wanting you dead, you shouldn’t get married.  IBM has an impressive partnership program and some impressive partners, but I think, of those I saw, Samsung is potentially the most powerful and coupled others like Microsoft and BlackBerry (a long term Samsung partner) what could result could address a critical and currently unmet need in the market both with an adequately hardened tablet and Smartphone solution.   I think we’ll see some amazing things out of IBM’s Partnership program, particularly from Samsung. Oh, and how about a Samsung/IBM PC? Stay tuned.