Cupid Crashes IBMs Party

Big Blue is set to play matchmaker at next week's PartnerWorld Conference.

IBM has played many roles over the years in its evolution from hardware maker to solutions provider. The latest part it aims to play is that of matchmaker.

IBMs plan to help unite its diverse business-partner base will be among the key themes at the companys big PartnerWorld conference next week in Atlanta.

About 4,000 business partners are expected to attend the annual meeting, during which IBM outlines its alliance strategy for the year and typically announces new programs.

Priority Shift Last years event focused on the inclusion of "non-traditional" partners such as Web integrators within IBMs partnering strategy. The focus on emerging business models will continue this year, but IBM also will make partnering among the partners a top priority.

"What we really have to do now is facilitate partners working together," says Angelica Horaitis, VP of Global Channels Marketing at IBM. She adds that bringing partners together is "one of the most important things we need to accomplish."

IBMs partner roster these days includes not only traditional product resellers, but also "influencers" that specify products but dont take title to them. "We are trying to reach out to a variety of partners, including influencers," Horaitis says.

IBM also counts an array of service providers—ISPs, ASPs and the like—among what Horaitis calls its "new audience mix." IBM even cultivates alliances with its partners partners. For example, IBM seeks to link with the allies of its software vendor partners, which includes such companies as PeopleSoft and Siebel Systems. IBM vowed in 1998 to stay out of those companies high-end application market.

IBMs goal is to make connections among those partners that, in turn, can bring together the various elements of complex e-business solutions. The company already has taken steps in this direction, creating a partner database and hosting partnering events across the country.

Familiar Tune More such efforts are likely, industry observers say, because the ability to maintain networks of partners has become increasingly critical for companies like IBM. "I think relationship building is more important than the technology," says Sam Albert, president of Sam Albert Associates, a consulting firm. "Its become the differentiator for vendors."

Vendors ranging from hosting companies to hardware makers are vying to become the hub of extensive partner networks. In theory, the company that runs a well-connected network will attract customers with a comprehensive solution and drive its product and service sales in the process.

But thats easier said than done. And large IT companies of the IBM variety have the challenge of their own size and scale with which to contend. IBM has some 95,000 business partners. And the task of forming a one-to-one alliance with IBM is challenging enough, says Gary Ryan, president of Alliance Management Resources Inc. Ryan says he represented a client who wanted to partner with IBM in the small- and midsize-business space. The connection ultimately was made, but the process took several days.

"Trying to find the right person—out of 200,000—to facilitate an alliance with is extremely difficult," he says.

Indeed, IBM has a job on its hands. But then matchmaking has never been easy.