Before joining IBM at the beginning of 2022, Paul Burton was leading its Global Elite Partner Mastech InfoTrellis – and was not particularly happy with Big Blue.
Having led various units at IBM between 2006 to 2014, Burton remembers the vendor's historic frostiness towards the channel, something he witnessed once in the partner position himself.
Now crowned its new vice president and general manager of Asia Pacific (APAC), Burton has vowed to consign those experiences firmly to the past and treat the regional channel as "king”.
Speaking candidly, he said: "I experienced first-hand how it is to be an IBM partner and I wasn’t necessarily happy with it, to be frank."
Reflecting on his experience of leading IBM's software group in Shanghai between 2011 to 2013, he continued: "In my opinion, the channel was not properly cared for and did not have the proper focus. It has always been focused on large clients, large deals, multi-hundred-million-dollar deals. That drove everything. But in the last few years, the channel has been king for us, especially in Asia Pacific."
As a result of his experience, Burton came into the new APAC role, replacing the now-US-based Brenda Harvey, with three distinct aims.
“The first is we’re not going to disintermediate partners and we’re not going to compete with them," he said. "The second thing is that it must be mutually beneficial for partners [to work with IBM]. You can’t have relationships with partners where it is take, take, take. You must give too. We have to go to customers together and that has not always been the strategy.
"The third is that partners used to be on their own, but that's not the case anymore. We want to work with partners, we want to sell with them, we want to deliver live, hands-on training. It’s very much let’s work together – let's create together."
According to Burton, there are now 1,500 partners in APAC consuming IBM's co-marketing dollars. In Australia alone, there are 200 partners, although Burton was unable to provide breakdowns for other markets.
Currently, two-thirds of IBM's revenue in APAC comes from the channel, a figure of which Burton is contented. However, he stated, the goal is now to make the overall pie even bigger.
To aid this, IBM APAC has increased its channel account team by 20 per cent. Unlike previous teams, this new channel line-up will be unable to claim any commissions based on direct sales and will only be rewarded for channel deals. This, Burton hopes, will prevent any disintermediation of partners.
In addition, in order to help boost co-creation between IBM and partners, Big Blue is aiming to open up more research and lab resources to the channel.
A change in intensity
Following its acquisition of Red Hat – and its OpenShift platform – in 2019 – IBM has heavily focused on hybrid cloud and data analytics, sacrificing other businesses along the way.
These include its outsourcing business, now spun off as Kyndryl, its health care data and analytics assets from its Watson Health business and its Watson Marketing business.
According to Burton, IBM was in the past a "one-size-fits-all" company, but now it will be much more focused.
“The stated objective at the time was that IBM did everything end-to-end," he said. "That led to a little bit of a dilution in focus and led to a lot of competing interests internally. That’s all changed. There’s a specific strategy in place now around hybrid cloud. And seven or eight specific go-to-market sales plays around hybrid cloud. The focus is much more intense."
That naturally has affected IBM's focus around partnering. In particular, Big Blue is looking to work with backgrounds in cloud migrations, deployments and DevOps – areas of "huge need”.
Looking to tap into APAC's digital revolution, Burton is also seeking partners with expertise in data fabric, architecture and analytics.
However, that is not to say IBM is looking to exclude any partners. On the contrary; in an evolution from PartnerWorld 2020's program of 'Build, Service and Sell', Burton is looking more holistically across the whole partner ecosystem.
“I’m more interested in helping partners succeed regardless of what they’re doing," he said. "These pillars still stand but there is a change in intensity.
“Each one requires a different emphasis. We have placed vice presidents in the channel whose sole purpose is to put interesting and complex solutions together for clients. We have not had this level of seniority in the channel for some time."
Welcome to ASEANZK
Burton's arrival to IBM's Singapore base came during a critical period as the vendor restructured its APAC operation, merging Australia and New Zealand (A/NZ) with ASEAN and Korea.
Now known as the ASEANZK market, the restructure led to the departure of A/NZ managing director Katrina Troughton and the appointment of Agnes Heftberger as general manager and technology leader for ASEANZK.
Explaining these changes, Burton said: "We thought that this mix made sense and we have built leadership and capabilities in each of these markets. These markets are capable of running quasi-autonomously and driving client success.”
He continued: “I don’t think we are spreading too thin. I think we have more focus. There are technology leaders in each market. But in terms of consistency around capability-building and marketing, these three markets make sense.
“I don’t see any dilution in focus at all.”
Looking ahead, Burton remains buoyant about the opportunities ahead for IBM partners in APAC.
“We’re investing a lot in the channel and in some ways the channel is the most important part of our strategy," he said. "The focus that we are putting in the APAC channel has never been done before. But we are doing it now and we are going to do it successfully.
“I am perhaps different from my predecessors because I existed in the channel and I know how it is. I know what the potential and the value is, so we are going to be focused on it very aggressively.”