"Within IBM we had too many people who'd been in the channel for too long," IBM's John Teltsch told members of the press.
This was among the first of IBM's problems its channel boss sought to fix when he took on the role in mid-2017.
Teltsch replaced 85 per cent of the IBMers that report directly to him within his first year of leading its channel business.
AWS' global channel boss, Dorothy Copeland, was drafted in to lead IBM's channel in North America while IBM Security's Carola Cazenave joined its channel team in January last year.
The logic is that, by introducing new blood into IBM's channel, the company can initiate real change in its partner ecosystem.
In the same vein, Teltsch is "new blood" himself; in his 25-plus years at IBM, he had absolutely no experience running a partner business when he took the role.
The notion that with new blood comes new ideas is becoming a recurring theme among the multi-billion dollar monoliths of the industry that have spent the last decade trying to reinvent themselves.
When I attended Cisco's Partner Summit last year, channel boss Oliver Tuszik said the vendor had been making some fresh senior hires externally - from Salesforce, Splunk and IBM - in order to bring new perspectives into the company as part of its shift towards software.
So, like Cisco, IBM is also grappling with changing the slow, cumbersome culture for which it is often perceived.
"I wanted new ideas, new concepts, so we hired a bunch of people from the outside. Some of the hires have worked, some haven't worked, but we have to drive change," said Teltsch.
Some of the changes Teltsch has implemented within the last year and a half have been downright uncharacteristic and radical of IBM.
The vendor's "status matching" scheme is one of the best examples of how Teltsch has sought to disassociate the vendor from a painful sense of bureaucracy and inflexibility that has been a source of criticism for IBM for years.
Now IBM is able to on-board a new partner in weeks, not months. Thanks largely to the scheme, IBM was able to recruit 13,000 partners in 2018, 150 per cent more than the previous year.
Then there have been the smaller, but equally important, changes. Subtle tweaks like IBM Security's new "edgy" incentive to put money directly in the hands of its partner's sales people through its Know Your IBM (KYI) initiative.
IBM Security hasn't done something like this before, even though its closest competitors have been doing it for some time.
"It shows a level of aggressiveness in our market that isn't necessarily associated with how we have operated in the past. Now we're showing that we're willing to go to that level of edginess as well," said IBM Security's VP of worldwide channels and routes to market Johan Arts.
"I think it is good in changing our perception as a more agile organisation."
Red Hat posing more questions than answers
It would be impossible to dissect how IBM is reinventing itself without addressing its $34bn acquisition of open source software vendor Red Hat.
The deal, which is the industry's largest-ever software acquisition, was first announced in October and is set to close in the latter half of this year. With Red Hat, IBM claimed it has "reset" the cloud landscape and become the world's "number one hybrid cloud provider".
But Red Hat's absence at IBM's PartnerWorld and Think 2019 was all too noticeable. Aside from a brief 10-minute sit down with CEO Ginni Rometty during her 90 minute-long chairman's address, those who attended Think 2019 hoping to learn more about Red Hat's future with IBM surely left feeling somewhat disappointed.
IBM executives were under legal obligation to not discuss their plans for Red Hat's channel communities until the deal has closed.
When one member of the press asked IBM's Teltsch how much partner overlap there is from their respective channels, the resounding and honest answer was: "we don't know".
"We don't know at this point in time. Legally, I've not talked to Mark Enzweiler [global channel boss of Red Hat]," Teltsch said.
Teltsh did give some details on how Red Hat's channel could play to IBM's strengths, but repeatedly emphasised that their partner ecosystems would, at least initially, remain distinctly separate.
"They're in roughly 35 countries today, we're in 172 countries today, and more than half of those are what I consider as partner led, where more than 51 per cent of the revenue in those countries goes through the ecosystem. We expect from an ecosystem perspective for large geographic growth capability through the 35 countries and the 172 fairly quickly. It will be through the joint ecosystem," he said.
"The channels are very different. The incentives, skills, training are very different and the expectation is we'll keep them separate for a period of time because you have to be very sensitive to their client set which are some of our major competitors. And you have to be careful to keep an independence from the two companies as we go forward. You're not going to see us take the IBM channel and the Red Hat channel and crush them together."
In the meantime, while lawyers are impeding any actual conversation or sharing of ideas between the IBM and Red Hat camps, IBM has set up what it called a "clean room".
Boston Consultancy Group (BCG) is helping IBM prepare for the merger with Red Hat until the deal goes through. The firm acts as an intermediary, acting as a "firewall" between the two firms and collecting useful information on how each firm operates.
The only other time IBM has used this "clean room" concept in its 108-year history was when it acquired PwC's consulting business in 2002.
"We're going through a lot of the country legal state approvals… We've had BCG getting information about partners on both sides, the revenue and the accounts, and then doing it behind the firewall leading up to when the contracts are signed. Then we can get off to a faster start and start answering questions like [how much partner overlap there is].
"We will bring Red Hat into the discussion when the contracts are signed and it's legal for us to have that conversation," he said.
Whatever the IBM and Red Hat union might hold, one thing was very clear at IBM's annual get-together. For better or for worse, Big Blue is showing a willingness to become more flexible and easier to work with by adopting characteristics and traits that are - well - very unlike IBM.
IBM has already set out its AI and hybrid cloud vision for the future. With the Red Hat deal's closure date looming, now's the time for Big Blue to prove that its bold actions can translate into meaningful change.
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