Market mentors

The IT training provider sector in the Middle East is soaring high on the back of regional technology growth. Yet, as Channel Middle East finds out, there is more to operating an effective learning business than meets the eye.

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By  Andrew Seymour Published  September 15, 2008

The IT training provider sector in the Middle East is soaring high on the back of regional technology growth. Yet, as Channel Middle East finds out, there is more to operating an effective learning business than meets the eye.

In an industry obsessed by quick returns and high volumes, the independent IT training provider segment doesn't really appear to fit the mould. Intellectual property and knowledge transfer compose the primary engines of this burgeoning segment, which means patience is a virtue that training firms require in abundance.

"US$500,000 is maybe enough to start up a good training provider, but the challenge is not the physical aspect of buying the equipment, it is more to do with the intellectual investment," explained Ajay Singh Chauhan, CEO at Spectrum, a training provider specialising in Juniper, Foundry, Kaspersky and ArcSight courses.

It is not a market that the big players want to enter because although the investment wouldn't be a problem, the reality is that you will never become a US$100m company from training.

"It can take between six months and one year by the time you have hired the right person and they have become authorised to run the training courses."

Although it remains a vastly understated sector of the market, IT training ostensibly makes the technology wheel turn by ensuring individuals and corporates are clued up on the latest hardware and applications.

Organisations that deliver training courses are effectively knowledge aggregators, facilitating the information flow from vendor level all the way down to the channel and end-users.

Most training providers generate business from three sources: end-users that want their staff educated in specific IT practices or technologies; resellers that need to get their sales and technical staff up to scratch; and vendors that require employees to be taught the crux of their products. Some Middle East providers serve all three customer sets, although corporate end-users generally constitute the bulk of business for most.

That said, the relationship between the reseller channel and third-party training providers has always been close, with vendors pushing their channel allies in the direction of these companies to attain expertise. New Horizons, a US-based outfit with established learning centres throughout the Middle East, cites reseller training as an important component of its business.

Mohammed Aslam, general manager at the company's Dubai-based office, insists formal training ensures IT dealers develop the skills to complement their market experience.

"Resellers need their selling and technical support personnel abreast with technology so that they understand the extra value of it and how it all integrates together," he explained. "They require our help to get their people trained and out in the market signing up the enterprise deals," he added.

Foundry Networks, which requires certified network engineers to be reaccredited every two years, believes the standard of technical education determines a good training partner.

"We want our end-customers to be completely confident that their technical needs are being met regardless, whether it is an internal Foundry employee or a reseller systems engineer," explained Middle East regional manager, Farook Majeed.

"In addition to the quality of training, appropriate geographic reach in the training partner's region is important. We want our global resellers and customers to have access to the training wherever they are located."

In the Middle East there are purported to be more than 15 renowned training providers offering courses comprising everything from Microsoft Office to the implementation of Cisco intrusion prevention systems.

Market spectators estimate the organised IT training market is worth anything between US$12m and US$20m in the UAE, but that doesn't really give any indication as to the overall expenditure on IT training that occurs.

Many vendors provide training during the implementation of projects, while manufacturers such as HP focus more on their own educational services divisions rather than outsourcing to third parties.

One thing for certain is that operating a successful training business requires diligent human resources management. Synergy Professional Services, which was acquired by US-based training giant Global Knowledge last year, is one of the largest outfits in the MEA region, employing more than 120 instructors, the majority of them based in Egypt. Other training providers typically manage anything between 10 and 60 full-time staff.

Spectrum, for instance, has around 20 permanent trainers spread between its facilities in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and India. "In our industry, the biggest challenge will always remain the professionals - man-management is a huge task," confided Chauhan.

"You need a person who is passionate about training and loves to do it more than anything else. It is not a market that the big players want to enter because although the investment wouldn't be a problem for them, the reality is that you will never become a US$100m training company out of this region," he added.

Developing a training organisation does require significant funding in order to maintain an adequate set of resources though, especially when new versions of applications and hardware are being released at increasing intervals. Not only do instructors need regular training, but demo equipment must be refreshed to keep pace with the shorter shelf life of the technology.

Synergy's operation in Dubai contains around US$5m of lab equipment that can be accessed on a remote basis. That means a Cisco trainer in the UK, for instance, could sit with a class of students and access all the equipment housed in Dubai.

"Although they do not see it in front of them, they have full control of it," explained Melad Ghabrial, managing director at Synergy. "This is also helping our expansion because it means our [training] partners only need to invest in hiring skilled people and can just rent the equipment on a need-to-use basis."

Mohamad Rabbat, managing director at SitesPower, a company that provides Adobe and Microsoft courses, says the training business has become extremely competitive in recent years, forcing some established providers to scale down their operations and making it impossible for newcomers to prosper.

He says regional inflation, large enterprises incorporating their own training departments and clients scrutinising the return they get on training investments has influenced the market's development.

"The difficulty of winning business depends on a training provider's ability to ensure quality and meet their clients' needs," added Rabbat. "For training companies that struggled, it had more to do with their business model's inadequacy in satisfying the needs of their clients than any other factors."

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