The value of partner training

Building value in the Middle East IT market has proved a challenge for many channel partners in the region.

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The value of partner training
By  Manda Banda Published  July 20, 2018

Creating and sustaining the necessary intensity and range of IT skills to service a demanding and rapidly changing regional market has long been a major challenge for the Middle East solution provider community.

That being the case, partner training and certification programmes help vendors to tick boxes, and certainly create the impression that an army of highly qualified IT professionals is primed for resellers to tap into. The reality, however, is often more complex, and many industry players still see the skills gap as one of the biggest business inhibitor of channel growth and well-being in the Middle East market.

Shadi Salama, channel leader, East Region at Cisco Middle East, said there are many transitions happening in the Middle East IT market from IoT to artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, analytics, blockchain, cloud, verticalisation, mobility, digital transformation and software defined networking (SDN).

Salama said as new industries emerge around these areas, the solutions that are being introduced will need partners to provide not only the connectivity but also value-added services. “With change comes opportunity, and for partners the new market opportunity is huge,” he said. “We are in the midst of a wave of technological innovation, which leverages the power of networked technologies to transform daily lives and make an impact on economic growth.

Salama said partners need to respond quickly to these trends in order to stay competitive, monetise new services and drive optimisation while continuing to deliver quality services to customers. “However, around the world, and especially across the Middle East, there is a significant shortage of people who are qualified to address these trends and innovations,” he said.

To address the IT skills shortage, Middle East governments need to deploy policies and training programmes to help solve the world’s fastest-growing gap in networking professionals. “Through the Cisco Networking Academy across the region, we are training students to meet this deficit,” he said. “Cisco is also providing channel partners with partner enablement programmes which include training, certifications and specialisations, in addition to technical support, productivity tools, online training, marketing resources and sales promotions.”

Salama added that through Cisco’s new specialisations, the company is helping partners develop skills critical to business success and help increase their profitable revenue.

Sanjay Ahuja, CEO, FVC, said skills in the areas of security and networking are in strong demand. However, stated Ahuja, with the rapid uptake of GDPR, cyber security, artificial intelligence and machine learning, it has now become important for IT personnel to possess skills specific to these technologies, as well as mobile app development and data science skills. “I believe channel stakeholders across the region need to be committed to investing in timely training and certification programmes to ensure their own resources possess the necessary skills to carry out complex implementations or provide advice to customers,” he said.

Savitha Bhaskar, COO at systems integrator Condo Protego, said the Middle East channel faces a major IT skills challenge and partners need to stay ahead of the IT curve, especially in finding, training and retaining top talent with consulting skills in designing and architecting infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and software as a service (SaaS) solutions.

Bhaskar explained that in the next 12 to 18 months, the Middle East will see a major re-shuffling of channel partners. “Partners with business models built on efficient supply chain and fulfilment will find it harder to compete against partners with businesses built on business and solutions consulting capabilities and core competencies in focused solution areas,” she noted.

Bhaskar added that this specialised approach will also help vendors and customers to identify the top performing partners, and help partners enhance the level of trust in successful deployments.

“Upskilling the Middle East channel takes the entire technology ecosystem. Vendors should invest more in enabling and mentoring their partners, and should evaluate and brand partners based on successful consulting capabilities over only revenue generation,” she said. “Vendors should also ensure that they recognise and reward partners who make investments into skills and training.”

While there is no denying that IT skills in general are in demand, it is vital for channel stakeholders [vendors, distributors and resellers] to identify the skills that are in demand and find ways of addressing the whole skills development agenda.

Salama said due to the evolving technology landscape, the skills gap is so huge that it will take some time for all channel stakeholders to narrow this gap. The challenge for both vendors and channel partners is keeping pace with training as well as developing the right mix of IT professionals. “Through our programmes, we share the upcoming and disruptive technologies with our partners and incentivise them to adopt these new offerings.

According to Salama, professionals with skills in the areas of IT security, IoT, mobility, cloud, virtualisation, artificial intelligence, blockchain, software-defined networking and software-defined data centres are currently in great demand in the Middle East.

Sakkeer Hussain, director, Sales and Marketing, D-Link Middle East and Africa (MEA), said it is challenging to find qualified IT talent across the Middle East and Africa market. “Our channel partners also face similar challenges when it comes to recruiting top and experienced IT talent. D-Link is committed to addressing the growing skills gap in the Middle East by providing partners with training that will prepare them for the technology-driven economy and foster the next generation of entrepreneurs and visionary IT leaders,” he said.

Hussain at D-Link, the company has two types of training offered through the company’s facility in Dubai. “The first one is pre-sales training and it is tailored towards pre-sales engineers and sales people working for our channel partners,” he said. “This training takes them through new products, product updates, latest technologies and the various applications where these technologies and solutions can be implemented. The other kind of training is technical and it’s a five-day programme that takes candidates through the detailed issues including product installation and it is conducted by highly qualified D-Link engineers.”

Peter Hunt, systems channel sales director, Middle East and Africa at Oracle, said the company has a wide range of certifications, specialisations and resell rights, such that channel partners can choose specifically where they wish to invest and where they want to develop expertise.

Hunt said there is a search facility on Oracle.com which shows exactly which partners have which membership rights and specialisations, and this can help customers identify those partners who are skilled in specific areas, and clearly it helps partners monetise the investments they have made in building out their Oracle product competencies.

Hunt added that on the contrary: “We don’t see a skills shortage for traditional IT environments. However, the challenge is always to make sure that staff is constantly updated for product upgrades and new technologies.”

He explained that some of the older style IT department job functions are now developing into different roles and roles are transforming into new opportunities, for example, for database administrators, or network administrators. “Channel partners need to stay on top of these structural changes and help guide the IT staff with the product changes to enable and train their customers,” he said. “Full product knowledge and being seen as a product expert is fundamental to helping customers evolve successfully. Generally speaking, I think channel partners do a good job in this respect.”

While getting partners to invest into training programmes and certifications is challenging, retaining staff after going through certain significant training programmes has its own set of issues as well.

Narendra Menon, managing director at Nikon Middle East FZE, said while both pose different sets of challenges, training the staff involves a paradigm shift in both processes and outlook. Thus, added Menon, it can be tougher to introduce, implement and gain acceptance for. “People are already set in their ways and may not be keen to adapt,” he said. “Senior management in organisations face the tough choice of getting people on board. This is true especially in the case of technology where a new alternative disrupts the process before settling in. During this time, the vendors need constant encouragement and training to facilitate adoption.

Menon said the IT skills industry should follow the mantra of “think global, act local”. “As we adjust our operations to reflect a global standard, we must focus on technologies that are more localised in their development and usage,” he advised. “There is a need to develop IT-based solutions for distribution that are customised specifically for the region. In addition to this, training and certification programmes that add to their product and market knowledge are essential.”

Maya Zakhour, head, Distribution and Alliances, Middle East and Africa at NetApp, agreed with Menon and said training and certification programmes create a sense of progression and achievement, and help partners to maintain a high level of mindshare among their staff. “With this in mind, we at NetApp have adopted a ‘partner-first’ model as part of our continuous investments in our business success,” she said. “In addition to our training programmes, we also incentivise partners while they rely on strong, predictable margins, and profit opportunities being an essential part of our business model. Our partners who consistently deliver services can achieve substantial growth in profits year over year.”

Zakhour said with regards to addressing the skills gap, there is now an ongoing need to evolve academic and training curriculums and many countries in the region are already taking this path. “Digital education is being adopted gradually, while relevant training is being put in place to ensure that the workforce can gain new essential competencies,” she added. “For example, in the UAE, many IT professionals are now enrolling in cloud-related training and certification programmes to advance their technical skills amid growing adoption of new cloud technologies.

“Additionally, we continue to refine relationships with our valued partners, resulting in simpler and more efficient ways to quote, order, and deliver our solutions,” she said. Zakhour said the broad portfolio targets the fastest-growing segments of the market, including industry-leading flash, converged solutions, and cloud.

FVC’s Ahuja said being trained and certified is the crucial step in establishing customer confidence, equipping self for the upcoming assignments and keeping resources up to date on latest technology trends. “Customers need to feel confident that their needs are being understood by experts who are industry certified who can understand the product and are able to build, modify or enhance their IT environment and architecture. Investing in training and certifications also demonstrates a partner’s commitment towards growing a vendor’s footprint and providing customers with specialised product expertise,” he said. “Partners can also utilise their trainings to upsell and cross-sell solutions.”

At Eaton, Karim Refas, regional channel manager, said the commoditisation of hardware sales makes the software-related innovations the most critical element of differentiation. Refas added that elements such as back-up power and power management solutions are becoming increasingly dependent on software integration capabilities. “Therefore, the understanding of software-defined data centre architectures and implementation are in high-demand,” he said.

Refas said IT is one of the fastest-growing and moving industries in the region, making it essential for the channel to adapt to new trends, ways and demands of doing business. “The traditional business model is becoming more and more challenging in the current climate for partners to generate profits and it’s therefore imperative for them to change with the times,” he said.

He pointed out that the question of adapting to new trends such as cloud or the growth of managed services and recurring revenue business models is essential for the survival of these companies. “Anyone not willing to embraced the changes and address the skills gaps will struggle,” he said. “We have launched additional initiatives to make education the top priority of our channel initiatives. We will continue to advocate for our partners to adopt these new technologies. Recently, we are incentivising our partners to train their resources. We believe it is and will always be our shared responsibility as well to address this gap.”

Condo Protego’s Bhaskar said the company has seen strong success in being on the Middle East’s leading specialised information management and ICT infrastructure consultancies, aligned with Dell EMC, VMware, and Veritas because it continues to invest in skills development, training and certifications schemes.

“In the next 12 to 18 months, channel partners will need to focus on both in-person and online training in advanced technologies, which will also help them to retain top talent to drive business competitiveness,” she said.

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