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It appears the channel and the CIO don’t exactly see eye to eye about who takes the lead on introducing emerging technologies into the organization.

Both parties want to take credit for finding more effective and efficient IT solutions. If that’s the case, just how much of a “trusted adviser” role is the channel playing for clients?

A new survey by Ziff Davis Enterprise, “Emerging Technologies: The Channel vs. the CIO,” found that 50 percent of solution providers say they, rather than the client, are the ones to first push the use of emerging technologies, at least 75 percent of the time. Given the increasingly strategic technology and business consulting role that many solution providers say they fulfill for clients, the numbers seem to fall short.
There are reasons for that, say solution providers and analysts.

The “trusted adviser” role isn’t a black-and-white deal; it is a nuanced role that means different things to different people, and depending on the situation.
Providers working with small and midsize business typically have a lot more say than those working with larger companies, though they play a role there as well.

Even though the provider may not necessarily introduce an emerging technology to the customer, the provider often still serves as a sounding board in the decision process.

Gary Johnson, president and CEO of IT Partners, a $25 million VAR based in Phoenix, says his company introduces technology to its upper-midmarket customer base 30 to 40 percent of the time. The other 60 percent of the time, however, IT Partners helps clients evaluate the potential benefits of bringing new solutions into the business.
“Typically, our customers have just enough IT staff to support the day-to-day operations, so when it comes to exploring new technologies or change, they look for outside expertise,” he says.

Working with companies with 500 to 5,000 employees, Johnson typically deals with the CIO and a fairly structured IT group. “These customers often have technology manufacturers pitching IT products to them directly and look to us for trusted, unbiased advice on technology,” says Johnson.

Steve Roux, president of Innovative Computer Systems, based in Farmington, Conn., says the trusted adviser business model has been the driving factor in his business. “We’re working hard to become the trusted adviser to more of our clients,” he says.

Roux, who estimates that ICS introduces technology to its clients 75 to 80 percent of the time, is pushing the trusted adviser role with long-term clients by adding education and strategic planning to product sales.

“The adoption of emerging technology is a piece of what we do, but it’s a process to get there,” he says.
A Microsoft Certified Gold partner, Roux has executed the trusted adviser transformation for the last three years, largely by performing technology assessments for customers, particularly around the integration of Microsoft products for unified communications, CRM and collaboration.

Like Johnson, Roux points out that CIOs are too busy with strategic planning and day-to-day IT operations to take the lead with emerging technologies. Instead, he says, ICS educates its customers about new technologies, infrastructure optimization and IT assessments. “It’s our job to be a walking IT search engine for them,” he says.

Shaping up
According to Diane Krakora, CEO of Amazon Consulting, many but not all solution providers have taken on the trusted adviser role, a move she calls a business model decision. “Even among those solution providers that do become trusted advisers, it’s often in a technology area they’ve decided to invest in, not necessarily an emerging technology,” says Krakora.

So, for example, a solution provider may decide that its business model is to go deep into security rather than storage. “A channel partner may be one or two technologies to specialize it, but they’re not necessarily new technology junkies,” she says.

Where Krakora sees solution providers playing a significant trusted advise role is in the SMB market, particularly in basic technology areas such as security, storage and VOIP.

“In the SMB market there’s no time, and no CIO, and they’re looking for an outside expert to tell them whether a technology is good for their business,” she says.
CIOs at larger companies, on the other hand, she notes, need to be up on hot and strategic technologies such as virtualization, storage and unified communications.

“It’s the job of the CIO to be strategic, to know how to move their business forward,” she says.
That thinking jibes with the Ziff Davis survey: CIOs responded they’re more involved with emerging technologies such as storage virtualization and unified communications, and less involved with hosted productivity applications and desktop Linux, for example. The later technologies aren’t considered CIO-type make-or-break decisions to run the business but rather core technology enhancements.

Oli Thordarson, CEO of Alvaka Networks, a 12-year-old Irvine, Calif., MSP whose core customer base is the SMB market, says his company is a trusted adviser to its clients, particularly in technology areas such as virtualization, SAN, Citrix, network access controls, and backup, disaster recovery and business continuity.

“We make recommendations on new technology and solutions for our clients 100 percent of the time,” he says.
Usually, his company is the only one making strategic technology recommendations to its clients.

“In other cases, we’re in a consulting role to validate IT staff recommendations or iron out discrepancies between IT staff,” he says.

The bigger picture
At the end of the day, most solution providers agree being a trusted adviser
is a collaborative process.
“I know which technologies are tried and what’s working. I don’t know the day-to-day business of a given organization and the business strategies required to move that company forward,” says Doug Schremp, CTO of the technology division at Sullivan & McLaughlin Companies, Boston, a single-source electrical, network, technology and security contracting company.

Part of the collaborative process is working with senior level IT executives to bring to the table tried-and-true technology for successful implementations. As trusted advisers, solution providers are also in the position to work on proof of concept trials with their customers and help mitigate risk.

“We work with the CIO and CEO, who have great knowledge about the business but are stuck in terms of IT,” says Roux. “As the trusted adviser we show them how an emerging technology may fall flat or maybe they need to wait for Version 2.0 before implementing an emerging technology.”

The CIO also has the responsibility for looking at budget and budget planning.
“Sometimes an emerging technology may look like an attractive fit but the money isn’t there for it in the budget,” says Bill Annino, director of the converged solutions group at Carousel Industries, an Exeter, R.I., solution provider that provides, designs, implements and maintains converged communication networks for customers nationwide.

Carousel’s technology solutions are wrapped with ROI tools to show the customer the true benefit of the technology, says Annino.

The channel partner provides more of an overall converged technology strategy versus selling individual products in the communications arena.
Introducing emerging technologies into the organization, according to solution providers and analysts is a process, one that providers fill as trusted advisers.

That process includes providing CIOs with a technology road map, sitting in on technology briefings, helping sort through manufacturer’s product claims by providing real world implementation experience, examining product life cycle and cost of ownership realities, and conducting infrastructure assessments and pilot testing.