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ST. LOUIS—IBM anchored its 2007 PartnerWorld event with the announcement of a new communications strategy to the channel that seeks to unify the company’s current patchwork portals and Web sites for channel partners.

Dubbed the IBM PartnerWorld Value Net Connections program, this latest IBM effort to rein in its channel communication is described as a framework of tools and resources that is intended to help solution providers find other IBM partners and industry specific solutions.

IBM has been touting the benefits of e-business since the turn of the decade, so the effort to create a business-to-business portal site that leverages Web-based communications products from IBM’s Lotus division appears to be an IBM attempt to practice in the channel what it has been preaching to customers for the better part of seven years.

In fact, IBM has been using many of the tools that will underpin the Value Net program to support its own people for the past year. For example, two other cornerstones of the Value Net Connection program available internally to IBM employees include a social networking site based on Notes technologies and access to community spaces on the IBM developerWorks site.

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“I think IBM wanted to make sure the products used for this service were bulletproof before they rolled them out to the partner community,” said Amy Wohl, principal of Amy Wohl Consulting in Merion Station, Pa.

Solution providers said that the latest IBM effort to automate communications with the channel would be greeted dubiously given past efforts and the fact that they generally missed more personal contact with Big Blue.

“What we really miss sometimes is a greater sense of personal touch,” said Michael Cox, chairman of Logicalis Intergration Solutions in Lisle, Ill.

Industry analysts also expressed chagrin over ongoing attempts by vendors to automate channel communications as part of an attempt to reduce their channel development expenses.

“We’re losing the human touch that drives the business relationship,” said Diane Krakora, president of Amazon Consulting in Mountain View, Calif.

In addition, distributors such as Avnet said IBM has been slow to invite distributors to play a greater role in the evolution of Value Net because distributors have made it their mission to make it easier for solution providers to do business with IBM.

“Our goal would be to make our services available through the IBM portal once we’re invited to make them available,” said Jack Morris, vice president of business innovation at Avnet.

But that said, Jeffrey Teeter, Logicalis executive vice president and general manager for the solution technology group said that both IBM and Avnet were over-emphasizing electronic commerce at the expense of personal relationships that drive actual business.

“Both parties have a lot of work to do in this area,” said Teeter.

As part of its continuing focus on the midmarket, IBM said it plans to spend over $200 million globally to stimulate demand for the IBM Express Advantage series of midmarket solutions that the company crafts by bundling various IBM products and technologies into a single offering. IBM said it will expand the Express Advantage program to 23 additional countries this year and that it has added three additional offerings to the program around an iSeries server, a TS2340 tape drive and Lotus messaging software.

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IBM also said it will now extend the Express Advantage partner network and IBM Express Advantage Concierge help desk for partners to all its partners outside the United States.

Finally, IBM also introduced a new business continuity specialty that gives solution providers that qualify added marketing and technical support benefits.

In general, IBM channel chief Ravi Marwaha said that IBM is currently focused on making the company easier to do business with. For example, the ValueNet portal will be updated later this year to make it easier for solution providers to sell solutions that span multiple IBM brands that today have their own channel programs.

In addition, he said IBM has made it easier to be part of the portal by simplifying the registration process for partners, creating a hub where partners can track the status of deals and get quicker response times for special pricing in competitive situations.

Overall, Marwaha said that on a global basis, the channel has helped IBM grow software sales by 11 percent, storage sales by 7 percent, server sales by 8 percent and services sales by 8 percent.