Players in the tech industry have relied upon partners for solutions, distribution, deployment and support for many years, where a number of highly-publicized (think Apple and HP some years back), but ultimately failed, partnerships come to mind. Ultimately, failed partnerships aren't a good thing. They result in financial losses and more importantly lost opportunities to address new/existing market segments. However, a solution-centric ecosystem composed of a diverse set of partners with clearly defined roles and objectives is capable of supporting an effective reach into target market sectors...a clarity that often proves elusive. Yet for open source software ecosystems, coherency in partnering actions is crucial in promoting strength across the value chain.
In more than one sense, partnerships must transcend the press release/announcement that heralds their existence. Within any successful solution-centric ecosystem each relationship is a win-win. Otherwise a partnership defaults as a well-intentioned PR play. The same holds for open source software ecosystems where the primary focus of each partnership must be on building product/service strategy in line with go-to-market plans. This is driven by the following:
- Agreeing on the shared market opportunities. Once the appropriate customer/prospect needs, product whitespaces and the appropriate potential partners have been identified, it is possible to build a healthy stable of solution scenarios based on the features, advantages and benefits suited to customer needs. For the vast majority of open source players, feature-driven decisions been at the crux of partnership actions. And understandably so, since most proprietary competitors are more feature complete...still this must change. Since in order to grow and compete effectively in a more consolidated environment it will be necessary to segment markets by size of companies, user roles, geographies and industries.
- Make open intellectual property (IP) work. Compulsory within the context of a partnership is identifying and each participants IP. Determining the nature of IP licensing and protections is an important step in the process of building successful relationships. However the dynamics introduced by open source provides an additional angle for establishing vibrant innovation networks and a balanced continuum of IP ownership. This touches on the very nature of IP, everything from how it's built to who builds what. This is the foremost differentiator for open source software ecosystems in that they are equipped to challenge the dynamics of the dominant mode of solution production with an entirely new and more efficient [open] approach.
- Fill the gaps. In a marketplace that prizes the concept of solutions to business problems over that of raw technology it's critical to identify when a competitor might be a potential partner, the need for geographic coverage and the viability of vertical offerings. Each partner should be assigned a risk profile that details its credibility based on the strength of existing relationships and/or references.
- Solution quality assurance. Product integration is paramount since the success of a joint solution can justifiably (and unjustifiably) affect overall brand value. Therefore, a transparent certification process at every tier of a partnership must be outlined and agreed to. This often drives the entire partner relationship management process as it spells out the parameters by which solutions (and those involved with its integration) will be measured.
Each participant must be appropriately integrated into the overall support community. This involves defining a customer support model that allocates responsibilities and cross-vendor point of contacts. The support community must span multiple touchpoints across multiple roles and address:
- Support, service and revenue sharing. This is often a deal breaker since maintenance streams represent a cash cow for vendors and partners of all sizes, this is especially the case for the commercial open source vendors. Regardless, skill set requirements should be at the heart of formalizing priority-based support and the according maintenance fees.
- The creation of support infrastructure. With solutions spanning a gamut of customer needs the service infrastructure behind its delivery must also shore the gaps between partner responsibilities. Interconnected channels within an ecosystem must be well defined and transparent to customers. This is an area that continues to plague the emergence of open source solution ecosystems since it requires pockets of internal experts and specific competencies capable of providing training and certification.
- Extend open source communities to supplement support activities. This entails translating the latent user-focused ideals of open source community into a wider landscape of customers and partners. An open source ecosystem should encapsulate the notion of community such that customers and partners are smoothly integrated into one and the same. In this way maximum value can be derived from an open atmosphere where comments, criticisms and feedback are welcomed. Otherwise, a big part of the open source value proposition is lost.
As the complexity of tech partnerships continues to grow, new roles and organizations will emerge to bridge the gap between business development, channel management and partnership management. In much the same way that commercial open source vendors have come to realize the value that community governance and directorship has from a business perspective resulted in a rash of community management positions, the same will occur as more come to realize that strong ecosystems represent the door to sustained growth and competitiveness. In fact, I look for the open source community management role to, at some point down the line, merge into executive level duties of creating and nurturing partner ecosystems.