P2P Power, Version 3.0

Despite the ongoing recession, partner peer-group members are holding their own for now-and watching for the cloud on the horizon.

In this economy, you might reasonably expect that an intensive week-long conference for executives from small and midsize businesses (SMBs) would end up with a lot of empty seats. But that wasn't a problem at a recent Heartland Technology Group (HTG) peer-group quarterly meeting, which drew 400 partner-company executives to Dallas for five days of networking and in-depth sessions on topics from finding prospects during tough times to building successful vendor relationships.

"It was a full house," says Arlin Sorensen, founder of the member-run partner-to-partner (P2P) network organization (for more on Sorensen and HTG, see "P2P Power," April 2008). "We had only one or two no-shows"-and, he says, those absences were due to emergencies, not cost-saving concerns.

The near-perfect turnout is a bit less surprising when you consider that meeting participation is a membership requirement.

"Our model is all about attendance," says Sorensen, who is also CEO of Heartland Technology Solutions Inc., a Harlan, Iowa-based Gold Certified Partner. "You can't get any value out of the seat if there's nobody in it." In fact, HTG members who skip the quarterly meetings still pay their share of event costs. "So unless they're out of business, most members are going to attend," he says.

Two primary themes-one optimistic, one cautionary-formed the foundation for the gathering in Dallas in late April. "Our first message was that, while the economy may be difficult, there's no shortage of opportunities for us as SMB partners," Sorensen says. Many HTG members are apparently already getting the message: In their financial reports, many reported stronger first quarters for 2009 than for 2008. HTG leaders attribute those unexpectedly positive results to a key P2P principle: Members hold each other accountable for making changes to drive growth.

"We talked about learning new skill sets, about moving from turning screwdrivers and making servers run to leveraging infrastructures to really solve business problems."
Arlin Sorensen, Founder, Heartland Technology Group

A close second: the industry impact of cloud computing. "We talked about what it means in terms of changing our business models and the way we work with clients," Sorensen explains. "We talked about learning new skill sets, about moving from turning screwdrivers and making servers run to leveraging infrastructures to really solve business problems. We're helping members do this in their own businesses so that they can take that knowledge to their clients."

An unofficial third theme reflected the HTG network's overall raison d'etre: providing a platform for P2P activity. "We shared success stories about how partners had worked together to address challenges," Sorensen says. "We're not islands. We're going to be far more successful if we work together than if we see each other as competitors."

One example: Members whose efforts won HTG's first-ever best-practices competition shared details on their projects during the event and on the network's SharePoint portal.

HTG 3.0
The HTG peer groups have come a long way from their initial gathering in 2001, when Sorensen and a few other Iowa partners got together to share economic-survival strategies. Over the next several years, Sorensen and partners helped other partners form similar peer groups, each consisting of executives from up to 12 non-competing partner companies. By mid-2008, the network had grown to more than a dozen active groups, including one each in Canada and the United Kingdom, and appointed a leadership committee drawn from its own ranks. (For more on this partner network and its growth, see "Partnering with Peer Groups: P2P Power, Version 2.0," September 2008.)

Today, there are 19 face-to-face and five online HTGs. Plans call for creating just one more regular group, then spending at least the rest of 2009 beefing up offerings for current members as the network moves into its third iteration.

"Our first focus was around infrastructure and building managed-services practices. Many members have that in place today," Sorensen explains. "Our second version was around protecting data and creating different services around data."

Those two areas-infrastructure and data-are potentially at risk with cloud computing, a strong network focus both at the April gathering and for the next several years. "If the cloud takes off and customers go with it, we won't be providing services or protecting data," Sorensen says. "HTG 3.0 aligns with idea that we have to develop consulting services to provide value to people no matter where their data and applications are located. Then if we lose the revenue streams we've lived on for the last 25 years, we won't go out of business."

For that reason, HTG 3.0 emphasizes the need for partners to beef up their business know-how, Sorensen explains. "We've got certifications and technical skills, but we haven't always learned the business skills we need to craft the best solutions."

Network leaders hope to develop SMB versions of long-time enterprise concepts such as the Six Sigma process-improvement strategy. "It's a move to take care of customers at a whole different level, becoming trusted advisors, not just IT guys," he says.

Focus on Figures
HTG 3.0 also turns up the heat on numbers. Over the past year, about half its members have opted for specially priced quarterly benchmarking via Service Leadership Inc., a Plano, Texas-based IT services consulting firm. "Those participating were getting very valuable data that helped them make tactical decisions" that, in many cases, led to improved results, Sorensen says.

That prompted HTG to strike a deal in which Service Leadership will provide all HTG members with free benchmarking for the rest of 2009. Formal benchmarking becomes mandatory for HTG membership in 2010.

Why the push for benchmarking? "It lets us compare companies within a group, across HTG and across the industry," Sorensen notes. "It helps us guide individual discussions about how our companies are doing. We're also learning very valuable skills to take to our SMB customers."

Other ongoing efforts include increased emphasis on interaction with selected vendor partners and examining potential opportunities generated by social networking, the "millennial generation" and other technological and cultural trends. The HTG network has also created companion peer groups for its members' marketing and application-development managers, and plans to launch member special-interest groups based around business models, company size, ownership structure, vertical industries and other common denominators.

About the Author

Anne Stuart, the former executive editor of Redmond Channel Partner, is a business technology freelance writer based in Boston, Mass.