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Partnering with Peer Groups: P2P Power, Version 2.0

Earlier this year, veteran channel executive Arlin Sorensen told RCP he hoped to see his network of partner peer groups more than double in size -- eventually.

After all, it took six years for that network to grow from its initial group of five Iowa-based IT businesses to a loose confederation of 10 groups with members from 100-plus partner companies throughout the United States and Canada (see "P2P Power," April 2008).

But based on demand, it looks like "eventually" now means by the end of next year. "We have announced a growth plan to go to 20 groups, with about 240 partners, in 2009," says Sorensen, who founded that first group to solicit his peers' advice as his Harlan, Iowa-based Gold Certified Partner company, now known as Heartland Technology Solutions Inc., went through some lean times back in 2001.

Since then, Sorensen and his staff have helped launch one new peer organization after another, with each Heartland Tech Group (HTG) consisting of executives from up to 12 non-competing companies. The resulting network, which cooperates with but is officially independent of Microsoft, is widely viewed as a premiere example of effective partner-to-partner (P2P) collaboration -- so much so that, earlier this year, 40 companies were wait-listed for participation.

Now, Sorensen says, it's time for the P2P network to move to the next level -- or, as he calls it, "HTG 2.0." Beyond that demand-driven increase in the number of partner groups, the biggest change is that the peer community will now run itself, coordinated by a leadership committee of peer-group executives. That transition is just fine with Sorensen, whose company had been running the network: "We've exceeded our capacity for doing it ourselves," he says. "Now we have 15 people stepping up to help lead. They've got fresh ideas. There's a lot of buy-in, a lot of skin in the game."

Other changes include:

Centralized gatherings. Previously, each HTG scheduled its own two-day meeting each quarter in a different city, typically a member's hometown. Now all HTG quarterly meetings will be held simultaneously in one location, beginning with a January gathering in Dallas, Texas. "All the groups will be meeting separately, but we'll all be in the same venue," Sorensen explains. Co-location makes it easier to attract vendors and speakers and encourages companies to "cross-pollinate," he says.

Membership dues. Starting in January, members will pay $100 per month to help pay group facilitators, a role previously held by Sorensen and his managers.

Vendor partnerships. The network has launched a formal program for selected vendors interested in engaging with HTG members. Currently, HTG has eight vendor partners; plans call for expanding to 20 or 25.

International participation. The first Canadian HTG peer group launched in June; plans call for launching the first group in the United Kingdom in October. Says Sorensen: "Australia will probably be our next target."

Virtual groups. This new option, co-sponsored by Microsoft, is designed for Microsoft Small Business Specialists who may not yet have the money or time to attend regular HTG meetings. The online program, which covers the same content as regular HTG sessions, costs $50 per month; participants can attend a "graduation ceremony" at next year's Worldwide Partner Conference. After that, they'll be able to continue in a second-year program-or step up to a face-to-face group.

One thing that hasn't changed: the requirement that each HTG group protect its members' confidential information. "That's really important when we're sharing financials," Sorensen says. "That has to be in a controlled environment."

At the same time, HTG 2.0 will continue to emphasize camaraderie and collaboration. Bottom line, Sorensen says: "We're really not competing. There's not a shortage of customers. And there's more to be gained by working together than there is to worry about."

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