As Dell Computers steps up its product range to supply bigger and more complex IT systems, it finds that training its partners is becoming vital to this process. Gary Flood looks at how Dell underpins its success story with its new education and certification programme.

Dell Computers - surely that's the company that 'only' sells through its website direct to customers? Well, yes and no. The Dell of 2009 will still happily make you the specific home PC you want.

But increasingly, it also wants to sell bigger, more complex IT systems into the commercial and company space through partners who can deploy and support those systems; and with education and certification becoming more and more important, it's finding training vital to making that vision a reality.

Famously, the eponymous Mr (Michael) Dell started it all by selling custom-built and customer specified PCs figuratively out of the back of his car in 1984, and offering Dell's first own computers the next year with the Turbo PC.

Dell as a company went public in 1988 and for its last full financial year (2009) it recorded sales of $61bn (£37bn) and profits after tax of $2.5bn (£1.5bn), making it number 34 in the world's Global 500 list of largest corporations.

The company claims it is the second largest PC supplier in the world globally, shipping over 140,000 systems a day, servicing the home, SMEs, public sector and enterprise markets.

Given that the company has been in operation for so long, it may come as a slight surprise that up until very recently it had no certification story at all. That may be due to the fact that its consumer sales model had been historically the focus of the company - or a feeling that having such a thing was not value-adding.

But the company has changed its tune quite markedly in recent times, in effect building a certification story from the ground up, and the result is a story its supporters seem to feel is pretty effective.

It all started in June 2008 in Europe (December 2007 in the States) with a twin-track certification story split into a SME and a more prestigious enterprise architecture stream called the PartnerDirect Programme. As of Summer 2009, of the 15,000 or so registered Dell partners eligible to sign up some 180 have actually done so, a rate of progress its European Training and Certification Manager Derek Bemberry says is 'very exciting'.

A Dell partner, then, is now going to be either 'registered' or 'certified'. The former means that they are involved in the programme, are licensed to sell Dell technology, but are not as committed, as it were, as the latter. Certified organisations, on the other hand, can call themselves experts on all Dell solutions for either smaller organisation or top-end enterprise.

In fact, this year saw a huge extension of the programme, with a whole new technology stream being covered (servers), more specialist tracks and exams being added and courses in more than just product being offered for the first time - e.g. in virtualisation, back up and recovery.

Within each of those broad headings, note that there are some sub-divisions. In Enterprise, for example, companies can choose to focus the training of their staff on either storage or server specialists or combine the two for 'Enterprise Architecture Certified Partner' status. Individuals receive the EA certification status and its additional benefits, such as discounts, when they have completed both specialist streams.

EA Certified Partners are required to meet an annual run rate, complete foundations training and meet the Dell technical competency requirements in servers, storage and networking as well as one or more solution competency programme requirements. EA Certified Partners get full certified level benefits, including discounts, training and marketing collateral (to help them sell, in other words).

In May Dell announced even further investment in its certification and education story, with the rollout of Europe-wide, face-to-face training programmes delivered by specialist consultants certified by Dell; a new partner training homepage accessed through a redesigned PartnerDirect portal; and online 'solution broadcasts' for certified partners offering the latest news and developments from senior Dell channel and product marketing figures.

Bemberry thinks this is what Dell's channel has been waiting for. 'We've built up brick by brick in short order a robust, useful programme here that I'd call "bespoke but elegant",' he says.

Reading between the lines, it's probably some internal shift in emphasis towards greater reliance on the channel that's behind this. For one thing, Dell is trying to push its storage and server products, for example its new Dell EqualLogic brand, formed in February 2008 when it snapped up New Hampshire, US-based EqualLogic for a reported $1.4bn.

As a result, when Dell talks certification it means 'partner market readiness'. There's an emphasis on not just imparting details of its specific technical solutions, but also mandating a big chunk of sales training so as to equip the companies involved to be as effective at shifting the tin as they can - which is not just capitalist good sense, it's also much appreciated by the companies themselves:

'Dell's done a good job here for people like us,' says Jon Kelly, Chief Operating Officer of one of these newly-minted Dell Certified Partners (for both SME and Enterprise Architecture, and also for expertise in Dell's approach to virtualisation). 'We've been working with Dell for ten years and see this as a big change from the previous approach.'

Kelly says he likes both the training content provided on the technology as well as the input designed to make it easier to sell the company's products in such a tough environment. Or as Bemberry puts it: 'This isn't about just online courseware consumption: it's about the establishment of a strong link between us and the partner companies where we support them in the best way to sell the product in the markets they are in.'

How, finally, is certification delivered? Dell uses third parties, such as Core Education, a training partner company based in Holland that trains Dell partners all over Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

'We saw a new focus with Dell when it entered the iSCSI end of storage with the EqualLogic acquisition and you do see that team in New Hampshire being very committed to working with partners to support them as much as possible with knowledge and product direction,' says Leon Meijs, Chief Executive of Core Education. 'I think the Dell approach here is the right one as it is really trying to give the resellers the opportunity to make the most they can out of the technology they are trying to sell to customers. I'd say this was both a good partner programme and certification programme in general.'

So it seems that when a big computer company commits to supporting its partners with an education product, much can be achieved in a short space of time. Can all IT vendors say the same thing, or would they rather their channel representatives just muddled through as best as possible, we wonder?