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Wed 6 Jan 2010 04:00 AM

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Learning on the job

The new boss of IT training provider Global Knowledge's Middle East operation is looking to bring a touch of Cisco to the business as he leads the company into a fresh set of challenges.

Learning on the job

The new boss of IT training provider Global Knowledge's Middle East operation is looking to bring a touch of Cisco to the business as he leads the company into a fresh set of challenges.

If the IT training industry has been knocked off balance by the global financial crisis then you wouldn't have known it the day Channel Middle East visited Global Knowledge's offices to meet Mazen Jabri. Any hopes of getting the recently-appointed MEA and emerging markets boss to pose for a few pictures inside one of the company's numerous learning rooms were swiftly dashed by news that they were all fully occupied with classes.

Business, it would seem, is beginning to pick up again, although the man who swapped life at Cisco Gulf for the opportunity to sample an entirely new field with Global Knowledge is the first to admit that the training industry has faced some serious challenges in the past year.

"I would say the region has seen declines typically of between 20% and 30% - not as severe as the hardware industry or the software industry, but of course we are still related to them," reflects Jabri, now in the third month of his tenure.

As counter-productive as it might sound, training is often one of the first expenses reined in when corporate budgets are assessed in times of fiscal prudence. Equally, when companies are delaying purchases of new technology, the appetite for training becomes understandably subdued.

Jabri is quick to stress that Global Knowledge has weathered the storm well so far, pointing out that profit generation - rather than revenue gain - takes firm precedence in the company's list of priorities. The Middle East and Africa business, he adds, remains one of its most profitable global units.

US-based Global Knowledge ventured into the Middle East two years ago by acquiring Synergy Professional Services, which had built up an impressive professional and technical IT skills training portfolio.

The Middle East business now spans one office in the UAE, two in Egypt and three in Saudi Arabia, plus more than 30 classrooms across the region that are directly owned and operated by the company.

 "Global Knowledge's claim to fame is that we are probably the largest learning partner to Cisco in the world with a revenue of roughly US$350m per year and around 1,500 employees worldwide and operations in more than 40 countries," said Jabri, emphasising the global scale of the company.

Although more than half of Global Knowledge's sales are linked to its Cisco expertise, the company is certainly no one-trick pony. Besides serving as a major learning partner for Microsoft - and offering courses in Oracle and Symantec - it has pushed into higher tiers of the IT training business, notably in terms of virtualisation, with VMware and EMC, and specialised security, with Ironport and Blue Coat.

Such diversification is deliberate and underpins the transition to a more solutions-driven approach supplemented by a burgeoning portfolio of soft skills and business skills training. As both end-user companies and those in the channel are quickly realising, the modern-day manager must have the correct blend of technical and leadership competencies to prosper.

That said, the company's strong Cisco focus cannot be ignored. Indeed, Jabri's 11-year term at Cisco Gulf - latterly as UAE general manager - was one of the primary reasons he was hired. Furthermore, his predecessor, Melad Ghabrial, has moved to the US to foster Global Knowledge's relationship with Cisco.

Jabri intends to use his extensive links to Cisco to increase the level of visibility and awareness of Global Knowledge within the networking vendor's operations, but just as importantly he wants to transfer some of the practices synonymous with his former employer to his own organisation.

"I will bring with me the sales acumen of Cisco," he explains. "The Cisco sales culture is very unique, very intense, very focused and very effective...I will not claim to run the sales operation of Global Knowledge at the same intensity level as Cisco, but I will at least introduce some very good discipline and processes, from the planning and market assessment phase to the forecasting and sales engagement process."

He is also determined to elevate the image of learning from being an "after-thought at the end of an RFP", as he puts it, to a proactive proposition at the beginning of the investment.

"That's what I want to change," he asserts. "To pre-engage with the customer and pre-engage with the vendor to become part of the value proposition - rather than waiting until the quotation is done and then saying [the customer] needs to train five people to run the system, which is a very different approach." There is no doubt that Global Knowledge expects big things from the Middle East. Only recently, the company's EMEA chief Richard Pryor-Jones revealed the MEA subsidiary has been set some "aggressive goals".

There is no indication of how quickly those objectives must be achieved, but they include the development of a more rounded solutions and architectures training portfolio - as opposed to basic certification training - and a concerted push into territories such as Sub-Saharan Africa, where the growth of the IT market in that region is creating demand for training and consultancy services.

"We are covering a bigger geographic region, entering new markets, changing the way we engage with our partners, vendors and end-customers, and launching multiple new innovative programmes that are more geared around solutions than products," says Jabri. "All of the above is happening in 2010 with all the organisational change and procedural change that goes with it."

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