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New Security Challenges…and How to Fight Them

Cyber criminals are constantly getting more sophisticated and adept.

This week, Microsoft blamed a Chinese state-backed group for attacks on Microsoft Mail platforms that allowed the attacker to access email inboxes, a crucial step in any well-run hack. And a short while ago, Solarwinds had to admit their software had been hacked prior to being distributed.

So, how do you make yourself safe? We use home security as an analogy: your house is safe once you’ve closed and locked the doors and windows. But you have to do it yourself; no-one will do it for you. The same can be said of online security: your company’s security is your responsibility.

Cyber criminals are scanning and testing your company all the time. But they no longer use the doors or windows. They have ways to look like your staff or suppliers; they’re already inside your office before you’ve shut and locked the doors!

And like a terrorist, the cyber-criminal only has to get lucky once. You have to be lucky all the time, and without your constant vigilance, the cyber-criminal will find a weakness.

As the owner of the business, you can’t be responsible for all the technical details. But you can, and must, be able to ask the right questions of the people responsible for security—and stay on top of them. We recommend you ask your IT team or suppliers four simple questions:

  1. Who on the exec team is accountable for our security and risk strategy? When was the last time we reviewed and tested our security?
  2. Are our security systems up to date and comprehensive? How do we know they’re up to date? Do we have assessments or accreditations?
  3. Does staff—and that includes the CEO—get regularly trained in cyber security and social engineering? Have we ever tested that knowledge?
  4. If we do end up in trouble, who’s in charge, and what’s the plan?

Most successful attacks use tried, tested and simple methods. The reason they’re successful is because companies have forgotten to get the basics right.

If you could use a reminder on how to nail down the basics, we have a 13-point list of simple key steps a non-technical board member can take right now.

Also see our Cyber Security Knowledge Center, which includes more plain-English content related to this topic.

You don’t need to be the technical expert. But you do need to take the lead. No-one but you will make your house or your business safe. Our briefing will provide you with free, straightforward advice.

If you have any other questions about cyber security or IT, feel free to get in touch. We’re always happy to talk.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time (we call it “fractional”) IT leaders. We work exclusively with ambitious organizations and we frequently help our clients use IT to beat their competition. Contact Us and we’ll be in touch for an informal conversation.

CIO vs CTO: What’s the difference?

It is easy to assume that a Chief Information Officer (CIO) is the same thing as a Chief Technology Officer (CTO). However, there are important differences from the point of view of a mid-market CEO. Read on to learn about both job titles and their functions.

Internal or External?

Although there isn’t universal agreement on the difference, one way of thinking about it is that the CIO is more internal-facing, while CTOs are more external.

CIOs take ownership of internal processes – the day-to-day tech, the systems and devices. A CIO also facilitates collaboration between the C-suite, IT teams, and other stakeholders. A CIO speaks the language of tech and the language of business.

Of course a CTO must communicate between techies and businesspeople. But they have a strategic function, developing the tech initiatives that will drive growth and value. For example, they will oversee the development of custom software and apps.

Is CIO higher than a CTO?

For organizations with both a CIO and CTO, the CIO is normally senior. But the positions should be complementary, especially if a business is looking to grow. And while there will of course be overlap in terms of skillsets, they are two different positions, with different career paths.

Do you need both a CIO and a CTO?

If the business is large and complex, it is a very good idea to have both a CIO and a CTO. Just make sure that there is a crystal-clear delineation of duties so that both roles add value and have space to operate effectively.

The internal vs. external idea is a good place to start. Remember: it’s the CIO’s job to keep things moving along inside the company and to communicate between the techies and business units. The CTO looks forward, developing innovations for growth.

And it behooves the CEO to ensure smooth communication and cooperation between the positions so there is no confusion or duplication of work.

Comparing a CIO and a CTO

CIO: Chief
Information Officer


IT operations
Builds systems to supports growth
Supervises vendors of internal systems
Represents IT teams to the Board
Focus on improving systems and processes
Organized, skilled communicator and technologist
Click to learn What is the meaning of CIO.

CTO: Chief
Technology Officer


Ensures connection between tech and business goals
Supervises medium- to long-term initiatives, e.g. custom software and apps
Skilled communicator and technologist
Uses systems and digital to drive innovation and deliver value
Click to learn What is the meaning of CTO.

“Freeman Clarke provided a CIO to help us develop a roadmap for the future state of our IT systems, together with a strategic plan to help us get there. Our IT has always been a significant value driver in our business, and we need to ensure it stays that way.… [Our] Freeman Clarke CIO has not only helped us with creating that roadmap. He also became a key member of our senior leadership team.” – Chris Johnson, Chairman, JJS Manufacturing.

Why Freeman Clarke?

Freeman Clarke CIOs and CTOs work on a “fractional,” or part-time model. This provides a business with first-class tech leadership without the full-time cost.

Our fractional tech leaders are uniquely suited to mid-market businesses. They have outstanding technical and strategic skills. They understand how to use tech to drive growth. And they are suited to the culture and reality of mid-market businesses.

Whatever the remit, our CIOs and CTOs operate from the fundamental idea of linking a business’s systems and digital strategy to business objectives. This should be the goal of every innovative, ambitious mid-market company because it’s one of the best ways to create real, sustainable growth.

To find out more about how we could add value to your business, Contact Us and we’ll be in touch for an informal conversation.

Does Your Business Run on Excel? Undo!

For Americans, this may seem like a distant footnote. But bear with me.

One of the UK’s leading health agencies, Public Health England (PHE), has revealed a massive under-reporting of covid-19 cases due to an Excel blunder. The truth is that many mid-market businesses are too dependent on Excel. We’ve all become stuck in an Excel circular reference. The challenge is how to escape.

Excel has become ubiquitous for a reason. It is extremely simple to start and amazing what you can do quickly. But for some mid-market businesses, Excel has become an unplanned core back-office system. It is often the link between systems and processes; it is sometimes used to store critical data; and it is often used to present and explore data throughout the business.

Finance people can’t get enough of it. The rest of us can’t remember all its functions, but we still use it anyway.

But why is it dangerous?

  1. Excel is fundamentally unstructured and easy to change. This makes it incredibly convenient. But it also allows for unending tinkering. And it can be very difficult to assess the impact of changes and to identify errors.
  2. Excel files, passed between people by email, or shared in folders (or worse on USB drives!) are a recipe for error, confusion and unauthorized access. Good systems go hand-in-hand with good processes, and Excel encourages neither.
  3. Excel is a dead-end. There is no “pathway” to formalize an Excel process into a more managed system with proper controls, an audit trail, security, data management and error-checking. Excel is not a sound basis for automation or integration.

In the meantime, see our ERP and Integration Knowledge Center for more on smoothing out systems and processes

In short, Excel can lead a mid-market business to the point where it is very difficult to scale and where the business is exposed to fraud or blunders like PHE’s. But since it works most of the time, and the cost of replacement looks high, the easiest thing is just to carry on with it.

But the bottom line is that to run a business well you need integrated systems that support efficient, agile processes, and deliver useful management information to enable decision making. You won’t get all that with Excel.

Your company’s systems strategy should have some principles to avoid an overdependence on Excel. What might they be?

  1. Use Excel—when it’s appropriate. For example, new ideas, new opportunities, or an informal look at data. Use Excel as a personal tool for tackling problems.
  2. Establish your business’s timeframe or scale-of-use for Excel. For example, “We won’t use Excel to manage this project for more than nine months.” Or: “It wouldn’t make sense to run a new business line on Excel once revenue exceeds $100k per month.” Or: ‘We always ring alarm-bells when someone starts using Excel’s built-in coding platform’.
  3. Here’s the tricky part: you need an integrated set of systems and processes that can smoothly replace Excel when the time comes.

Excel is an amazing product; it is ubiquitous for a reason. But its convenience can be its downfall—or yours. Like all powerful tools, handle it with care!

If your company needs help replacing Excel with an affordable integrated system, get in touch. We have a lot of experience helping mid-market businesses streamline their systems, and we’re always up for an informal chat.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time (we call it “fractional”) CIOs and CTOs. We work exclusively with ambitious organizations and we frequently help our clients use IT to beat their competition. Contact Us and we’ll be in touch for an informal conversation.

Using Tech in Wholesale and Distribution: Getting the Basics Right

This is a time of extraordinary change for the market. Of course, the pandemic has brought about incredible shifts in how we do business. But tech advancements, customer expectations and regulatory requirements have been accelerating regardless.

From what we’ve seen at Freeman Clarke, the changes have been particularly challenging in the wholesale and distribution sectors. There are just so many associated services as logistics, transport, storage and 3PL, each with its own complications and disruptions.

Margins remain tight. Yet the range of services you need to offer is increasingly broad: customers want ever-higher quality and seek specialist support across the entire supply chain.

It is possible to prosper. But only for the most competitive, well-run and efficient companies.

Growing Expectations

Warehousing and distribution have always been hugely competitive, low-margin sectors. Now the rise of ecommerce has set new standards in B2C parcel delivery standards that we are seeing reflected across the entire market. There are ever-increasing demands in terms of information, timeliness, reliability and cost.

Service level agreements (SLA) also have rising demands as B2C ecommerce has redefined market expectations. The challenge with SLAs is partly adherence and partly demonstrating adherence.

At the same time regulatory requirements have grown more complex:

For mid-market businesses, all of these expectations are not matched by generous budgets! New technology can solve all of the above issues, but the investment costs can be high.

Mid-market wholesalers and distributors can absolutely meet or even exceed customer expectations and external requirements. They just have to be incredibly strategic about technology. They need systems that guarantee ROI. They must select the best and most cost-effective suppliers, negotiate the best possible deals, and ensure that their investments deliver real financial benefits.

Start by Getting the Technology Basics Right

For ambitious mid-market companies, tech is central to success in this tough environment. So then how does a mid-market company on a limited budget use technology to drive growth and customer satisfaction?

The answer is straightforward: get the basics right. If the technology agenda is submerged in day-to-day problems, there is little time to talk about vision!

What follows if a brief list of priorities:

  1. Ownership. Tech needs a senior leader who can set strategy, be part of the business decision-making, and maintain a coherent vision for the future. Without clear ownership, expect problems.
  2. Infrastructure. Identify a sensible and appropriate configuration based on your business; don’t assume everything will be solved with off-the-shelf products. Remember that infrastructure includes hardware desktop computers, mobile devices, factory-floor devices, etc. Modern infrastructure is cloud-based, so insist upon reliable connectivity and security.
  3. Security. Cyber security is a rising problem, and it won’t go away. Make sure that you have right security protocols in place and that your staff has been properly trained. Remember that good habits start at the top: is your CFO scribbling passwords on Post-Its?
  4. Disaster planning. Disaster recovery and business continuity plans must be rehearsed and ready to go at short notice. Make sure that everybody knows who is in charge of what!
  5. Reporting. Accurate, timely reporting must be available so that managers and executives can understand what’s going on, what’s working and what’s not.
  6. Suppliers. Go through the entire list and ensure that you are getting the service you paid for and that the pricing still makes sense. Make sure that your staff is trained in external systems and understands how to tackle problems. Third-party transport management or warehouse management systems can be effective, though the quality of support and customization varies between suppliers. Are they still worth your time and money?
  7. Integration. The wholesale and distribution sector typically have multiple internal and external systems. Are all your systems effectively integrated? Meaning, is there minimal manual effort? Is anybody rekeying? Is data available to dashboards so managers can run the business hour by hour?
  8. Negotiate. When dealing with external suppliers, make sure that at every point you have the right price and service level for your company.

Once Again: Cost-Effectiveness and Ownership

Yes, we said that already. But it bears repeating. If you want to use IT to succeed in your sector, you must identify who is responsible for each and every IT project. Be very clear about who is tracking its implementation and outcome so that the benefits are realized.

And at every step, you need a focused financial argument to ensure that every single project is cost-justified before it gets authorized.

The Future is More Tech

We don’t see warehousing and distribution as getting simpler, in fact, we’re seeing every indication it will become more sophisticated and demanding. We’ll see more AI for route-planning, more chatbots for customer services. Autonomous delivery is just a matter of time.

Some of these technologies will be costly, and mergers will likely put a further squeeze on mid-tier players. But the best companies will prosper. In our experience, the best the companies are the ones with their IT clearly wedded to business goals, the ones using IT to reduce costs, improve service and to focus (or create!) their own points-of-difference.

To find out more about how we could add value to your business, Contact Us and we’ll be in touch for an informal conversation.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time (we call it “fractional”) CIOs and CTOs. We work exclusively with ambitious organizations and we frequently help our clients to use technology to beat their competition.

The 6 Ways Technology Is Crucial to Logistical Success

“Logistics” is a big word. It encompasses wholesaling, distribution, carriage, warehousing, transportation, 3PL, storage and more!

More importantly, each aspect is part of an increasingly competitive market. So how do you capitalize on the opportunities?

For such a complicated sector, the answer is simple: Digital. Get your systems in order and you’ve greatly increased your profitability.

In our experience, there are six key areas in which technology is integral to logistical success:

  1. Cost reduction. Technology is like any other part of a business in that all investments need a well-defined ROI. But in logistics, the narrow margins make tech costs even more of an issue. Thus you have to minimize tech costs while also using technology to save money, for example through process efficiency and clarity of information.
  2. Automated tracking. The key to an efficient operation is real-time tracking. The tracking must be both internal and external to customers and suppliers. This can be complex, involving web portals and an array of mobile and handheld devices. Plus customer expectations keep getting higher. But it’s definitely achievable with the right technology leadership.
  3. Streamlined processes. To keep costs down, it’s critical to have a seamless integration and standardization of internal and external processes. When it’s done right, it also minimizes errors and maximizes simplicity. The focus must be on scalability and achieving tight connections between customers and suppliers.
  4. Flexibility. With logistics, “flexibility” means both expansion and contraction. You must be able to rapidly and efficiently take on new business or acquisitions. And you must be equally efficient when taking down operations in order to maintain profitability, providing financial stability and confidence at every point of the business cycle.
  5. Disaster planning. Technology outages—whether due to cyberattacks, some natural event, or a freak accident—will happen if you don’t prepare for them. An outage can lead to major losses and lawsuits, as well as reputational damage. The necessary preparations need not be expensive or even that complicated (think: two-factor authentication), but they do need to be properly configured and rolled out.
  6. Strategy. However clear your business strategy, you won’t get far unless you have a clear tech strategy to match. That means understanding:

Of course, this is a particularly difficult moment for businesses. But we believe that the current stresses are only accelerated existing problems. Less efficient businesses are struggling, while those with better technology leadership are scaling up. These six areas are the right place to start if you’re looking to see how you can do better.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time (we call it “fractional”) CIOs and CTOs. We work exclusively with ambitious organizations and we frequently help our clients use IT to beat their competition. Contact Us and we’ll be in touch for an informal conversation.

Systems Integration and Reporting

Ambitious businesses need efficient and scalable systems and processes. They allow a business to flourish while continuing to provide good service, maintain high margins, and generate cash.

On the other hand, systems that don’t talk to each other make a simple business complicated — poor integration leads to manual work, errors, and other issues. Poor information means that decisions are based on gut feeling rather than hard fact; time and effort are wasted; and customer service inevitably declines. And poor internal systems can prevent you from rolling out digital initiatives – quite simply, you can’t be digital on the outside unless you’re digital on the inside.

Often, integration problems are a mix of tech, process, organization and people issues. To address all these problems, our Principals ask the most basic questions: are your systems really driven by the needs of your customers, or simply by the historic way of doing things?

We will honestly assess these factors and get to root causes. We then put in place a budgeted plan with clear benefits and ensure that those changes are delivered. It may be simple, minor fixes, or a whole new back-office ERP system.

But integration is about more than just fixing tech! We take responsibility for ensuring that the business upside is actually delivered.

If you’d like to know more about how we can help you with your business systems integration challenges, visit us at our website or contact us directly. We’d be happy to have a conversation with you.

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Graeme Freeman
Co-Founder and Director

Subscribe to our Business Insights

Plain English board-level briefings focused on technology strategies to deliver competitive advantage and business success.

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Thank you.

You’ll now receive regular expert business insights.

Call us on 0203 020 1864 with any questions.