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Podcast: The Curious CIO

How do you get to the top spot in technology? And how do you stay there? Freeman Clarke’s ‘The Curious CIO’ brings you the stories of technology leaders, how they made it to the Boardroom, and what they learned along the way. Featuring CIO James Alcock and CEO (and former CIO) Steve Clarke, ‘The Curious CIO’ is a conversation about leadership, business, and technology.

For over 20 years, James Alcock has helped CEOs and business leaders ensure long-term success with sound technology strategies. He focuses on harnessing digital innovations to reduce risk, increase competitive advantage, and add value.
Steve Clarke is an IT and technology expert with a deep interest in leadership and career development for CIOs. He is co-founder and director of Freeman Clarke, the UK’s largest and most experienced team of fractional CIOs, CTOs, and IT Directors.

Freeman Clarke provide fractional, Board-level IT leadership for mid-market businesses. Our technology leaders become part of the senior team to drive growth with technology—at a fraction of the cost.

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E1: Sajjad Ahmed: From a Pakistani wheatfield to CIO (and back) 
The podcast kicks off with Sajjad Ahmed, CIO at International SOS, who started thinking about leadership as a 9-year-old in Pakistan. Ahmed explains his journey from Pakistan to a London boardroom, his motivations and leadership style, and how he keeps a CEO engaged in the technology function.


Top 8 challenges for IT leaders in 2021

At the beginning of 2021, outlined what they believed would be this year’s top eight challenges for IT leaders:

  1. Facilitating the future of work
  2. Securing the hybrid enterprise
  3. Flipping the 80/20 IT landscape
  4.  Skilling up for accelerated digital roadmaps
  5. Scrutinising IT budgets
  6. Maintaining 24/7 uptime
  7. Battling burnout
  8. Blending safety and innovation

Well, okay, I get all these. But is this as good as it gets? Couldn’t we aim a bit higher?

For example, we shouldn’t be ‘facilitating the future of work,’ we should be driving it! As for 24/7 uptime, surely we’ve all got that in place already? Particularly now, when technology has enabled businesses to carry on despite the pandemic?

I think we can easily come up with a more inspirational and impactful list—especially when we’re looking for talking points to bring to the CEO.

In this accelerated moment, CEO attentions are more than usually divided. But part of your job as a CIO is to make a case to the CEO for how technology makes a difference to competitive advantage. Technology can and should be the key to more rapid growth, to outstripping the competition, and to becoming more profitable.

And yet the above list would have us focus on infrastructure. If we were in a car, it’s as if the next five sets of traffic lights have all turned green, and yet we’re driving along in second gear: admiring the scenery when we should be hitting the gas.

So, what do I think we should be doing now? We need to focus on getting the CEO excited about their IT. And we need to demonstrate, as CIOs, that we’re commercially astute businesspeople and not propeller heads. We need to show that we’re thinking about how to help the company grow faster and make more money.

So, what about this list instead:

1.      Omnichannel everywhere. Everyone engages with the business however they wish, whether they’re suppliers, customers, or employees.

2.      Bring the customers closer. Digitisation of everything—now!

3.      Integrate and automate to speed up the business; RPA, APIs and Middleware to deliver a connected business.

4.      Real BI/MI to make delivering data the lifeblood of the business and enable fantastic decision-making.

5.      Give the business what it wants. Departments should want to come to you first.

6.      Support innovation. Create sandboxes where employees can safely innovate.

7.      Programmes and projects delivered on time, within budget, and to specification. Always.

8.      Right person in the right seat on the right bus. Wrong people off the bus.

Consider this list less about challenges than priorities. After all, if there is anything that past eighteen months has taught us, it’s that challenges have a way of finding you whether you plan for them or not.

Are you on your “A”​ game? Keeping yourself up to date has never been more vital…

FACT: The CIO/CTO position is the only Board position where the necessary knowledge and skills need constant updating. Just like Moore’s Law has seen the exponential increase in computing power, so has the IT expert’s need to stay abreast of technology. It can be a nightmare. CEOs want their teams to be on their ‘A’ Game, and for us that means constantly updating our knowledge and our ability to handle new tech.

And the stakes are high. IT increasingly underpins all strategic business objectives—no department can deliver them without IT. It’s our team that increasingly underwrites the strategic objectives and enables the CEO to deliver them and to provide shareholder value. So we absolutely must understand the latest technology and being able to discuss options, ideas, and principles with department heads.

We don’t have to know everything. I’m not talking about in-depth ‘build-a-layered-network’ type of knowledge. I mean having enough technical knowledge to be able to innovate, to make informed strategic decisions, to keep the business ahead of the competition, and to know what the technicians are talking about.

This means that a fundamental part of knowledge acquisition is deciding what to learn, how to learn and when to learn. So, how do you choose?

We use a simple diagram:

No alt text provided for this image

The idea then is to figure out where each bit of technology falls on the continuum. Here is what I suggest:

1. Think about your current situation and the needs. You might even make a list:

·      What do you need?

·      What does the company need?

·      What does your team need?

2. Once you have the needs in front of you, prioritise:

Where is the most urgent need for knowledge? Concentrate on that area, but don’t ignore the others—make sure they have an appropriate place in the order.

3. Work out how best to gain this knowledge. There are a number of ways to learn:

·      The traditional route. Websites, books, magazine articles, etc. Many CIOs we know set up Google Alerts on topics they want to stay on top of. This method is useful for finding new knowledge or innovative ideas.

·      The on-the-go route. Podcasts, TED sessions, audiobooks and the like—sources that you can learn from when you’re driving or exercising. This method works well for topic assessment or getting under the skin of a specific technology.

·      The planned attendance route. These are occasions when you’ve signed up to a training session, a conference, or a webinar, because the topic is interesting and useful, but it’s not an immediate priority. It’s also useful for ‘large topic’ learning.

·      Just-in-time. This is when you’re just a few pages ahead of those you’re working with. This sort of knowledge can be gained from peers, colleagues, or even the technical teams. You just need to know how to ask the right questions. This is not a substitute for the other routes; it has to be ‘as-well-as,’ not ‘instead-of.’

·      ‘Find an expert who knows.’ Look within your network for someone with an in-depth knowledge of the subject. Buy them a coffee or lunch and find out the salient points. Also: ask the expert how he or she acquires their knowledge; they may know a website or seminar you haven’t heard of.

Remember that for the most part this is not about monolithic knowledge. It’s about distinguishing which pieces of knowledge will be useful to you and the business. Prince2, for example, is all very well. But if you try and implement the whole thing you lose credibility. Instead, implement a few useful parts as the basis of sensible project management. The key to knowledge acquisition is knowing which bits to leave on the cutting room floor.

CIOs and CTOs have a complex job, and their knowledge base reflects that. It’s not just the functional IT knowledge they need to keep improving, there’s all the IT leadership knowledge as well. Not to mention the business and commercial skills, like forecasting and budgets. Whilst these other areas of knowledge don’t change at half the speed functional IT does, they do move on. So you need to constantly review the diagram above, adjusting your learning objectives accordingly.

A successful CIO or CTO will be the one who invests time and energy in judiciously updating their knowledge and skills. If it’s not yet a priority for you, it damn well should be! The fundamental point is don’t let it become something that you look back on and realise you should have done more of. Regret can be a painful thing to have in a career.


The power of technology: online service delivery

We’ve seen so many changes in online service delivery. What does it all mean to a mid-market business? Our IT and technology experts discuss the pressing topics in online service delivery, such as the big shift to ecommerce, adding value post-purchase, better integration with vendors to save time and money, and meeting the needs of demanding corporate clients.

Also, visit our Technology Roadmap for Growth Knowledge Centre, which includes more on this topic.


Freeman Clarke is the UK’s largest and most experienced team of fractional IT leaders. We work exclusively with ambitious organisations, helping our clients use IT to beat the competition. Contact us and we’ll be in touch for an informal conversation.

Online Service Delivery: Don’t forget job satisfaction

Your systems strategy should focus on what the clients want. But staff must be a consideration as well. Our IT and technology experts discuss how systems strategy can be a crucial factory in the attraction and retention of staff.

[Watch the full Online Service Delivery video here]

Online service delivery series:

Part 1: Ecommerce in the mid-market: The new normal

Part 2: Adding after sale value

Part 3: What it really comes down to…

Part 4: Don’t forget job satisfaction


Visit our Digital Transformation Knowledge Centre which includes all content related to this topic.

Online Service Delivery: What it really comes down to…

What’s the real point of Online Service Delivery? Delivering value, not just the lowest price. Our IT and technology experts get to the bottom of it.

[Watch the full Online Service Delivery video here]

Online service delivery series:

Part 1: Ecommerce in the mid-market: The new normal

Part 2: Adding after sale value

Part 3: What it really comes down to…

Part 4: Don’t forget job satisfaction


Visit our Digital Transformation Knowledge Centre which includes all content related to this topic.

Online Service Delivery: Adding after sale value

New tools have made it much easier and cheaper to deliver information, offers, and new services to customers after they buy. Our IT and technology experts discuss new ways to add value after the purchase is done.

[Watch the full Online Service Delivery video here]

Online service delivery series:

Part 1: Ecommerce in the mid-market: The new normal

Part 2: Adding after sale value

Part 3: What it really comes down to…

Part 4: Don’t forget job satisfaction


Visit our Digital Transformation Knowledge Centre which includes all content related to this topic.


Online service delivery: E-commerce in the mid-market

We’ve seen a huge increase in Freeman Clarke B2B clients moving into the ecommerce space. Whilst many mid-market businesses have resisted the shift, it’s been a boon for our clients. Our IT and technology experts provide their thoughts on this ecommerce in the mid-market.

[Watch the full Online Service Delivery video here]

Online service delivery series:

Part 1: Ecommerce in the mid-market: The new normal

Part 2: Adding after sale value

Part 3: What it really comes down to…

Part 4: Don’t forget job satisfaction

Visit our Digital Transformation Knowledge Centre which includes all content related to this topic.

Improving Business Performance: 5 Key Areas for the Mid-Market

An economic cycle is over. We’re entering a period wherein war, commodity shocks, worker shortages, and calamitous politicians have made a global slowdown very likely. Static or shrinking markets make good business performance harder, and yet business leaders need to deliver against the odds.

We believe that the right systems and digital strategy can help any mid-market business navigate the coming slowdown. So as 2023 approaches, we recommend focusing on five key areas below. (Further content on improving business performance can be found here).

    1. Data and information management

Many businesses are now drowning in data and struggling to meet compliance regulations when they could be drawing value from this asset. There is an increasing gap between organisations with up-to-date, accurate management information on-demand, and those who do not.

No business improvement initiative will be successful unless there is clear data to measure and monitor the changes. Of course, in many cases significant systems, process, and organisational changes are necessary to enable improved reporting, so it can be a complicated journey.

Clear data both drives improvement and supports effective business-as-usual processes. In one recent example, we helped drive information improvements that enabled a healthcare products provider to increase revenue from £25 to £150M!

    2. The digital customer experience.

Since the pandemic, any aspect of business that can be online is now expected to be so—engagement, sales, service, and fulfilment. And since most businesses are aiming to avoid pure price competition, then the online customer experience is crucial—effectively, the business’s brand becomes defined by their customers’ experience online.

Many companies want to excel in terms of customer service. Ironically, their efforts are hamstrung by their IT, rather than enabled by it.

One the other hand, one of our clients—a mid-market, high-value homewares company—relies on their IT and technology for customer service excellence. They stay ahead of the competition by providing quick and accurate updates on manufacture and delivery through their online portal and telephone support—which is enabled by the streamlined systems and processes below the waterline.

    3. Staff experience and engagement.

This is another situation in which IT can create problems or solve them.

Great businesses prosper because their staff are highly engaged and able to do great work! Unfortunately, in many businesses, people are bogged down by frustrating, time-consuming issues created by IT and systems. IT seems to get in the way rather than guide the way.

Across the world it’s increasingly difficult to attract good people, and broken systems and processes can be a source of attrition, which is a hugely expensive distraction. Any business leader can tell you that when key people are leaving it’s very difficult to make progress.

People deserve modern IT and systems that enable them to do rewarding work and to adopt office, home, or hybrid working as appropriate.

Increasingly RPA (software robots) and machine learning allow each person to be backed by multiple automated agents, reducing drudgery and amplifying their efforts.

    4. Integration up and down, inside and out.

Systems integration dramatically impacts company performance, internally and with customers, suppliers, and partners.

As above, too often staff spend a considerable amount of time rekeying and wrangling between systems, either to fulfil process requirements or to provide reports and analysis. In the past, the frequent remedy was to roll out an ERP solution. But the challenge is becoming more complex, as businesses increasingly rely on SaaS services to provide everything from financial systems to line of business and offline analysis and optimisation.

Many subscription services are cost-effective and of high quality. But they are often purchased ad-hoc and used by individual departments in a disconnected way, creating ever-greater integration challenges. Vendors described this strategy as ‘best of breed’, but it can rapidly begin to feel like an ugly mutt.

Your systems strategy needs to enable strong internal integration and to allow for integration up, down, and across the value-chain. This makes your business easier to work with and stickier. It also enables you to work with corporates who expect systems integration as normal.

    5. Transaction readiness.

The fast beat the slow. For many mid-market businesses, opportunities to acquire, merge, or exit come unexpectedly and with a brief window. The businesses who can capitalise on these opportunities are ‘transaction-ready’ all the time.

This means you need important things available on short notice: access to capital, of course, as well as the skills and capabilities to conduct due diligence, make purchases, and efficiently integrate systems between companies. Or it means being ready to come under scrutiny from a potential purchaser when you come into their sights.

IT and technology are often-overlooked aspects of transaction readiness. But in every economic climate, we’ve helped our clients find and deliver on transactions and value opportunities by focusing on their IT, systems, and processes.

If there’s one point we want to make here, it’s that a business is only as good as the choices its leaders make, no matter what’s happening politically or economically. Our advice has always been to first get clear on which aspects of business performance you need to focus on, and then design your systems and technology accordingly.

It’s undeniable that the past few years have been uniquely challenging. But we’ve been through several downturns, and we’ve seen our clients weather them—and even thrive—when they got clarity on these five key areas of their IT and technology.

In good times and bad, systems and digital strategies are an absolutely critical part of mid-market success.

Here is more content about improving business performance
And for a no-strings, no-pressure conversation about IT and Technology, get in touch

business reporter and independent


The Future of Digital Transformation

Let’s start with a definition. For us, digital transformation means using IT and technology to dramatically change your business for the better.

That may mean a custom or bespoke software product. Or it may mean integrating your systems on the back end, or a complete overhaul of your IT systems and suppliers. Whatever the tech issues, it means focusing on your customers, your market, and your risks. Every choice is to ensure that the internal operation of your company is not limiting its growth.

Another important point is that the transformation is individual to your company. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and anyone telling you so is after your wallet.

That doesn’t mean we won’t see big changes in the next few years. Again and again we’ve watched as what used to seem like extraordinary technologies—such as voice recognition, complex mapping and routing, and software robots—quietly become a part of the everyday life of a mid-market company.

Similarly, though the excitement about drone deliveries and artificial intelligence seems to have faded, we still think they’re coming. Whenever I see such innovations being tested, I think they’re important guides to what will gradually come to our sector, the mid-market.

How the Pandemic Transformed Digital Transformation

Before we get into what’s coming, it’s useful to look back. The pandemic changed digital transformation in two fundamental ways.

First, everything went online, and faster than we had thought possible. Everyone now expects online sales, service, and support. Business and domestic consumers rapidly adopted online channels for finding and buying a wide range of products and services. This also extended to after-sales and re-ordering, which are online now in a way that seemed unlikely in 2019.

Similarly, paper is on its way out. Cash has been side-lined by electronic payment. Printed brochures and catalogues have disappeared from many sectors. (In fact, if your business is still reliant on paper, that would be the place to start a digital transformation of your company. More ideas here.).

Second, we saw a rapid shift to remote work. Not that it was a simple process: we saw business struggle when their systems and processes were badly integrated and ill-defined. But everyone, whether they liked it or not, quickly got used to collaborating online.

In every situation above, old-fashioned managers were saying, “It will never work.” Which leads me to conclude that often digital transformation is driven by attitude rather than what is technically possible. And attitudes have changed irreversibly.

What’s Coming to the Mid-Market

In the near future, for many mid-market businesses the next phase of digital transformation will focus on the following:

  1. Data, data, data. It’s never been easier to accumulate data. Companies will leverage these new assets for smarter use by humans and AI. Combining data from different sources is now far easier, and cloud-based processing allows for rapid insights that would have been unthinkable even quite recently. The businesses that adopt data visualisation technologies, simple machine learning, and process automation will have a competitive advantage.
  2. External integration. Internal integration and adoption of the cloud should be in the rear-view mirror. (If that doesn’t describe your situation, that’s the first step to transforming your company.) Businesses should only select tech products that support integration and should gravitate towards suppliers, customers, and partners who form integrated communities. Because integrated communities will out-perform those that are not.
  3. Points of difference. As cutting-edge technology becomes more widely available, companies will have to work harder to distinguish themselves by their actual product or service. Their brand really must mean something, and they really do need a competitive edge. For example, now any company can stream movies like Netflix; Disney+ has surged ahead on the strength of its content.
  4. Environmental, social, and governance concerns. Both regulators and consumers will insist upon more transparency when it comes to data use and environmental sustainability. Traceability of products, optimisation of materials and energy consumption, privacy, security, and justifiable decision-making will all become part of the digital transformation agenda.
  5. Virtual currency. Products and services will be increasingly virtual and paid for with virtual currency. It remains to be seen which form of digital currency will prevail. But mid-market companies need to tune into this accelerating change and invest in new types of virtual storefronts and virtual branding. Though I hate to use the term, this is the metaverse.

What Hasn’t Changed—and Likely Never Will?

Most mid-market businesses are deeply concerned about supply chain issues, recruitment, and energy costs. New technologies—and the judicious application of existing solutions—can ease all these issues, but only if you successfully meet human needs at the same time.

Zoom and shared docs are no substitute for real face-to-face collaboration. You cannot have a real creative discussion, shift entrenched opinions, or lift someone’s spirits online. Digital transformation can drive everyday productivity. But for most people, an enjoyable job also means human contact.

Most people also want their company to have a vision beyond profit. They want to draw more from their work than just their salary. Digital transformation can absolutely make a difference in a mid-market business—but only when you include the human factor.

No matter what your sector or the size of your business, a digital transformation won’t take unless your staff feel included and valued.

With all that in mind, now it’s time to think about your company. If you redo your IT and technology with a magic wand, how would you do things differently? What barriers to growth would you remove?

Here are 10 ideas to start your Digital Transformation Journey

For more guidance on digital transformation, see our free, plain-English guides here. And for a no-strings, no-pressure conversation about the digital transformation opportunities within your own business, get in touch.



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Graeme Freeman
Co-Founder and Director

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You’ll now receive regular expert business insights.

Call us on 0203 020 1864 with any questions.

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