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Introduction to Office Automation Using Software Robots

Look around an office and you will see plenty of people whose main work is dealing with systems and information. Data, requests and instructions come in from emails and other sources, and go out similar ways. People handle information, organize it, fix it, share it, and ensure that different systems are up to date so that the right things happen. In this short video we discuss how this data handling can be replaced by office automation using software robots. A number of our clients are using this technology – and although there can be challenges the benefits and efficiencies far outweigh these.

Visit our Robotic Process Automation (RPA) Knowledge Center, which includes more plain-English content related to this topic.

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.

Preparing for Strategic IT Demands from Corporate Clients

It can be a lucrative opportunity when you get the chance to provide products or services to corporate clients. Large, stable clients can be a good market, and they can be powerful advocates for your brand.

But these clients come with challenges. Corporate procurement departments often impose stringent IT demands. Although meeting these demands can be a pain, once you get through those hoops, then you have earned a tangible competitive advantage.

In such situations, Freeman Clarke Principals are often called in to help. We’ve created the below CEO’s briefing on the subject to shed light on the most common issues and opportunities that pop up with corporate clients.

This area is of specific interest to our clients in the logistics/3PL sector—we have a specific briefing on this sector which you can find here.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time, or fractional CIOs and CTOs. We work exclusively with organizations looking to use IT to grow their business. If you’d like to discuss how Freeman Clarke could support your business contact us now for a no-strings conversation.

What is Digital Transformation, Really?

This is the first in our four-part series on Digital Transformation.

Many mid-sized businesses see IT simply as an ongoing problem. When the Board meets, the IT slot is dominated by discussions about anti-virus software, operating system upgrades, contract negotiations and laptop replacement costs. The Board uses up its time, money and emotional energy on these operational details.

What they’re missing is that IT genuinely has the ability to transform a business. IT can bring radical and new ways to grow the business, to serve customers better, and to increase profit margins. And the market places a far higher value on businesses that exploit these benefits.

These opportunities, which many refer to vaguely as “Digital Transformation”, should be the focus of the Board discussions about IT.

So what exactly is Digital Transformation?

For our clients, digital transformation simply means using IT to deliver dramatic improvement. It’s going beyond simple upgrades or fixing niggling IT problems. It means using IT to make a significant change for the better.

Sometimes it’s pretty straightforward, a matter of following IT best practice, which is surprisingly rare! Or it may mean genuine innovation, utilizing technology that breaks new (or newish) ground.

At Freeman Clarke, we see Digital Transformation in terms of four categories.

The Four Kinds of Digital Transformation

  1. Market breakthrough. For example, some of our clients have used their expertise to create software that offers new kinds of specialist services. Some manufacturers or wholesalers have become retailers. Some have added value by repackaging or combining products and services from other companies.
  2. Wowing customers. This happens when providing your customers with the experience they want, how and when they want it, rather than imposing your processes on them. And it can give you new ways to de-commoditize your offering by focusing on service rather than price.
  3. Internal redesign. Many companies’ internal business processes are patchwork decades-old solutions. New technology allows you to completely rethink your processes, to design from scratch to suit your team, your profit goals, and most importantly your customers. AI or software robots allow you to automate manual tasks and reduce errors.
  4. Risk reduction. Traditional processes often carry unnecessary risks that affect your company’s competitiveness. New technology can provide real-time risk assessment and automation of controls. Or it may allow you to offer higher guarantees to demanding (but high-value!) clients.

These categories are not hard-and-fast rules. In some cases, transformations cross boundaries, for example, radical improvements to internal fulfillment that enables significant improvement to customer service as well. And better internal processes can reduce risk as well as improve margins.

But these categories are a good starting point for any discussion of Digital Transformation.

There may not be enough time at a Board meeting to consider these options, which is why we often suggest a Board-level IT workshop, where you can kick start a discussion with the following questions:

  1. What is it that your market really needs?
  2. What do your customers really care about and value?
  3. If you started with a blank sheet of paper, how would you do things differently?
  4. What are the barriers to solving the above questions, and how might IT remove them?

Remember, Digital Transformation is one of those vague-sounding buzzwords that obscure a relatively simple concept: using IT to deliver dramatic improvement. If you’re interested in a pressure-free discussion about how IT can deliver Digital Transformation to your business, see below to get in touch!

Visit our Knowledge Center which includes all content related to this topic. You may also want to look at our Digital Transformation Knowledge Center.

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

Hiring an Interim Chief Information Officer

Companies often contact us because they want to hire an Interim Chief Information Officer (interim CIO) and they are looking for an interim CIO agency. The term CIO is often used by larger businesses, or by business owners who have a background in larger companies.

We generally use the term IT Director as this is has a broader meaning and covers a wider range of skills and backgrounds.

What is an Interim CIO?

An interim CIO will generally be a Board-level position and will normally have the following objectives:

  1. a robust, secure, trouble-free infrastructure (eg example desktops, email, phones, network, file storage)
  2. efficient line of business systems including processes, people and technology and everything needed to make this work well (eg training, data standards, documentation)
  3. deliver digital initiatives which probably encompass customers, partners and suppliers
  4. ensure compliance and risk management (eg GDPR, PCI, ISO27001).

Click here to download our CIO CTO and IT Director Job Description

The breadth of each of these points and the balance between them will depend very much on the nature of your business.

The Right Interim CIO for Your Company’s Strategy

It is critical to establish the balance between the 4 points above and to attract an individual who has a track record in your critical areas.

Your company strategy may be to achieve lower price, better service or both. You may be looking to focus on internal efficiency, or excellent online experience. Or you may just need to overcome specific issues or risks. Before embarking on a search, you should untangle these points so you know the kind of interim CIO you’re looking for.

In addition, there are 2 other fundamental questions:

  1. Are you looking for someone to envisage and lead major change, or to manage gradual improvements and fix specific issues?
  2. Are you looking for someone to manage internal teams or external suppliers or both?

There are personality and behavioural differences between people who thrive in situations of major change and those who manage steadier improvements. Similarly, there is a great difference between people who build and enthuse internal teams, and those who manage external suppliers through contracts.

How to Hire an Interim CIO

There are a large number of agencies available for interim CIOs that can be found easily on the web. Senior professionals are very credible so we would advise careful preparation for interview and that you diligently take up references before making any offers.

We advise that you consider the following points in relation to interim CIOs:

We spend a huge amount of our time recruiting the very best CIOs in the business to form our elite team of “fractional CIOs”. Our team are committed to working for our clients for the long-term, on a flexible basis, so during intense periods they can spend the bulk of their time with a client, and during quieter periods then can have a lighter touch to keep the client’s IT on track.

When one of our fractional CIOs joins your senior team then they immerse themselves in your business and aim to be with you for the long-term. We’re completely independent and only recommend the best for you.

There is no lock in to our contracts at all and our clients simply work on a “pay as you go” basis, so our people have to make a difference every day.

We use the term IT Director rather than CIO as it is recognised more broadly in the UK. We use the term fractional rather than interim to emphasise between how we work over the disadvantages of an interim.

If you’d like to discuss in more detail how a fractional CIO can benefit your business, please get in touch via our contact us page or call 0203 020 1864.

AI and Midmarket Businesses: The Real Opportunities, and the Hype

From Amazon to Zappos, companies are investing heavily in Artificial Intelligence (AI). They’re using AI to radically change how they work — to redefine good service and to massively reduce their costs.
Many mid-sized businesses, however, feel — incorrectly! — that this kind of innovation is out of reach.

This briefing aims to clarify how AI actually works, and how mid-sized businesses can use it to drive growth. We also provide some real-world examples drawn from our own clients to illustrate the art of the possible. To read the full article on what impact AI (Artificial Intelligence) is having on business click on the thumbnail below.

 

Visit our Knowledge Center which includes all content related to this topic.

Freeman Clarke is the UK’s largest and most experienced team of part-time (we call it “fractional”) IT Directors, CIOs and CTOs. We work exclusively with SME and mid-market organisations 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 IT to Succeed in Third Party Logistics (3PL)

In an increasingly competitive market, the best 3rd party logistics (3PL) firms capture the lion’s share of the opportunities. IT is often a key aspect of their competitiveness and profitability.

How to ensure your business systems are well designed, properly configured, smoothly integrated and effectively used.

The Five Key Ways IT Is Integral to 3PL Success

  1. Keep costs down by assigning responsibility. Both in IT and across the business, every investment must have a director scrutinizing the costs and accountable for delivery. Similarly, because IT costs and process are directly linked, someone needs to have ownership of process efficiency.
  2. Automate tracking. Ensure accurate, effective, up-to-the-minute visibility and tracking of consignments — both internally and externally to customers. This may be complex and involve third parties, but ultimately it means meeting and exceeding customer expectations.
  3. Streamline processes. Strive for integration and standardization of processes and IT within the company and with external customers and partners. This is critical for cost reduction, minimizing errors, and maximizing efficiency.
  4. Aim for flexibility. Work towards being able to rapidly and efficiently take on new business and then deliver on your promises. At the same time, remember that contraction is an inevitable part of business logistics — plan for expansion and contraction to maintain profitability and stability.
  5. Strategize for points of difference. Ensure that your business strategy and your IT strategy are complementary. Streamlined and low-cost operations, automated tracking and flexibility are the pillars for finding points of difference which allow you to avoid competing purely on cost.

As well as the summary above, we have created a more detailed CEO’s briefing on using IT to succeed in 3PL. Click on the link to download the full CEO’s briefing.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time, or fractional, IT leaders. We work exclusively with organizations looking to use IT to grow their business. For an informal conversation, contact us and we’ll be in touch.

CEO’s 15 step guide to bespoke software development

Click on the download button for our full CEO’s briefing on overcoming bespoke software problems or read our short 15 step guide below:

Around a quarter of our clients approach us because they have problems managing bespoke software development or because they are not able to effectively kick off a bespoke software project in a managed way.

These situations can become money pits and a huge waste of time. They can also be a source of great angst and disappointment – we’re often struck by just how exhausting software development can become for CEO’s of mid-market businesses.

Bespoke software offers great opportunities

Bespoke software allows you to create something unique and thus to create real value. It offers the opportunity to build genuine competitive advantage, for example, to radically alter how you work internally, to massively reduce costs, increase performance and hugely improve customer service.

If you want to outperform your competitors by working differently, or if you want to interact with your customer, partners or suppliers on the web in ways that are noticeably better than your competitors then off the shelf software is unlikely to hit the mark.

Furthermore bespoke software may allow you to create products you then license to your own customers to create entirely new revenue streams and differentiate yourself. This can radically reposition a business and substantially change its valuation multiple.

The typical, painful scenarios…

We typically see software which has become unreliable, slow and maybe difficult to fix or can’t be relied on. Sometimes there are issues with developers, either internal or a difficult relationship with an external company.

The vision and plan might make sense to the developers but it doesn’t make sense to the Board and is not rooted in the business strategy. There just doesn’t seem to be someone sensible to have a proper commercial conversation with. Sometimes there are legal and contractual issues as well.
We meet CEOs concerned by the possibility of software issues causing major commercial damage and it may not be clear how to even start sorting the mess out.

The common feature is that often the Board are frustrated with the developers, and (guess what!) the feeling is mutual! The root cause is that software development is complicated, time-consuming to understand and often goes wrong. This can quickly erode the Board’s confidence and lead to broken relationships.

So the question is how to avoid these situations and how to deal with them if they arise?

1. Get everyone clear on the vision for the business opportunity and business objectives. In business terms, why is this software worth having? That’s not the same question as what functionality do we want; the question here is why do we want the software at all.

2. Very simply establish what the software needs to do to fulfil these business objectives. Is it also clear how the software needs to do this (ie the non-functional requirements)?

3. Identify everything needed other than the software to fulfil the business objectives. For example, process improvements, organizational changes, training, marketing strategies, launch plans. Make sure all these have owners.

4. Get an expert technical director. An IT director understands what needs to be done, the options, upsides and downsides. An expert is needed to find creative solutions, to push through solutions and navigate compromises. For larger commercial product development we provide a Chief Technology Officer (CTO).

5. Get an expert day to day manager. Good development relies on having sound tools for programming, testing, management of the code and technical environments and automating technical processes, and good management of documentation and tracking issues and versions.

6. Choose standard products and tools. You need to be able to find developers and support companies for years to come. Stick with mainstream products and approaches.

7. Outsource if you want to contain cost and risk, move quickly, pin down a supplier to a contract, benefit from offshore rates and rely on someone else to recruit great people.

8. Insource if you want to bring creativity and talent into your business, build up software development capability as a core part of your team, and aim to experiment and innovate as you go.

9. Get the legals sorted. Are you paying fixed price? Do you own the software, are you just licensed to use it? Are the tools and frameworks licensed? Is it clear who owns data and other “know how”?

10. Have a simple, clear management approach and make sure it’s understood by all. If you want to get something live quickly, you trust the developers, and you’re happy to engage and explore then an agile approach might work. If you want to pin down all the details and minimize your risk before you start then you probably favour a waterfall approach.

11. Keep the objectives in view and move quickly. The only software that has any value is software that’s live and delivering business benefits. So focus on the “minimum viable product”, get working software live quickly, and then consider alternatives and improvements from there.

12. Make time for testing. Developer’s testing will never reflect real use so you will then have to organize detailed and systematic testing before the software is ready to go live.

13. Even after go-live ensure you have rapid access to developers who can understand and fix problems properly, rather than just paper over cracks. If you are following an agile approach you may have gone live with a bare minimum initially and there will be a continual flow of enhancements for the foreseeable future. Don’t bodge the software, this will always come back to haunt you.

14. Ensure there is adequate documentation. Creating documentation can become an industry in itself without any real value, but having basic documentation in place is critical for long-term viability of any software.

15. Don’t expect it to be easy. If it were easy everyone would be doing it!

Hard to do well, but worth it…

A well managed and maintained bespoke software can be a huge business boost. It can create unique points of difference for your business and allow you to charge premium prices. It can allow you to automate and scale up where more manual business are failing, and it can allow you to innovate beyond the capabilities of off the shelf software.

Because getting bespoke software right is so hard, it can create huge barriers for your competitors. And because few organisations do it well, it will be reflected in the value of your business.

You can read more information about Bespoke Software here, or view our video. Or click on the download button to read our full CEO’s briefing on overcoming bespoke software problems:

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

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Graeme Freeman
Co-Founder and Director

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