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Interview: Pippa Thomas, regional IT director, Freeman Clarke

Freeman Clarke’s regional IT director, Pippa Thomas, on the role of interim CIOs and why organisations use them

As organisations seek to solve their legacy technology and transformation issues fast, an interim CIO is an option sought by many. Once the temporary IT leader is on board, however, the pressure is on to start delivering results – a routine often seen by Pippa Thomas, regional IT director at Freeman Clarke. 

With a team of 10 IT directors, Thomas covers the East Midlands and South Yorkshire regions, where she typically works with mid-sized companies on a part-time basis. With a portfolio of 30 regional customers, the executive says the main challenge is having to hit the ground running. 

“We need to join our clients’ senior team and start to make a difference within a few days, rather than a few months. We’re expected to slot in and feel like one of the family, to understand how their business ticks and to rapidly translate the commercial priorities into an IT strategy,” Thomas tells Computer Weekly. 

Long-lasting partnerships mean the interim CIOs often become trusted and embedded at these organisations, which introduces other complexities. 

“We don’t think of ourselves as outsourced, we think of ourselves as insourced – so I have to lead a team of highly experienced people who become very attached to their clients, and of course that has its own problems,” says Thomas.

Conversely, she says the variety and opportunity of the interim business is also key to keeping her role interesting. 

In search of an IT strategy 

According to Thomas, clients tend to look for an interim CIO because they have a business strategy but don’t have an IT strategy to match.  

Work covered by the temporary IT directors involves just about every aspect of technology, from infrastructure and bespoke software to IT services, including “new” demands in areas such as the internet of things and automation.

“Often, they are planning complex improvements and they need an expert leader to manage this, to look after their internal team or external suppliers and to drive innovation,” she says.

“Most of our clients are planning to grow, so we identify what that really means and how their IT needs to change to support this”
Pippa Thomas, Freeman Clarke

The state of clients’ IT estates varies widely, as do the challenges the interims have to tackle. One of Freeman Clarke’s clients – warehousing business Alltruck – has a mix of desk-based users, complex hosted systems, process automation and in-vehicle equipment.   

Strategies employed by the interim IT directors also vary between clients, to suit their needs and business plans, says Thomas. 

“Most of our clients are planning to grow, so we identify what that really means and how their IT needs to change to support this,” she says.

According to the executive, this can be enterprise resource planning (ERP) replacement projects, new infrastructure to support increased mobility, or digital projects to increase revenue or reach.  

Instigating and managing change

A feature of how Freeman Clarke works is that it employs phased strategies, so the company might start by stabilising and rationalising clients’ IT to get things running simply and smoothly first. But quite quickly this could morph into aligning IT with the business strategy.

“For example, if the business is focused on customer service, then we will consider how IT can contribute to this. If the business is focused on maximising client revenue, then we will think about how IT systems can be integrated or add value. If the aim is to build intellectual property in preparation for an exit, then IT can obviously have a major role to play,” says Thomas.  

One current client scenario, for example, is a recently purchased, mid-sized firm where the new owners wanted a post-due diligence, pragmatic approach. 

“Within three months, we have created a pragmatic transformation plan and got stuck into delivering this. It includes modernising technology and the culture within the IT team, reducing risk and finding ways to grab competitive advantage,” says Thomas.

She mentions the roll-out of new telephony, migration to Microsoft Office 365 and a cloud-based HR system as examples of projects that have been introduced at the firm.  

But Freeman Clarke also works with companies that have been “taken advantage of” by an IT supplier, says Thomas. This could have happened by, for example, selling the user an inappropriate platform that is a poor match for the business’s needs.

“Money has been wasted customising to an inappropriate level and the supplier has not been managed. Others have taken services for infrastructure and support and are experiencing outages that are becoming business critical,” says Thomas. 

“Sometimes, the clients have outgrown the internal knowledge and have not asked suppliers the right questions. We bat on the side of our clients, but we will be frank about where they need to change too,” she concludes. 

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