Interview with Mark Gordon – commercial director of Agilisys

Mark Gordon is Commercial Director at Agilisys acts as ‘the technology and transformation partner for the public sector’. Wikipedia describes it thus:

Agilisys is an IT software and Business services provider which has its headquarters in London, United Kingdom with a focus in local government and citizen-centric technology products. Employing around 1,500 staff, it provides customer services, ICT and consulting services.

While local authorities do indeed make up the majority of the Agilisys clients, it also has the States of Guernsey as a customer and health care clients are an increasing focus.

Mark Gordon’s remit is a wide one but the emphasis is on risk management, governance issues and project-related matters. As Mark said, ‘my predecessor, Ron Reynolds, helped define the role of the Commercial Director in Agilisys. He established that Agilisys would always put the emphasis on client satisfaction. We don’t sell what we can’t deliver. It is my job to make sure that we stick to that philosophy’.

Agilisys prides itself on making realistic bids and a lot of Mark’s work focuses on the bid review process. I put the old slur about commercial directors being ‘sales prevention officers’ to Mark and he acknowledged that he was sensitive to that jibe. For him, the key is not to block but to propose innovative solutions:

‘Good client service is not about saying “Yes” to everything the client requests but about making sure that everything we commit to is deliverable to the standard expected by the client – or to a higher standard’.

One route to that is working constructively with clients: ‘we might spot adverse outcomes that the client has overlooked; we don’t want them to have any nasty surprises – we “walk the line” with them’. There is a broad spectrum of clients, some of whom want to work with Agilisys in partnership (‘sometimes with a capital P’, says Mark) and those who want to work with Agilisys pragmatically fit best with its ethic and approach, which is not exploitative but facilitative.

Mark cited one project that he worked on with John Yates of V-LEX as demonstrating how Agilisys can work with clients to resolve issues so that Mark avoids the risk of being seen as a sales prevention officer.

‘We discussed detailed risk with the client, pointing out that the tender created opportunities for adverse outcomes and unnecessary conflict. We pointed out that, if they selected a tender based purely on the criteria they had produced, they were likely to end up in a world of pain – with dispute notices, relief notices and so on. We offered alternative solutions. John and I came up with genuinely innovative proposals that helped both the client and us. That methodology of not blocking but trying to find a way through is genuinely important.

It’s in that sort of environment where John’s qualities are especially useful. He’s pragmatic. When you are working through a bid and you want a bit of clear advice, he doesn’t mess around and that allows you to be quite agile in your decision-making. He will speak plainly if he thinks you are going adrift and is very quick on the uptake, which means that you can have short dynamic discussions with him on quite complex matters. He gets to the nub of it very quickly and you don’t have to waste time on the periphery – you can cut straight to the quick. His commercial outlook means that you don’t get him telling you that you are mad and cannot do something but will work with you to find a way around the blocks. All of which plays into not being a blocker!’

For Mark, the key to post-deal success is project management. Agilisys conducts fortnightly reviews, dubbed AWDRs (Agilisys Way Delivery Review), which set standards, provide a common portal and allow for an orderly and open exchange:

‘For example, on our RPA (Robotic Process Automation) work, we might spend time thinking not only about what happens when the robot goes live but questioning whether the client has thought about the risks and safeguards associated with it. That might create an opportunity to intervene early on and avoid banging your head on a lamppost in the future.’

Mark is also much involved in supervising contract compliance, particularly where there are long-term frameworks in place. That can be a laborious process for those involved (creating complex spreadsheets and scoring obligations for risk level, for example) but it helps to identify areas of concern

Mark turned to the way contracts were developing:

‘The world of the large bundled contracts is no more. We are seeing a degree of insourcing and an increased degree of a SIAM [Services Integration and Management] approach to providing IT services. We have adapted so as to accept some of the government framework – the G-cloud framework for instance – and I think these are sympathetic to the SIAM model. Our 80 different G-cloud agreements allow us to sell much smaller packets of work than under bundled outsourced programmes, which reflects the way the market has moved. At Agilisys, we have adapted so that we will now sometimes tender for pure systems integration projects – that’s a big change from when I joined Agilisys six years ago when we were almost exclusively dealing with outsource run contracts.’

Although trained as an accountant (‘those days are long behind me’), it is his background in construction project management that Mark has found useful in his role as Commercial Director at Agilisys. He has brought the major focus on programmes that prevails in construction to applications such as systems integration. In both cases, finishing on programme is the way to make money on a contract – and vice versa. But Mark had to adjust to the challenge that an IT environment brought, where, for instance with coding, there was nothing concrete to inspect and establishing progress (or the lack of it) is difficult to document.

I also asked about Mark’s views on lawyers and their role in bids.

‘I think the trick is communication. People come to me, time and again, having agreed something and try to write a contract out. I tell them that what we need is the deal written in plain simple English – don’t worry about “reasonable endeavours” and all that nonsense – just write it down. I want to engage with the client in simple English and I don’t want to engage with a lawyer until I have, to a certain altitude, got that deal tied down to my satisfaction. Involving John Yates on big deals is something of an exception to that modus operandi.’

Mark was highly complimentary about the in-house lawyer at Agilisys but as bid volumes ebb and flow Agilisys relies on  outside expertise.. Agilisys use experienced IT lawyers and, apart from V-LEX, it’s the individual rather than the firm that matters to Mark in terms of deals.

I asked how he identified when to involve V-LEX:

‘A good recent example, where our in-house lawyer wanted to involve John, was a health care bid – and John has a lot of expertise in that area. But the second reason was that it was potentially quite complex and risky. In that instance, even at an early stage when I am drawing up the heads of agreement and establishing the tactics, it is good to have John around. Basically, I look to involve him in the bigger and more complex bids.’

Looking ahead, Mark addressed what he expected to change in the near future. He feels that some clients have been desperate to take services in-house and use SIAM models and some may be surprised by the level of complexity involved and will realise that it is cheaper and better to outsource.

‘What Agilisys do is a very specialist expertise. I look at what the teams do across the projects, in managing risks, keeping clients up to date with technology and advising clients, and I am in awe of what they achieve. Then you see clients eager to bring services in-house and I think “be careful what you wish for”. The majority of our clients are not falling into that trap but are renewing contracts with us. But I do think that the market generally lacks a full appreciation of what the outsourcing has provided in terms of savings, risk management and innovation.’

Mark sees the ‘race to the Cloud’ bringing more and more commoditisation of aspects of IT. Information governance poses a problem as, on the one hand, storage is now so cheap that the temptation is just to leave material stored but, on the other hand, information governance is pushing in the other direction: ‘Receiving an information request these days is highly problematic because you have so much to go through.’ Mark feels that managing that process, and information governance generally, in an environment where there are so many seeking to undermine systems is going to get harder and harder.

‘In terms of the workplace, I think Covid-19 has changed the world for ever. The ability to work remotely and have mobile control of tasks will persist. There are some dynamics missing, just meeting the team for a drink or conversations “over the sound barrier” with our in-house lawyer, but in general terms I think working practices have changed for good.’