Once upon a time in a land far away, one of my first CFOs told me that "technology is the toilet that keeps on flushing." These were not encouraging words for a then-young CIO. I took them as a punch to my professional gut.
Now, with a few more years under my belt and a better understanding of the bigger picture, I understand what he meant. He was saying that technology is a costly resource that has no obvious return on investment. My job as a CIO then (and now) has been to translate technology expenditures into positive business and educational outcomes to show an ROI. I hope I do a better job today than I did back then.
CIOs often have trouble communicating and translating the linkages between technology development and growth and overreaching institutional mission and goals. Most problematic, CIOs resist working with CFOs on a strong formula for return on technology investments.
I'm fortunate to have a very strong relationship with our CFO here at Centre College. It's certainly not the first time I've worked with first-rate colleagues in that seat, but this current one helps me to reflect on the good and bad times.
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CIOs and CFOs must both understand institutional goals and commit to seeing the advantages of a sound technology infrastructure and the strategic use of institutional data. We must find new ways to use technology to help our people work more effectively. The key to a strong partnership is mutual respect and an understanding that both parties want the same success for the institution but have different responsibilities in achieving their common goals.
All CIOs focus on the pillars of administrative software, secure transactional systems, networks, enterprise applications, telephony, institutional data, data analytics, and all the services that are key to keeping things working. Unfortunately, most higher-education CIOs struggle to find time to think strategically about the future of technology on their campuses and how they can use it to improve services for their various constituents (more on that point later).
CFOs generally focus on the cash flow systems that keep the institution moving forward, including payroll, investments, payables, receivables, purchasing contracts, and facilities infrastructure. Most CFOs are also tied to the growth of the institution and must balance the needs of the present operation with the vision of the president and board of trustees.
I've had the most success with my financial colleagues when both of us honestly and completely share our goals and challenges and work together to find common ground in both of our operational areas. If there's little cooperation, one could starve the other and in turn starve himself.
Mars vs. Venus?
If this seems like a Mars vs. Venus relationship, it's not. Both the CFO and CIO are trying to improve faculty/staff efficiency, minimize faculty/staff downtime, gather data analytics to make better business decisions, and become more nimble to meet the changing needs of the organization.
In higher education, we're also focused on serving our primary customers -- students -- and our secondary customers -- faculty, staff, trustees, alumni, parents, and donors. All invest their time, energy, and money in the institution, and it's difficult to satisfy their widely varying perception of what ROI means to the institution. Much like in corporations, the CIO and CFO alike must answer the question for them: What is this technology investment going to bring to the bottom line? But then the question becomes: What is the bottom line for my role? The bottom line may look different for the CIO and the CFO, but it's more similar than you might think.
For the CFO, it comes down to money and infrastructure. Are we being good fiscal agents of the resources under our purview? For the CIO, it comes down to services: How well are we supporting the infrastructure of our business operations and the broader needs of the institution's customers? For higher education, these are its learning, teaching administrative, and research communities. Both parties must meet (often) to discuss how to apply finite institutional resources to achieve clear short- and long-term goals, and they must communicate those goals clearly to their presidents and boards of trustees. Both of these differing views on ROI are really symbiotic. Strong communication of how the two sides' views fit together is crucial.
A strong CIO-CFO partnership consists of honest communications, transparent financial exchange, and clear translation of expenditures to outcomes. Another major key ingredient is a mutual agreement on the outcomes that are best for the institution. Many times, outcomes aren't defined or clear and degrade to the attitude: "Do what you've got to do in the cheapest way possible." It's crucial that the CIO and CFO discuss operational goals and are clear on expected strategic outcomes.
I'm not suggesting that all CIOs need an MBA. But I do believe that we need to have a much broader understanding of strategic business operations and take a business-oriented approach to providing technology services.
The next time you meet with your CFO, focus on developing some strategic institutional goals and outcomes and on a few of the previously mentioned linkages. Show that ROI is your concern too. It will not only build trust with your colleague, but it may also change your perspective on your career.
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