CIO + CFO Doesn't Equal Mars Vs. Venus - InformationWeek

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IT Leadership // IT Strategy
09:06 AM
Keith Fowlkes
Keith Fowlkes

CIO + CFO Doesn’t Equal Mars Vs. Venus

From my decades of experience, CIOs and CFOs have more in common than you may think.

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.

[Big data, social, and other trends are changing the workplace. Here's how to stay ahead of the curve: Future Of Work: 5 Trends For CIOs.]

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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Keith is a veteran chief information officer serving as CIO for Saint Mary's College- Notre Dame, IN, University of Virginia-Wise and, most recently, Centre College. He is a co-founder and board member of the Higher Education Systems & Services Consortium (HESS) and has ... View Full Bio
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User Rank: Ninja
9/11/2014 | 7:48:27 AM
The CFO and IT
"For the CFO, it comes down to money and infrastructure. Are we being good fiscal agents of the resources under our purview? "  I run into this regularly, but I've learned to look at this in a different light.  The financial folks look at everything on paper and have a hard time picking their heads up and looking around at the condition of things around them.  That 20 year old copier sitting in office is free as far as the financial folks can see but the techies tend to see it as antiquated, slow, expensive to maintain (usually in man hours) and they see the slow down in productivity when someone spends 15 minutes trying to figure out where it jammed this time.  The CIO would see this copier as a bottleneck so he decides to replace it with a multifunction device that copies 10x faster, prints, scans and faxes but he doesn't look at the cost as a reflection on the financial statements.  Neither is totally right and the CFO does need to be there when the CIO is ready to go on a spending spree to make sure the financials are in place to support the spending but from my experience it tends to be the CFO pulling the purse strings shut to protect his numbers when what I think he should be doing is managing the financials so that the CIO can do the things necessary to move the company forward.
User Rank: Ninja
9/10/2014 | 1:25:13 PM
Re: Practical advice
interesting observation... it like cycle of life in IT... but it true...
User Rank: Ninja
9/9/2014 | 6:15:08 PM
Re: CIO + CFO Doesn't Equal Mars Vs. Venus
Great insight from a subset of our industry that I think is sorely under-represented, Keith. Every great acheivement started with great education (heck, lots of them happen within the walls of institutions like yours), so what better to place for technology to be on the cutting edge and have the most impact? Moreover, I think the lessons you present here are very useful to CIOs anywhere. The unique juggling act you face ought to give them some perspective on their own challenges, and nobody has a better insight to share on how to get the most out of an often-too-small budget than someone who works in education.

We talk a lot on InformationWeek about the necessary partnership between the CIO and the CMO - how directly those departments link, and how disastrous it can be for the business if they're not on the same page. I don't know if universities have CMOs - maybe the CFO and the CIO sort of end up filling in the gaps there at a lot of places, being responsible for growth opportunities, etc. Maybe for other orgs, there's a triple lesson in here about how the CMO, the CFO, and the CIO ought to all work together. One could simply say all C-executives ought to be on the same page, but I think you're right to point out special importance here. Good read.
User Rank: Author
9/9/2014 | 1:54:53 PM
Practical advice
"Technology is the toilet that keeps on flushing." Very funny. Thanks for sharing your insight -- and sense of humor, Keith.
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