How IT and accounting can play nice

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Danny Harris identifies himself as a technologist, but he has worn both the CIO hat and the chief financial officer's green eyeshade. He is currently CIO at the Education Department and previously served as the agency's deputy CFO. So Harris is well placed to explain how collaboration should take place between IT experts and financial systems operators in government.

At Education, Harris has led a cultural transformation "away from being an IT organization and into an organization that provides business solutions," he told FCW. "As crazy as this sounds, that's still a very new thing."

Establishing CIO/CFO collaboration will take on increased importance as agencies come under pressure to migrate to one of the four financial shared-services providers and update their systems and financial data standards to comply with the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.

"People are nervous," Harris said. The act's aggressive deadlines and the move to financial shared services will require agencies to examine their data to make sure it's ready for prime time.

"If I were king for a day, I would look at those agencies that are struggling from a financial management perspective" for priority in the shared-services migration, he said. "When you look at agencies that are struggling, it's not the IT or the system that's the problem. The data is so bad that they have reconciliation nightmares."

Simply migrating to a shared service does not solve the problem. "If you move bad data to another system, you'll still have bad data," Harris said.

In his work transforming Education's CIO shop, Harris has learned that people often come to the IT department with problems that aren't really about technology. "They come to us asking for an IT solution, and 50 percent of the time. it's not hardware or software that solves the problem," he said. "Quite frequently, it's using the same technology they have in a different way."

On the IT side, the key is to find and support "those unique individuals who really understand technology and financial management," Harris said. On the financial side, too many accountants fail to understand that "people don't do accounting, systems do."

Accountants need to focus more on the business logic behind the systems and understanding, even in a nontechnical way, how their systems create obligations and process transactions. That is an important area where CIO and CFO professionals can collaborate, Harris said.

What keeps that from happening in a lot of organizations isn't so much a clash of cultures as a knowledge gap.

"The IT professionals stop here, and the accounting professionals stop here," Harris said. "Unless you have gifted people who understand both sides -- and we do here at the Department of Education -- then you don't optimize. Things work, but you don't optimize."

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.

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Reader comments

Mon, Jul 14, 2014

After working in IT for over 25 years, I wonder if we ever ask the question, "Is it really worth it doing what we are trying to do?"

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