How IT and accounting can play nice

Financial shared services and Data Act compliance will drive more CIO/CFO collaboration. Here's how it should work.

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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."

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