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When the CIO is also the CFO

By Mary K. Pratt
March 14, 2011 06:00 AM ET

So Joe Money's leaders created the CIO job, and Box took on that position's duties in addition to his existing CFO responsibilities. Box and other company leaders decided that a combined role was the right choice because the company is small (about 70 employees) and has limited financial resources, which can decline during the winter months when construction work slows down.

As Box explains it, Joe Money Machinery needed the strategic thinking that a CIO brings but it didn't need someone doing that full time.

Box had studied computer engineering while earning a bachelor's degree in business, and he had some experience with technology, but he admits that he still faced a learning curve.

To overcome that, he says, "I set about training myself to become a CIO as if that were my only job."

That training included a good deal of independent study -- reading up on IT management and technology trends in newsletters, books and magazines -- as well as work toward certifications, such as the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants' Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP) credential. His goal? To be able to completely understand any IT project before he approved money for it.

Today, Box has six IT staffers who report directly to him; one is the IT manager who ran operations prior to the creation of the CIO job. The wide-angle view of the company afforded by his dual role helps him craft better solutions, he says.

As CFO, he had been frustrated that his company was unable to recoup costs of rental equipment that was broken when customers returned it, because there was no way to prove that the customer was responsible for the damage. As CIO, Box was able to implement a document-retention system that stores before and after photos of rental equipment along with details about the equipment's condition. The system provides a time stamp that's admissible in court. (Article continues on next page.)

The dual CIO-CFO position: Benefits and drawbacks

Benefits

  • No more arguments over funding. Jack Wilhelm, the CIO and CFO at Emerson Hospital, says there's never enough money to fund everything on the wish list. But as CIO he's able to prioritize what's needed and as CFO he's able to fund it -- without debate.
  • Better insight into the organization. Because CFOs must have their eyes on every department, they're able to carry that insight over to the tech department and better align IT with business needs, says Ron Box, CFO-CIO at Joe Money Machinery Co.
  • Better understanding of the company's current and future economic situation. "You have a connection to the financials that other CIOs don't have," says Jeremy Hopkins, CFO-CIO at World Telecom Group, and that allows for better short- and long-term tech planning.

Drawbacks

  • Inadequate vetting of IT spending requests. Execs caution that CFO-CIOs might be tempted to approve IT projects and spending requests without having them undergo the same level of scrutiny that they would get if Finance and IT were headed by two different people.
  • Limited time for each duty. Wilhelm says that even working extra hours doesn't always give him enough time to fulfill all of the responsibilities of both of his jobs. That means he misses out on some activities, such as IT conferences or seminars on the latest technologies.
  • A lack of experience in one of the roles. In building a career, executives typically come up through the ranks of a specific discipline; it's rare to jump back and forth between different departments like Finance and IT. Box made up for his limited IT background by earning Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP) and Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) credentials. People with heavy tech backgrounds might have even steeper learning curves on the financial side, Wilhelm says, since they'd have to become familiar with things like accounting standards and legal requirements.
  • Limited opportunities to be on bleeding edge of IT. A CFO-CIO's chances of being able to take on the extra work that comes with being an early adopter of new technology are low, since the dual job already has extra responsibilities of its own, Box says.



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