A Better Way
Members share 25-plus great ideas that changed the business office.
Edited by Nancy Maguire
What one great idea has had the most significant impact on your work? In honor of NACUBO's 50th anniversary, we asked readers to tell us what watershed events have had the most far-reaching effect over the last 25 or more years, and you told us about the processes, concepts, and technology that have shaped your professional experience.
Our call for ideas went out through a variety of sources: Business Officer magazine, e-mail blasts, e-newsletters, and our four constituent councils that represent research universities, small institutions, comprehensive doctoral institutions, and community colleges. Individuals from a wide variety of institutions across the country and from every level in their organizations responded with their most creative ideas and plenty of innovative approaches.
It's no surprise that the biggest change was the evolution of technology. These days, you can get more work done more efficiently, thanks to new tools that range from hardware—such as computers, laptops, and tablets—to processes that include e-mail, spreadsheets, and various financial systems. Clearly, the emergence of technology has revolutionized the way institutions operate.
Other important themes include advocating for students to ensure their success, new approaches to continuous organizational improvement, strategies to enhance communications, and tactics to engage the people around us.
Here your colleagues share their personal take on the key reasons they're able to work better and smarter, and ultimately have greater impact on their campuses. You'll find additional responses in Business Officer Plus at www.nacubo.org.
IT'S ALL FOR THE STUDENTS
The word "advocate" has shaped my idea of what a bursar/student financial services office should strive to be since I started my career in higher education. I stumbled into this career as a broke college student at Florida A&M University. I needed help paying my fees, and during a chance meeting with the then bursar, he gave me a job working in the student accounts office there. Since then, I have worked to change the image of the student accounts office from bill collectors to advocates for students' financial success. I've seen this concept evolve into better technology for communicating, providing access to information, and initiatives to increase the financial literacy of students.
CHARMAINE DANIELS, Director of Student Accounts, Georgia State University
A personal approach for new students
To educate and provide communication to our students, I attend and present critical information to freshman gateway classes. This is a joint effort with the financial aid office. Each student receives a personalized packet of information. We provide an account statement and a reference guide on how to find the same information on the Web portal. Our objective is to address the new students in a small venue to help them not to be overwhelmed with the tools that are out there, and to help them know where to go and what to do if they are already struggling financially.
KRISTY HARNER, Bursar, Lee University, Tennessee
Program tailored to learning style
At the Massachusetts College of Art & Design, Larry Levison, assistant director of accounting services, and I realized that personal financial skills would help MassArt students develop the financial tools to succeed in their art and design careers. We designed a program addressing the unique needs and learning styles of visual artists, with real-life examples and visual-learning aids. With strong support from senior administration, the program is aligned with college priorities and has expanded and leveraged partnerships throughout the college—administration and finance, student development, and student government. We are currently collecting data, and early results show a marked improvement by students in pre- versus post-testing.
Drawing a new map
Each year we choose one area of focus, and then we present final reports at our student financial services retreat in May. For the 2011–12 fiscal year, I chose the theme "Go Green." I had envisioned each area process mapping their main tasks and seeing if we could come up with ways to streamline and make us more functional. I had no idea it would take off so well. The first process we analyzed, outside scholarships, went slowly as we came up with the best approach. Now, the entire process is being handled in a 100 percent different way than four months ago. We've saved approximately two weeks of processing time, increased internal controls, and shifted much of the work to areas best able to process rapidly.
We reported this in our staff meeting, and the idea took off. Now even small ideas are being shared and utilized to help streamline throughout the organization. Every time we have a meeting, we discuss how we should "map it out" and then see how we can make it work better. This small idea has created greater synergies, enhanced customer service, increased internal controls, and cut our processing costs.
MARSHA LOVELL, Director, Student Financial Services, University of California–Los Angeles
A STRONGER ORGANIZATION
Ask how and why
"Because we've always done it this way" is not a reasonable explanation for "Why?" Knowing this is true has engendered a philosophy of continuous improvement and empowered conversation to understand more deeply the how and why of practices. It means not only asking why we do the things we do when starting a job, but continuing to ask how we can more effectively serve our students. Are we doing the right things? Are we doing them as well as we can? To me, this is the essence of being a learning organization for administrative services.
JACALYN ASKIN, Vice President of Administrative Services, Chandler–Gilbert Community College, Arizona
"One touch" thinking
As I entered the higher education workforce, I adapted a concept my previous employer, the U.S. Navy Supply Corps, called "One Touch." I found university finance and administrative operations to be disjointed, sometimes overlapping, and occasionally conflicting between units. If it's difficult for the business officers to sift out the correct actions or information, then what problems faculty and academic staffs must face. "One Touch" thinking asks how can we make systems and processes easier for our customers. The goal is to minimize customer interactions through transparency, by empowering and training business staff, reducing bureaucratic steps, and/or consolidating functional redundancies.
ROGER ADMIRAL, Director of Operations, College of Forestry, Oregon State University
Open to compliance
Processes, controls, measurement, and enforcement help percolate compliance across the organization. Training and awareness make compliance visible, and bring it front and center.
Scenarios-based training opens minds toward true organization objectives. Recent sessions have helped process owners to self-discover process improvements such as reducing food wastage. Stories linking ethics and consequences raise awareness of right conduct. Persuasive content appeals to people's higher standards and energizes the transformation from a "gotcha" exercise into a self-enforcing healthy environment. Of course, it is paramount to walk the talk because people notice and mimic their leaders.
ARUNA ASHOK, Senior Compliance Manager, Residential and Dining Enterprises, Stanford University, California
Virtual filing cabinet
My best idea was developing a universitywide "filing cabinet" on our internal server for depositing documents necessary for accreditation reports. The filing cabinet has matured into a depository for all documents university personnel might want access to. As a result of this, many departments have developed their own internal files to communicate with each other. I guess Google Docs is what's being used by many today, but with the use of the internal server we aren't disrupted if the Internet goes down, and there are no security issues that might occur if the information were out on the Internet.
LAYNIE BARRILLEAUX, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Nicholls State University, Louisiana
Most significant impact
I don't need 100 words—only one: technology.
JULEE SHERMAN, Vice President for Finance and Administration, Central Methodist University, Missouri
The biggest idea I can think of is the advancement in electronic technology. Computing power, mobile devices (e.g., iPads and smartphones) and all the related applications are available to all individuals (faculty, staff, students). This advancement has increased our productivity and forced us to rethink our work product, how work is done, and how our organizations are structured now and in the future.
RICK ANDERSON, Vice President for Administration and Treasurer, Washburn University, Kansas
Office laptop or desktop computers transformed my work since being in higher education. The ability to write something and continue to modify it without having to do it on paper first has been a tremendous time-saver, not to mention an excellent way to file and archive work history! The Internet goes right along with it since it enhances the knowledge base with minimal effort.
TOM LARSON, Director of Business Operations, King College, Tennessee
The fact that financial managers and business officers have the tools to build and run queries to access data directly from accounting and budget ledgers has been a godsend. It takes the guesswork out of knowing what's behind your numbers and provides timely access to accurate information that can be arranged and presented as needed for the particular task at hand.
JANET WARNERT, Associate Vice President for Finance, University of Southern Maine
NEW TOOLS FOR A NEW WORLD
One simple thing that has made a world of difference in our office recently is having two computer monitors at each work-station. Being able to view and/or update two documents, spreadsheets, Web sites, or programs side-by-side is not only more efficient, it is better environmentally (less need for printing documents or spreadsheets for reference), ergonomically (not repeatedly looking down to the paper and back up to the monitor), and financially (time savings, reduction in paper and toner usage).
TRACY GUST, Senior Accountant, Saint John's University, Minnesota
Remote access to desktops and servers
I work as an IT supervisor at a two-year college. My IT staff must service systems across the entire campus, which includes seven buildings and three floors. The challenge they have had is accessing the work-order details once they leave their desks. We gave each staff member an iPad, linked to our work-order system, and included apps (such as Remote Desktop) that allow them to remotely access servers and desktops. Now they can view, update, and close work orders when finished, as well as access Web sites to help them research and troubleshoot issues.
JEFF WHITE, Information Technology Supervisor, Pima Community College, Arizona
The most significant change that I've experienced in the university's office of the controller has been the advent and rapid deployment of electronic commerce as the venue for virtually all financial transactions. The receipt of paper checks as negotiable instruments for payment of tuition and fees was cursorily replaced by credit cards, debit cards, and e-checks. Similarly, disbursements to faculty, staff, students, and vendors are initiated electronically via Automated Clearing House and wire transfers. All banking is accomplished via the Internet, requiring only a few phone calls to complete reconciliations. Clearly, the infrastructure for conducting business mutated within a decade.
KELLY L. McCULLAR, Associate Vice President, Finance, Controller, and Treasury, Texas Woman's University
Checkbook tool tracks grant expenses
After assisting many of our Temple University research faculty and principal investigators following our ERP launch in July 2009, I came to realize that they needed a tool to easily determine the funds available in their grants. In discussing this issue with a colleague, Miguel Abreu, I suggested developing a checkbook tool. The theory behind the idea is that everyone has a checkbook and that faculty would easily be able to relate to this type of visual report. After 18 months and a lot of hard work, we have just gone live with the checkbook here at Temple. When presented to our senior VP for research, he suggested that we patent the idea, and now the checkbook has a patent pending to boot!
PATRICIA J. RUSSO, Assistant Controller, Temple University, Pennslyvania
Endowment management software
Moving administration of our unitized endowments from an in-house product with limited functionality to a comprehensive software application significantly improves our operation and capabilities. It simplifies our accounting functions, tracks spending, and maintains policy compliance—and the Web module provides financial information to our departments 24/7. Until we teamed up with the [software] group that became Fundriver in 2000, there was nothing in the marketplace to address the unique requirements of higher ed in this area. The work we did with Fundriver became the basis for the leading endowment management system application in the market. Before Fundriver, we spent significantly more time closing each period, fixing mistakes, and preparing reports. Fundriver also eased the transition to 117-1 and UPMIFA.
GAIL KURTZ, Investment Officer, Western Michigan University
Engage leadership and faculty
One of the most significant process changes that I have observed since coming to higher education in 1983 is the deliberate engagement with the academic leadership and faculty by business officers. The reduction, if not elimination, of the dichotomy between the two critical functional areas has been essential in the advancement of the institution. Communication, strategic planning, and students have all benefited from the change in behavior by leaders from both areas. I experience effective relationships today with faculty, and we resolve issues in a much more civil manner, which I believe was very scarce 30 years ago.
RONALD L. RHAMES, Senior Vice President for Business Affairs, Midlands Technical College, South Carolina
No more "mistakes"
Staff morale and willingness to try new ideas can be increased by removing the fear of being criticized for making a mistake. One approach is to abolish the word "mistake" from the workplace. Instead, recognize only two types of outcomes: expected or unexpected. When an unexpected outcome occurs and a leader says, "Oh, you had an unexpected outcome," the impact is powerful. Immediately the person bringing bad news begins to smile and relax, so together you can focus on solutions within a culture of trust. A simple but powerful idea I learned from listening that paid enormous dividends.
WELDON IHRIG, Executive Vice President Emeritus, University of Washington
MORE WE'VE LEARNED
People are the best resource
Through my leadership roles in financial management, student services, and academic affairs, I have learned that the greatest resource on a college campus is its people. Confronted with resource challenges, compliance expectations, and dynamic technologies, people will ultimately provide the solutions, services, and support. It's not the buildings, the scenery, or the weather—it's not the place that makes the people. The people make the place!
JIM MELLO, Assistant Provost for Financial Planning, University of Hartford, Connecticut
Faculty bring mind-set to administrative roles
A talented former provost at Bradley University, Kalman Goldberg, taught me that faculty members do not lose their disciplinary way of thinking when they become administrators. A historian always gave a page of background/historical context for every request. A political scientist wouldn't give an opinion in a meeting because everything had to be taken back to the unit for a democratic vote. A mathematician might focus on getting numbers precisely correct, rather than finding the broader meaning of the numbers for a unit's actions. I try to remember their disciplinary roots when I'm interacting with faculty who are now administrators.
KATHRYN GOULD CULLIVAN, Associate Dean for Fiscal and Human Resources, College of Arts and Sciences, University of North Texas
Step back, and listen
Business officers are naturally wired to quickly identify and resolve problems. However, one of the lessons I've learned is that frequently we need to back away from the situation and listen a little longer. While getting everyone's perspective on the table may require a longer investment in time and energy, we will be more likely to help craft the right solution and get it implemented in the best possible way. Sometimes, we need to fight our instincts and listen a little longer. And yes, I'm still working on this one every day.
KEITH W. HOUCK, Vice President for Operations and Finance, Valencia College, Florida
The CBO's expanding role
As one reflects on the positive changes in the world of the business officer over the past 50 years, two specific things come to mind:
- From a technology and communications perspective, it's hard to imagine anything more profound than the creation of the Internet and the subsequent positive impact it has had on the whole range of systems and services routinely provided to students, faculty, and staff at our institutions.
- The expansion of the CFO's traditional business portfolio into areas that include HR, IT, capital programs, auditing, budget and planning, and in many cases, governmental affairs, has allowed the business officer to assume the role of a chief operating officer. That, in turn, has enabled a modern and beneficial partnership with the institution's senior academic officer and the president.
CRAIG BAZZANI, Senior Advisor for Foundation Advancement, University of Illinois Foundation
Don't neglect the basics
The principle that has guided me through my years as a business officer is to commit to doing the basics well. This includes consistently meeting or exceeding financial targets, ensuring audits are completed on time and without findings, and striving for continuous improvement in customer and employee satisfaction surveys. Over the years I have found it amazing that sometimes business officers will strive to build their professional reputation via loftier goals while neglecting the basics. I have witnessed the aftermath of this strategy, which required a three-year corrective action plan and several more years to rebuild stakeholder confidence. This taught me that the loftier goals are reached by first paying attention to the basics.
GREGORY GINGRAS, Vice President of Finance and Administration, Chief Financial Officer, Samuel Merritt University, California
NACUBO provides peer support
Having been around higher education for two thirds of NACUBO's 50 years, I find it difficult to limit myself to one great idea. In a phrase, NACUBO has been my posse.
Whether they're working with the American Institute of CPAs to create the 1973 Industry Audit Guide to help conform reporting practices, or whether they're creating a national discussion in fall 1988 about unrelated business income tax and business competition, NACUBO has led the way. The Accounting Principles Committee showed leadership with the Financial Accounting Standards Board and the Governmental Accounting Standards Board in the mid-1990s and helped clarify the meaning of FASB pronouncements 116 and 117 and GASB pronouncement 19.
NACUBO has developed an infrastructure of good ideas and practices as well as generating a network of knowledgeable peers that is unsurpassed in helping me when I need it, just like my own posse.
BOB HUTH, Vice President for Business and Chief Financial Officer, Stetson University, Florida
NANCY MAGUIRE is a project management specialist at NACUBO.