Dissecting the Tensions Between District Technology and Finance Officials

Senior Editor

For educational technology companies hoping to do business with schools, two types of administrators almost certainly qualify as among the most important audiences they need to win over: chief technology officers, and chief financial officers.

Unfortunately for vendors—and probably for districts themselves—those two administrators often aren’t on the same page.

The tensions between those two camps, and what can be done to bridge the divide between them, are the topic of an intriguing essay by Keith Krueger, the chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking, a Washington organization that represents school technology leaders. Many innovative district digital-ed efforts get stymied because tech officials can’t convince chief financial officers, who have considerable control over school systems’ purse strings, that those projects are worthwhile, says Krueger, in an essay in THE Journal, Transforming Education Through Technology.

Krueger, not surprisingly given his organization’s mission, offers advice he’s gathered over time on how chief tech officers can win over the CFOs working down the hallway or in the neighboring administrative building, and convince them of the role technology can play in bringing about school improvement.

“That partnership seems to be the ‘secret sauce’ that can go a long way toward enabling a digital transformation,” Krueger argues. “So if you’re a CTO, a crucial question you must answer is, how do you make your CFO your BFF?”

CFOs, Krueger notes, have legitimate reasons for rejecting tech officials’ ideas. They often believe tech leaders can’t show how their investments will contribute to improving student learning, or can’t show the value of making those purchases, and—to the surprise of no one who’s covered the digital-ed world for any length of time — that school leaders in charge of digital efforts rely too much on “techno-speak,” rather than describing their plans in language that CFOs, among others, can understand.

Drawing from the experiences of current and former chief technology officers, Krueger offers a variety of tips to help administrators holding that job title make their case to financial administrators.

One of the strategies described amounts to making an effort to court financial officials and improve communication with them—for instance, by keeping financial officers up to date about ongoing technology projects, and where the tech official would like to take them. Other ideas are more structural: Krueger says districts should consider making chief technology officers “cabinet-level” officials within districts, in which they are “peer colleagues” with their financial counterparts, presumably with a comparable level of say on district policy.

But chief technology officers must also change the perception of information technology from one that simply swallows money to one that increases productivity — and they must become better at objectively analyzing the costs and results of their efforts. (CoSN has developed tools designed to help school officials make these calculations, Krueger points out.)

If anything, Krueger’s essay is a reminder that educational technology and purchasing decisions are subject to many of the same divisions and politics that can shape the culture and productivity of any workplace.

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