Fiscal Officer Development Series (FODS) History

Walking the Talk: Creating a New Environment for Today’s Business Officer

Like the proverbial cobbler’s child, business officers are the last in line when it comes to benefiting from our core business. While business officers may have access to programs in our business schools and through programs offered by higher education associations, like NACUBO, few colleges and universities have educational programs tailored to their specific environment. After a decade of fundamental changes in how we do business, Indiana University (IU) created a business officer development program. While some of the program content is strictly related to IU’s unique structure and environment, the concepts and processes that led to the programs development can be used in a variety of settings.

Background: IU is a very large complex organization. It serves 97,000+ students on seven campuses spread across the state of Indiana. It has an operating budget in excess of $3 billion. By the late 1980’s it had become clear that a new management strategy was needed and a fundamental shift in management philosophy took place with the introduction of responsibility center management (RCM). RCM moved the university from a traditional, highly centralized model to a highly decentralized model. Much of the decade of the 1990’s was spent refining RCM and building the information systems to support it.

By the late 1990’s, the university had developed a sophisticated financial information system (FIS). The institution had joined the rest of the world in using the Web to post policies and procedures, but had not changed the communication structure with our business officers. Extensive training programs for staff using the FIS and other administrative systems was implemented, but no development or training existed that addressed the needs of the business officer.

Discussions within the Vice President and Chief Financial Officer (VPCFO) units began to center more and more on how we could implement changes. The first fundamental question became who needed to be engaged when we implemented new financial polices and procedures. Based on the number of responsibility centers and other key operational units, we estimated that the university had 150 key business officers. This group became known as the “150 Club.” Membership implied that individual played a key role in the day-to-day operation of the university. Members of this “club” were selected, hired and reported to their unit heads (normally a dean).

The second phase of the discussions resulted in us asking what tools do these business officers need, what can the institution do to ensure they have the tools and what skills do these business officers need to be successful. During the 1999-2000 academic year, a proposal was made to the Vice President and Chief Financial Officer for the creation of a fiscal officer development series (FODS). She agreed to fund the proposal, if the program could be in place by the fall 2000 semester.

The Concept: In true academic fashion, a committee was formed with membership from VPCFO units and representatives from other administrative units, including internal auditing. The committee was charged with creating the entire program, starting with the curriculum. It quickly became apparent that while we were blessed with an abundance of content knowledge, we had little process expertise. IU is fortunate to have a highly successful training and development unit within the human resources department. The head of that unit was asked to join the committee. She quickly helped the committee identify a vision for the program. That vision is stated in the introduction of the program:

The Fiscal Officer Development Series strives to provide current, new and prospective fiscal officers with a "tool kit" for success. Success is defined as the ability to carry out roles and responsibilities of the fiscal officer in a manner that benefits the university, the unit and the individual. Upon completion of the series, individuals will have technical tools (policy and procedure knowledge), organizational and cultural tools (an understanding of the unique and diverse operational environments found at IU), and knowledge of the resources and other tools (courses and other opportunities) for building and improving personal and management skills.

This statement allowed the committee to focus on what the series represented, and of equal importance, what it didn’t. For example, FODS would not be a training program. IU has many excellent training programs and FODS would not duplicate those. FODS attendees would, however, be made aware of those programs. FODS would not be a replacement for general management programs and training sessions offered by IU or organizations such as NACUBO. It would instead focus on the needs of the business officer at Indiana University.

The Curriculum. The committee spent a great deal of time determining what would be the best curriculum for the program. Fiscal officers in departments have a wide variety and range of responsibilities, some of which go beyond finance. In addition, the need was present to balance providing university specific policy information with industry mandates such as IRS guidelines, Department of Labor issues, and OMB guidelines. Brief descriptions of each session were written and provide incoming classes with an opportunity to understand what the curriculum will provide.

The Principles: The committee agreed to develop a set of guiding principles. The first was that each session, and the program as a whole, would be held to high standards. We defined this to mean we would create an expectation of excellent presentations taking place in locations (settings) that enhanced the learning experience. Second, since the program was IU focused, we would use IU content experts. Third, we would limit the size of the program to target of thirty attendees, to ensure transfer of learning could take place.

The first and second principles were at risk of a conflict. While we had plenty of content experts, they weren’t necessarily great, or even good presenters. The HR training and development members proposed and the committee adopted a methodology to address this somewhat delicate issue. A standard session template was developed, based on “best practices” and provided a standard format for presenters. One-on-one coaching was also also available to each presenter and each presenter was required to complete a mock presentation for the committee prior to the first session.

Finally, the committee agreed to adopt an on-going assessment process. Each individual session and the program as a whole would end with the collection of structured evaluation forms.

The Outcomes: The series has been met with high praise, its greatest measure of success has been visible behavioral changes. Business officers contact campus and university administration offices sooner and more frequently. Communication has improved and knowledge has been transferred. Staff actively solicit a seat in the series, making the series sought after and viewed as an event in which to participate.Evaluations from the first class led to revisions for the second year. The majority of the changes were additions to the curriculum which necessitated two overnight sessions that added close to 10 hours of additional instruction. The other value of the overnight sessions was additional informal networking opportunities which the evaluation results identified as a desirable outcome. In addition, it became apparent that the “graduates” of this series would benefit from additional interactions and updates on fiscal and compliance items, institutional policy changes, and administrative initiatives that affect fiscal officers. This feedback resulted in an annual “alumni” session, which was created to provide an update forum and an opportunity to continue with building informal networks. Second year evaluations did not result in changes either to the curriculum or format.

Lessons Learned: It is difficult to point to a single source of the programs success. The timing was right and the concept had the full support of senior executives. What was not foreseen, and perhaps an important point for those building a similar program, is the time commitment required of committee members. The majority of members ended up being presenters. In addition to planning meetings, they also spent time in mock presentation sessions. Committee members are also required to attend as many real sessions as possible.

Logistics also played a key role in programs success. While program costs were not a major issue, the committee worked to keep them low while following the principle that the learning environment was a key element. The individual given the assignment of finding rooms, arranging lunches and dinners, and providing speaker support (audio-visual, and other materials) does an outstanding job. Her attention to details gives the entire program a “first class” feeling. The evaluations clearly stated the importance of this area.

Summary: Business officers want and need development opportunities. By using the expertise around us, a program can be created that meets each school’s unique requirements.