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CIO Leadership Series: Kathi Christian, QTI Group

Madison, Wis. - In her dual role as director of information systems and chief financial officer for the Madison-based QTI Group of Companies, Kathi Christian holds positions that sometimes are in conflict.

While there are advantages to having them combined - primarily, the natural tendency to evaluate the cost-benefit and return on investment for information technology projects - it also can be an exercise in frustration. ROI can be difficult to measure because of the "soft costs" involved.

"My IT hat thinks the project makes absolute sense to do because of the soft benefits, and my CFO hat continues to worry about quantifying the ROI," said Christian, who graduated summa cum laude from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh with bachelors of business administration degrees in accounting and management information systems.

"In the end, the combination can be very complementary. The downside is that you don't have the power of having two distinct viewpoints that can aid in the idea generation and vision for the organization."

Staying on top of the downsides is a constant challenge when you're responsible for a group of companies that consists of staffing outfits like QualiTemps, QTI Direct, and QTI Professional Staffing, plus QTI Consulting and QTI Human Resources, a professional employer organization (PEO). In all, the QTI Group has 11 locations in southern and central Wisconsin, and Christian has a technical staff of five to handle it all.
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The most difficult part of the dual role is trying to stay current with changes in the technology, finance, and accounting worlds. Christian has learned to use both internal and external resources, and has a cadre of trusted advisors on both the finance and technology sides that not only help her stay current, but help with the aforementioned idea generation and vision.

Multi-tasking

As Christian will attest, business requirements in the staffing industry do not fit well in a traditional enterprise resource planning system, and while staffing specific applications exist, they are somewhat limited and some solutions must be home-grown. Add to that risk management compliance from the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), Sarbanes Oxley, and the Employee Retirement Income and Security Act on the PEO side of the business, and Christian has her hands full.

In a way, however, this complexity works in QTI's favor. Christian thinks one key to staff retention is to have employees work with a variety of technologies for a variety of functions. In recent years, QTI has implemented a UNIX platform and a number of databases, including versions from Oracle and Sequel. In 2007, the company's IT spend will include a new PEO package, remote access solutions that incorporate Windows mobile or Blackberry servers, and extending Cisco IP telephony to additional locations.

"We have a unique environment in that our technical staff is exposed to a very large variety of different technologies, and I think that gives us an edge in being able to keep our staff challenged and growing in their positions," Christian said.

With all the new systems QTI has been implementing, the company also decided to install a Compellent Storage Area Network, complete with 2.9 terrabytes of storage that can still be expanded. Christian said the SAN, which was installed earlier this year, eases the administration of the network, allows for continued growth, and plays an instrumental role in the company's disaster recovery initiatives.

It also enabled the company to keep costs down with a combination of higher- and lower-quality discs. The difference between the two is that the high-quality discs are faster and use a fiber channel back end connection, while the "lower" quality disc, which is less expensive, is slower and uses an Internet SCSI (Small Computer System Interface) connection.

One particularly challenging project now is underway. QTI is implementing a new staffing and a new financial package, and has decided to complete them in a short, six-month time frame. The key to meeting that deadline, Christian said, is the use of an implementation team comprised of key leaders from different areas. They are leading the charge with constant communication, including a weekly newsletter that attempts to keep the entire organization informed of progress, introduces new training topics, and answers questions that arise during training.

"The entire organization that is involved in staffing is receiving four levels of training," Christian said. "This includes all the C-level people, too, and it includes homework. We wanted to send a message that the system and training is critical to our business, and that it is supported at all levels."

IT project management

Prior to joining QTI, the Randolph, Wis. native's only professional stop was at the accounting firm Grant Thornton, where her focus included auditing, electronic data processing security and controls, and systems selection and implementation.

Based on her experience at Grant Thornton and QTI, Christian said the key in most IT implementations is setting clear expectations, getting commitment and buy-in for the process, and planning for "issues" because, as she noted, "you know they will come up."

"You have to be prepared to deal with the list of items that didn't work like you planned," she said.

Communication and change management (that deals with changes in plans) are crucial, as are all the project management fundamentals such as milestones, a solid work plan, and appropriate resource allocation.

"Another key is making sure to measure the actual amount of work left versus just using a time measure," Christian said. "If you have a task that will last 10 days and you are five days through but only 20 percent of the actual work is done, then you need to measure the completion as 20 percent and not 50 percent."

Choosing sides?

Given her dual role, the following question inevitably arises: Which group, financial professionals or information technology workers, is more enjoyable to network with?

"I like them both," she said, flashing some diplomatic skill, "although there is nothing better than to get a bunch of people in a room and talk about tech."

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