February 17, 2022
Dr. Nancy Allbritton joined the University of Washington (UW) as the Frank & Julie Jungers Dean of Engineering in November 2019 where she provides leadership to over 279 faculty and more than 8,000 students. An internationally-renowned researcher and inventor – with 43 issued and pending patents – Albritton also holds an appointment in the UW Department of Bioengineering. Her lab focuses on new technologies for biomedical and clinical applications in oncology, gastrointestinal diseases and stem cell research. She became a sponsor for the UW Finance Transformation (UWFT) program in summer 2021.
My story of recent years is a study in change. In 2019, I transitioned from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill to the UW, which represented an institutional and coastal shift. I was drawn to the UW because of its phenomenal reputation. It’s well-known, has rock-star status, great students and faculty, plus support at the state level. If you’re an engineer, it’s a fabulous place to be.
Then, I joined UWFT as a program sponsor in summer 2021. Though I was a relative newcomer to the role, I was no stranger to big institutional changes. While at UNC, we also went through an enterprise-wide finance transformation, adopting Workday as the future-state platform. So, I’m on somewhat familiar ground here.
Making the decision to come to the UW, along with joining the UWFT program mid-process, meant I had to look at the changes I was engineering and those coming at me on the horizon. I often find change to be stressful, but I’ve learned that there is opportunity there, too. One of the ways I push through change is to just be flexible. You know you’re going to get buffeted by the winds of change, but you have to sort of hang in there, not get too exasperated. If I have that mindset, even when it’s a bit of a roller coaster ride, on the back end I can say, "Well, that wasn’t so bad."
The value of change
Change is easier when you can see the value. UWFT’s mission to reduce risk through predictable, real-time and informed decisions will actually help me do my job better. And if I can do my job better, I’ll be much better at making the College of Engineering better.
In my work life, I look for ways I can capitalize and make data-informed decisions. That’s big in engineering. As Dean, I don’t feel I can do my job without knowing the answers to questions like: "What’s being spent and where?" or "What investments should we make?" Without that knowledge, planning is a hodgepodge--a mess--and we’re left just hoping for the best outcomes.
Pragmatically, the UWFT program will create efficiencies and reduce the number of systems I have to interact with to get my work done. But what’s most exciting to me is the ability to make better decisions and with transparency. As a leader, I’ll have clearer sightlines into financial data and reports, which will support my decision-making process in areas such as compliance, resource allocation and workload. It’ll be easier to share data across units because we’ll be using the same system. It will allow me to make decisions based on facts and reality.
Being a researcher, budgeting is everything. And as a Dean, wondering how much money I have or will have left and can spend is important. For example, a grant manager would want to know “How many dollars do I have to work with and what is my burn rate if I hire one person?”
Additionally, with a good finance system, I can forecast and pull different levers. I can know which pathways to avoid. I can look at multiple variables and manipulate them in the background. I can work in real-time and do computer modeling to plan for future work. In translation, this means I can have timely, up-to-date information to plan staffing. I can help a researcher be nimble and monitor their resources in real-time so we don’t go in the red or underspend.
Prepping for change
As we get ready for the rollout of UWFT, along with preparing myself, I’m preparing the staff in the College of Engineering--who are phenomenal colleagues. I’m thinking about how to implement the changes that this finance transformation will bring and getting everybody on board.
In bringing along my team, I recognize that at any given time--depending on what’s being discussed or implemented--we simultaneously can be at multiple points on the change curve journey (Awareness, Understanding, Support, Ownership). There are parts we understand now and parts we don’t. But, as a sponsor, I’m further along the curve—at the Support point now. I’m committed to prioritizing college resources and using my time to emphasize the importance of UWFT and promote the positive impact and potential of the program.
For my team, I’m giving them some sightlines toward the future by putting early process structures in place, so they aren’t leaping off the cliff. In some ways, we’ve already started the change. One of the big things is being customer-oriented, providing better customer service. As I see it, for everyone in the College of Engineering, this is our first goal--making sure we can empower our academic departments and research centers to make the best decisions possible, like enhanced forecasting of departmental funds and spending models. We can’t yet know how the change will fully take effect at go-live but I’m committed to supporting my team when things aren’t perfect. I want and value information and shared problem-solving. To me, there are no complaints, just positive feedback.
How we all get work done in the future will definitely change. My hope for my team is that these changes will lead to greater service, improved efficiencies and expertise, streamlined services, strengthened compliance measures and reduction of duplicative administrative services. Given my experience at UNC, I'm heartened when I attend our sponsorship meetings to hear how UWFT is addressing risk management--I believe this is putting all the right pieces in place and puts us in a position for a successful financial transformation.
I may not have a crystal ball, but five years from now, I can see, because of UWFT, how the rewards will be greater transparency and less need for shadow systems because we’ll have a more functional financial system in place for the whole enterprise. I also see greater collaborative services and shared staffing across multiple units.
My dual roles as a dean and as a sponsor of finance transformation are interconnected. In combination, this work will help advance the mission of the entire University. It will also help propel me toward my goal of leading the UW College of Engineering to become a globally-recognized leader in inclusive engineering that crafts solutions to the most pressing challenges of our time, generating societal impact and creating a better world.
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