University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 125: Brent Williams Explains the SWOT Analysis He Created for Walton College

May 26, 2021  |  By Matt Waller

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In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by Brent Williams, the Associate Dean for Executive Education and Outreach and Garrison Endowed Chair in Supply Chain Management at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. During their conversation, Williams shares how he was able to develop a SWOT analysis that incorporates key trends and how this helped improve engagement to aid in the College’s continuous improvement review.

Episode Transcript


0:00:08.3 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education and your life today.


0:00:28.8 Matt Waller: I have with me today Brent Williams, who is Professor of Supply Chain Management, and Associate Dean for Executive Education and Outreach. And Brent is tasked with leading our efforts to prepare for the continuous improvement review for our AACSB reaccreditation. Brent, thank you for joining me today.

0:00:56.0 Brent Williams: Matt, thank you for having me. I'm looking forward to the discussion.

0:01:00.2 Matt Waller: Brent, as you know, one of the key parts of a continuous improvement review has to do with strategic management. And we have put a huge amount of effort into this, but not just for the continuous improvement review. We've been working on planning and strategy, and so forth for years, decades, but I think you really innovated on how we did the situational analysis, also known as SWOT, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Brent, as I've seen you manage this and lead this initiative, you innovated how SWOT analysis is done, and it really has helped. And we'll talk about this later, but I think the way you innovated it is, a lot of times, trends, which are the most important input to strategic thinking, understanding trends and how they apply to your business, you actually created a process for our SWOT analysis that explicitly incorporated key trends we had identified as a team. So I'd like you to talk about that. But before we do I would like you to just talk about the number of people who have spoken into this, and are going to speak into it, as well as just the different categories of people who have spoken into this.

0:02:32.8 Brent Williams: Yeah. Matt, you're right, this has been a fantastic process for us. For those of you that are listening that are not familiar with a continuous improvement review, it's really an opportunity for a business school to tell its story, I think, every five years, and hold itself accountable on a set of standards that business schools across the world have agreed they're important. In our particular case, as we developed the situational analysis, we wanted to make sure that we had a great deal of input across our stakeholders. And one of the strengths of the Sam M. Walton College of Business is unbelievable engagement of stakeholders, from our alumni to companies that hire our students, our faculty, our staff, but what we've done, Matt, as you will know, is we're taking the situational analysis that we've developed. And you're right, it's sort of a little bit of a twist on the SWOT, if you will, and we've created opportunities for many of our external boards. So for example, we have a Dean's Executive Advisory Board. We have a Dean's Alumni Advisory Counsel. Two examples of very committed individuals to this college that are speaking into this process.

0:03:53.7 Brent Williams: I'll give you some other examples. If you look at our mission statement, we have identified three primary strategic endeavors in our mission statement. Retail supply chain CPG is one, entrepreneurship, analytics. And so we're making sure we get input from our boards that are specific to those strategic endeavors. So for example, I lead a retail advisory board, which really helps the college with its strategic direction and with resources toward advancing this strategic endeavor around retail. Well, we have put the situational analysis in front of that board, we've gotten feedback that we now will incorporate, along with the others, into what becomes our final product going forward. Before it's all said and done, we'll have well over 200 people speaking into this particular situational analysis.

0:04:52.8 Matt Waller: Just the breadth and depth of engagement using SWOT is unusual yet, I think a lot of times, people wanna have one meeting and get it over with. The process you've used really got people involved in terms of... You had face-to-face meetings with them, but you also created questionnaires. Would you talk a little bit about that?

0:05:20.2 Brent Williams: Yeah, you're right. And one of the criticisms that I've seen around SWOT is that it's created from an internal perspective only. And while ours has been generated first from an internal perspective, all of the various feedback, I think, protects us against that risk, that we're not really seeing the world from a big enough perspective, if you will, as it relates to the situational analysis. So the way we're going about the process is in our meetings, we're explaining our overall process, how we got where we are, often doing breakouts, doing deep dives, allowing some of the really small groups to really deeply discuss one aspect of the SWOT. So we get that qualitative feedback during the in-person sessions, but then we've also created a survey tool where we ask all of our constituents to do two things. We ask for some just open-ended feedback on, "Are we missing anything that you wanna comment on?" But then we also, within each area of each SWOT, we ask for prioritization, so each item can be ranked, which we think will help us understand, overall, "Which ones do we prioritize?" This will be a key input into making those decisions in the future.

0:06:47.0 Matt Waller: So Brent, we identified three salient trends for which we based our three different SWOT analyses on. Talk a little bit about that and how that works.

0:07:01.9 Brent Williams: Yeah, well, we really had two processes that intersected one another. The first thing we did was ask for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats from a fairly wide set of people within our college, faculty and staff. And it was sort of a broad call, and we received lots of data. And there's lots of overlap. So we were able to see commonalities across the data that we got. This was happening last semester. While at the same time, we also enacted a futures thinking process. And you're familiar with the Institute for the Future, but if the listener is not, it's worth a quick Google search 'cause it's a quite interesting institution that really helps individuals and organizations better think in a structured way about the future.

0:08:00.0 Brent Williams: And so during that same semester, our executive committee, which is our associate deans, assistant deans, department chairs, we went through a process that really challenged us to look at our future and really identify what do we think were key trends or drivers or forces that will shape what the Walton College looks like five years from now. And we identified shifting demographics and just the overall shift in the higher education landscape. An example of what that might mean, you've heard this, I'm sure. There's lots of talk about an enrollment cliff in higher education, that is, the number of graduating high school students matriculating into college is decreasing. And the second overall trend that we identified was the digital transformation of business in society. And then third was an increasing focus on environmental, social and governance issues.

0:09:01.0 Brent Williams: And it was really clear that those were the three that kept coming up over and over through that process. So we basically categorized the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats inside those three trends or forces. Now, the product that we've ended up with is for each trend, driver, force, we now have a SWOT, so we have strengths, weaknesses identified. Obviously, looking at that from an internal perspective. And we also have identified, "What do we think are the opportunities and threats in each of those areas?" And I think just that organization seems to have resonated with people, they're able to digest it.

0:09:42.7 Matt Waller: If you look at ESG or digital transformation, I type that into Google Trends and looked at the number of searches of digital transformation since 2004. And what you see is around 2016, it starts increasing. But the level of increase is steep and it's still increasing, people are searching for digital transformation. They're asking questions like, "What is digital transformation? Digital transformation strategies," etcetera, etcetera. But COVID sped up digital transformation in higher ed in a way that I've never seen in my career.

0:10:33.2 Matt Waller: Prior to COVID, there were very few faculty in the College of Business here that really knew how to use lots of "remote" technologies for teaching. So not only do we have students that know how to use this type of technology, but you've got faculty, staff, so many people know how to use these technologies now. And our students, of course, would complain early on that some faculty are using Google Meet, some are using Teams, some are using Zoom, the list goes on. But now, after a year of this, students actually are at the point where they don't really care too much. They can use any of them. So the danger now that we're going back to campus across the country is that some of these learnings and new processes may be dumped, going completely back to normal. And I think the SWOT analysis in this area has us realizing, "Oh, this is a huge opportunity."

0:11:48.4 Brent Williams: Yeah, I agree, Matt. And another way that I see is SWOT helping us; I think it's helping us see points of integration we might not. And we might have seen them, but this gave us a really clear way to talk about it. I'll give you one example. Last Friday, we presented the situational analysis to the dean, your dean's executive advisory board, and we had a breakout group on digital transformation. I actually think you were in that group. And one of the opportunities that was not explicitly stated in our first draft, but was really obvious to that group was, "Well, you have all of the strength and information systems and knowledge around Internet of Things. And you have this really highly-ranked Supply Chain Management Department that you see those two, you see the use cases for IoT and supply chain be huge." Well, we know that, but this gives us a really clear way to say, "Is that something we should really prioritize, that we should really try to encourage these departments to collaborate on? And who would be the right people to start that collaboration?"

0:13:03.7 Brent Williams: Another example in ESG. Something was pointed out, looking at our strength, historically, as a college, in sustainability. And then looking at our strength in supply chain management and saying you know, "In this area of ESG, there's another great opportunity." So I think what's been interesting is some of our external constituents have really seen some points of integration that, "Yeah, we've known about, but this gives us a real way to call out, should we prioritize those."

0:13:36.2 Matt Waller: Well, it's a good point. And really, I really believe, Brent, I know we've talked about this a lot, but just the engagement of so many different constituents, internally and externally, around the common framework with common trends, and getting everyone's eyes on this, it does give us new ideas, to your point, that we hadn't thought of in many cases, but it also gets buy-in because one of the most important things in leadership is gaining alignment. But it's funny, as I've read the literature, I was just curious, as we started doing this, and you know this, Brent. At first, I was not crazy about the SWOT analysis 'cause I'd just been in so many SWOT analyses that it was like an exercise in futility. But this one that you created was not that way at all. I got excited about it as I saw it starting to work, and then I wanted to keep moving it forward. But I think it's easy, especially when you're going through AACSB CIR, Continuous Improvement Review, to do things like this to check the box. But I was really proud of our team that they didn't do that. We were preaching early on, "Hey, this is our opportunity," as you said, "To tell our story and also, to really improve."

0:15:03.9 Brent Williams: We really have taken the approach. And I think it's been an evolution for us, and it's been an evolution, I think, for AACSB, our accrediting body, that the Continuous Improvement Review is not about, "How compliant are we to specific standards?" It really is about looking at yourself, being honest with yourself, getting input from others, and identifying where we can improve. And we are a leading business school. We do some things really well; in fact, a lot of things really well, but we have some places we can improve. And we keep telling ourselves that; I think it's helping us.

0:15:43.5 Brent Williams: And then also, many of these processes are always just backward-looking. So like, "Alright, what has happened in the last five years?" And while certainly, we are looking back, I see some of these aspects of the process and the report, like the situational analysis, like what we're doing in strategic planning and continuous planning, as a real launching point for us for the next five years. And it's been encouraging to see so many people willing to invest their time in it. We've talked a lot about the external stakeholders on our boards that have invested in this, but the origin of it is our faculty and staff.

0:16:26.3 Brent Williams: So think about all that knowledge that we drew upon in order to get to that spot. And now, think about all of this collective knowledge around the Walton College that's contributing to it. That's a pretty amazing thought, if you sort of step back and think about it.

0:16:43.0 Matt Waller: It really is. And I think that this new approach that AACSB is using is one of the causal factors for that; so much better. I remember to 10 years ago, it felt so compliance-focused and now, it feels so improvement-focused and collaborative. I know on all of the CIRs that I've been on over the past six years, all the members of the team were really looking at how to collaborate with the college that we were doing the review for. It wasn't like a inspector coming. It was more like a consultant coming and helping.

0:17:30.6 Brent Williams: Absolutely, it's one thing. We have a review team coming in November, and I'm excited about the visit. Yeah, I'm excited to just hear the thoughts and the ideas that come from a group that's really experienced in our industry.

0:17:51.0 Matt Waller: Yeah, and we've got a team coming with lots of experience doing this, they're very involved in AACSB, and they're just really bright people, so we're fortunate to be able to do that. Well, Brent, thank you so much for leading this SWOT analysis and for developing this amazing process to implement it. Really appreciate it.

0:18:14.0 Brent Williams: Happy, too, and thanks for having me on today.

0:18:18.6 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be EPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching beepicpodcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now, Be EPIC!


Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

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We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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