Guided by a dual passion for teaching and entrepreneurship, Matthew A. Waller has helped mold the University of Arkansas’s undergraduate supply chain program into one of the best in the country. In recognition for his efforts, the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) awarded him with the 2020 Distinguished Service Award, which is presented to individuals who have made a significant contribution to the development of the logistics and supply chain management disciplines.
Waller’s entrepreneurial spirit has been on display frequently during his current role as dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, as he has helped launch several new initiatives, such as the McMillon Innovation Studio and the William Dillard Department of Accounting. His ability to reach out and create interdisciplinary programs across the university has helped vault the Walton College to the number one spot in research firm Gartner’s list of top North American Supply Chain Undergraduate University Programs.
Waller’s talents extend beyond the administrative sphere. He has served as co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Business Logistics and his opinion pieces have appeared in the Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times. He has also coauthored several books: The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management, Purple on the Inside: How J.B. Hunt Transport Set Itself Apart in a Field Full of Brown Cows, and Integrating Blockchain into Supply Chain Management. Waller has even earned a U.S. Patent for co-inventing a “System, Method, and Article of Manufacture to Optimize Inventory and Merchandising Shelf Space Utilization.”
Recently, Waller had an opportunity to speak with CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quaterly’s Managing Editor Diane Rand about his supply chain journey.
NAME: Matthew A. Waller
TITLE: Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, University of Arkansas
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Missouri–Columbia; master’s degree in business and Ph.D. in business from Penn State University
PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE: In his 26 years at the University of Arkansas’s Sam M. Walton College of Business, he has served in various positions that included professor, chair of the Department of Supply Chain Management, interim dean, and Sam M. Walton Endowed Leadership Chair; co-founder of consultancy Bentonville Associates Ventures Partner; and co-founder of software company Mercari Technologies
LEADERSHIP: Board member of the World Trade Center Arkansas; council member of the Northwest Arkansas Council, advisory board member of Natural
Can you share with us in more detail about your career, and how you came to focus on supply chain management?
I’ve been involved in entrepreneurship since high school. I’m a strange combination of academic and entrepreneur. I love reading, writing, math, and teaching, so becoming a professor really made sense for my career path.
After becoming a professor at the Walton School of Business in the 1990s, I started a consulting firm with three Walmart executives who had retired. We worked on a big project with a big consumer products company where it required me to develop a mathematical approach to solving a problem they were facing. I eventually programmed the mathematical approach and started a software company called Mecari Technologies. The software company grew so quickly that I had to leave the university the year I made tenure in 1998. Four years later, we sold the company and a position became available at the university, and I took it. Since I’ve been back with the university, I’ve been involved in many entrepreneurial projects.
Since I came back 18 years ago, I helped start the China Executive MBA program we have here at University of Arkansas. Then in 2011, I started a new academic department within the College of Business. At the time we had six academic departments, one of them was called the Department of Marketing and Logistics, and there wasn’t much to it. The dean [at the time] agreed that we should start the Department of Supply Chain Management. I became the first department chair of this new department. I continue to be pretty involved in entrepreneurship even as dean, a position I’ve held since 2015.
One of the many initiatives you’ve spearheaded at the University of Arkansas was the McMillon Innovation Studio that opened in 2016. How did that come about?
After I became dean, I met with our top 50 most successful alumni, one of whom is Doug McMillon, the chief executive officer of Walmart Inc. He said to me, “If you can find a way to make students more innovative, I’ll fund it.” I went back to the university and spoke with our faculty, and long story short, we came up with this idea called the McMillon Innovation Studio.
It’s a human-centered design studio for students and run by students. They work on projects for big companies, primarily consumer products companies. McMillon gave us $1 million to start it in 2016, and it’s been extremely successful. Just recently, in the past year, he gave us another million dollars to help scale it up further.
This is just one example of the entrepreneurial initiatives I’ve been involved in. I really think the entrepreneurship I was engaged in over the years helped me earn a reputation in supply chain management. The other thing that we did was form the Blockchain Center of Excellence in 2018. We were the first business school to form a Blockchain Center of Excellence. Most of the projects they work on are related to supply chain management.
What are some applications you expect to see for blockchain, and when do you expect to see a wide-scale adoption of the technology?
I am aware of some applications that are not public but already operating. Some companies are ahead of others in this area.
There’s one application that I have been involved in personally. Two years ago, I met with a company called iDatafy. I thought [to myself], here we’ve started a Blockchain Center of Excellence and we are working on things in blockchain, but we aren’t trying to apply blockchain to our business—which is education. I wanted to change this. We needed to start practicing what we preach.
I’m happy to say we have already done it, and it’s in operation today. iDatafy collaborated with the Walton College to create the world’s first smart resumé. When you take a job right out of college, many employers ask for a transcript. [To get a transcript,] the student has to fill out a bunch of forms at their registrar’s office, pay $10, and a few weeks later the company gets the transcript.
With the smart resumé, our students are using a blockchain solution. You click on the resumé, and it gives you a verification from our registrar’s office immediately. We set it up so our students can verify much more than if they have a degree. They can verify whether they have gone through other programs in the school like the Leadership Walton program, the honors studio, or the McMillon Studio. And now companies are starting to ask students to use a smart resumé. It’s been so successful that now every university in Arkansas is using this smart resumé.
Right now, when you talk to people about blockchain, they say “explain it to me,” and when you explain it to them they don’t understand it. It reminds me of the ’90s when the World Wide Web came out. People kept asking, “What is the World Wide Web?” But when you try to explain HTML, no one really understands it. And yet today, everyone uses the World Wide Web. People don’t talk about what is the web and how it works, instead they talk about what’s on the web and what can you do on the web. So, the same thing is happening with blockchain. A student using the smart resumé doesn’t necessarily know that it’s a blockchain solution. I think there will be pretty widespread adoption within the next five years, but people won’t say, “Hey, I’m using blockchain.”
What have you learned about fostering innovation from your work at the university?
There are a couple of things I’ve discovered. One is that most innovation comes from combining things that are not typically combined. That is the most important concept I’ve learned about innovation over the years. I think when you realize it, and you practice it a little bit, it gets easier to innovate.
The other important thing I’ve learned is that people who can write well have an advantage when it comes to innovation. If all you do is whiteboard and talk about ideas, you many times aren’t clear enough about what you are talking about, so it’s hard to know if you have an innovation. I believe in journaling—some of the greatest inventors and innovators journal. They write about what they are doing. It’s a discipline that also helps you think more rigorously about [your innovation] in a more organized manner.
By the way, I’ve journaled myself for the past six years as dean, documenting everything I experiment with. For example, I’ll read a leadership technique, I’ll try it, and I will record the whole process and whether or not I liked it or whether or not it worked. The older I get and the more I see, the more convinced I am of the importance of writing.
A lot has changed in a short time span since the onset of COVID-19. How has that shifted the landscape of supply chain management, and how do you prepare your students to deal with extreme disruptions, like the pandemic, as they start their careers?
There is a difference between management and leadership. Management is about dealing with complexity. Leadership is about dealing with or driving change. For example, the tools of management include: planning, staffing, budgeting, problem solving, etc. Those things work really well in a steady, but complex, environment. But you can’t manage your way through a battle. If there are troops on the ground in a war, you can’t use traditional management techniques, it just doesn’t work.
I think it was [professional boxer] Mike Tyson who said, “A plan is great until you get punched in the face.” As a leader, you’re helping an organization to set the direction, helping people align to that direction, and get people motivated to move in the direction that’s set. That way, the people are empowered. If you are a soldier on the battlefield getting shot at and you jump behind a rock, you don’t know what to do because you don’t know where the other soldiers are. That’s why it’s so important when you go into battle to understand what the objective is.
A detailed plan is not going to be very helpful. I think it was Dwight D. Eisenhower who said, “Plans are never fulfilled, but they are indispensable.” The process of planning helps you think through everything, but it doesn’t help you when things are changing rapidly. We believe at the university that companies and organizations are overmanaged and underled in times of racial crisis, pandemics, etc. Things like this you can’t plan your way out of it, and you can’t anticipate all of it.
That’s why it’s so important to develop leaders, and we are making extra efforts to put students in positions that cause them to become leaders. In fact, we’ve created something called Leadership Walton, and we are trying to get all of our students to go through the program. We want every student to understand what leadership is, and we want every student to have the opportunity to lead while they are in college.