Ian O. Williamson, dean of UCI’s Paul Merage School of Business, is a globally recognized expert in the field of human resource management, a reputation earned by traveling the world over to examine how talent pipelines affect organizational and community outcomes.
Williamson came to UCI from a position as pro vice chancellor and dean of commerce at the Wellington School of Business and Government at New Zealand’s Victoria University. Other faculty positions have landed him in Australia, Switzerland and Indonesia.
Complementing his extensive travels and experience in academia, Williamson has assisted executives in more than 20 countries across six continents in enhancing operational and financial outcomes, improving talent recruitment and retention, boosting innovation, and understanding the impact of social issues on business.
In this UCI Podcast, Williamson identifies significant changes in business over the last decade, analyzes how the pandemic altered business education, and forecasts the future of work for employers and employees.
This episode was recorded in the podcast studio in the ANTrepreneur Center. The music, titled “Swimming Lessons,” was provided by Bail Bonds via the audio library in YouTube Studio.
To get the latest episodes of The UCI Podcast delivered automatically, subscribe at:
The UCI Podcast/Cara Capuano:
From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Cara Capuano. Thank you for listening to The UCI Podcast. Our guest today is Ian Williamson, dean of UC Irvine’s Paul Merage School of Business since January 1 of 2021. He’s going to shine some insight on what’s next in business. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today, Dean Williamson.
Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Before we get to the big picture themes of a very huge topic, I want to get to know a little bit more about you. What drew you to your leadership role with The Paul Merage School of Business?
Well, I think the first thing I should say is I am a true believer in the benefit of higher education. And I don’t know if I probably would geek out on this a little bit, but I actually – when I was an undergraduate – just fell in love with the idea of a university. And my dream was to one day be in a leadership role in a university. Because I thought, how cool will it be to actually work in a place like this? Now, at that time, I had no idea what that meant. Didn’t even know what a PhD was, had never heard of that thing.
It’s very nice that I’ve been able to actually now be in a role that allows me to help guide a world-class institution like UCI, to make a big impact in community. And I was particularly attracted to University of California, Irvine. The university has a very strong history around focusing on technology. I thought that would be a fascinating space for me to be in, particularly as a business school professor. In addition, we have a phenomenal technology-based set of companies and industries around us, which is – if you’re a business school professor – that’s a cool sandbox to play in.
And then the second thing was the university’s commitment to inclusive excellence. That’s something that has always been very central and very core to my professional life. But also, having had the experiences of living in multiple different countries, I wanted to be in a place that had that diversity. And certainly, Southern California has that in tremendous levels. And I thought that would also be a very enriching environment for myself professionally as well as personally. So, the two things worked out really well.
I love hearing that you’re not only realizing your dream, but you’re doing it in a place that… this is a carefully researched decision for you. As you’ve said, you’ve truly been all over the world and here you are with this chance in the spot that you feel is right for you. Deans always come into their new leadership opportunities with plans and strategies that they want to implement during their time in the position. What are some of your goals?
When I started January 1st, 2021, obviously we were at the height of the pandemic. I was in New Zealand where I was previously living and working. I could not get to the United States but started the job anyway. So, I did the job remotely for about six months from New Zealand. That gave us a lot of time. And so, I had a lot of meetings with individuals in the community to talk about what do they need from a world-class business school. And then similarly, I had conversations with all of our employees in the business school to say, “What are your expectations of a world class business school?”
And great research certainly is going to be the foundation. Effective pedagogy, innovative classes definitely are going to be part of our repertoire. But the thing that people brought to my attention the most – in terms of being that opportunity – was how are we going to engage and impact our broader community more effectively?
And from a business perspective, there was a clear belief and understanding that we don’t have the talent we need in Orange County for our companies to thrive. We need more people. We need more people with the right skills. And they were saying, “How can we as an institution –how can we as a business school –play a role in addressing that issue?”
Internally, when I spoke to individuals, what they were saying was, “We’re doing great research. We have fantastic classes. How can we better engage with the business community to co-create these activities with them so that we’re ensuring that the work that we’re doing is meaningful? But also, we want that work to be impactful. We want people to use the ideas that we’re generating through our research. And so, this issue around external engagement and truly shaping the pipeline of talent in our community was the charge that I sort of took from all those conversations.
And, related to that – particularly because we have a business school that’s built around technology – it was ensuring that we were doing this with all communities. How can we ensure that all communities in our region are benefiting from this educational experience that we’re providing? So that, to me, is our charge forward. And it really has been summed up in our two key principles. One, how are we developing leaders for this digitally driven world and ensuring that we’re doing that effectively? And how are we doing it in a way that drives inclusive excellence, such that all communities are benefiting in the areas of entrepreneurship, technology, and business?
You’re globally recognized as an expert in human resource management. And these last few years – you brought up, you took the job at the height of the pandemic – they’ve really reshaped that field. Let’s start with the talent retention aspect. That record-setting employee turnover that we saw during the pandemic led to a nickname for the phenomenon, the “Great Resignation.” You’ve written extensively on the topic. Where is that trend now?
What we’ve seen over the last 10 years is the tide has turned really. The employees have a lot more self-determination, a lot more power in this employer/employee relationship. And that is changing the way individuals think about work and how they engage with their employer.
Years ago, I wrote an article, and in that article, I said, “The war for talent is over. Talent won.” And really, organizations are having to think very differently about what does it mean to create an environment that is attractive, engaging and fulfilling for individuals. It’s not the case that people are not willing to work or not eager. There’s oftentimes a lot of conversation about young people not being committed. Definitely not the case. If I look at my students, they are exceptionally committed to their professional development, but the expectations of how they want to contribute, how they want to use their skillsets has shifted dramatically.
And now what you’re seeing is organizations having to catch up, managers having to let go of perhaps some beliefs or stereotypes that they held onto and really think very differently about why is it that this person be willing to give their time, their energy to accomplish this task.
So, I don’t think the trend of voluntary turnover is going to change very much. Certainly, we’re entering a period where there’s a little more economic uncertainty than we’ve had in other times. But the pattern is pretty clear. Voluntary turnover has been increasing year on year for over 10 years. I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.
But what will happen is you will have winners and losers in the game for talent. The more innovative, the more flexible companies will be able to attract their fair share of talent. The more rigid, the less flexible companies will have a hard time finding the type of people they need to be successful.
So, one challenge that’s facing managers is that voluntary turnover. That’s a thing that they’re trying to deal with. Another is the concept of diversification of the talent pipeline. What work needs to be done to continue moving in that right direction toward equal opportunity for all?
I’ll go back to the two principles that I described that we’re building our business school around. One, leadership for the digital driven world, and the second one being inclusive excellence.
One of the observations that I made, particularly because we’re in California – this is the hotbed of innovation for the country, if not the world. California generated more patents last year than the next five states in the United States combined. We are the place where ideas come to flourish. That is wonderful. That is a big benefit to our community. The technology sector is driving the quality of life that we all experience.
However, the numbers are very, very clear. If you look at the population, we maybe have 30-40% of the population would be Black and Latinx. That would only be less than 15% of the population in the technology sector if you look at employment. If you look at who founds these companies – these great startups that we talk about, that we make movies about – less than 5% of those founders would be coming from those communities. And if you look at who funds these entities – where the money goes – the largest pool of venture capital dollar in the United States exists in California. Less than 3% of that money is actually going to Latinx or Black founders.
And so, for us as a business school, if we say we’re going to be leaders of this digital driven economy, the challenge we have to raise is: are we leaders of a few or are we leaders of all? And fundamentally, we need to be aggressively changing this pipeline of talent – not just getting more people from more communities in as employees in these sectors, ensuring they have the skillsets, but also founders. And then ensuring those founders are actually getting funding and even changing the backgrounds and diversifying the backgrounds of the funders, so that you have people from communities investing in technology firms from their communities. That’s important because it drives employment, it drives wealth generation, but also it drives quality of life because we create these technology companies to provide services that enhance or alleviate concerns. There are many communities right now which are not benefiting from that.
So, this to me is the big opportunity. The companies in our county are great. They’re strong. They’re growing. They have a tremendous thirst for talent. And so, how can we ensure that more communities across Orange County are generating capabilities, having people who are excited about those professions, and that way we’re able to generate the pool of talent that will drive us going forward. That is our number one goal right now. And we can do that in a lot of different ways.
Well, obviously we’re a university. And, most universities, when they think about doing something in this space, they think about their programs. So clearly diversifying our student body, ensuring that we’re bringing individuals from a wide variety of communities in. We’ve been doing a great job of that at UCI. One of the things that attracted me to the institution – and one of the things I’m certainly proud of – is that over 40% of our students are first in family, which is phenomenal given the nature and standard and quality that we have here. We really are drawing people from all of Orange County and giving them pathways of mobility through education. So that’s one.
It’s also thinking about the curriculum. In the business school, for example, regardless of domain, we want every subject to talk about technology and how that technology is shaping that discipline. So, whether it’s operations management, human resource management, my area, FinTech, finance, every subject we want the professors to be bringing in how is technology shaping, changing, evolving this particular discipline?
And then similarly, how are we ensuring that the examples we use are role modeling of variety of talent. So, I oftentimes say, “Excellence comes in a wide variety of shapes, colors, and forms.” Let’s make sure that the examples we use when we’re teaching business come in that same level of variety because that normalizes it.
And I tell my staff to get a degree from UCI, you need to be resilient. You’ve got to work hard. It’s not going to be easy. But I cannot expect one student to have to be twice as resilient as another student. And what does that mean? Well, listen, if I give you all the examples and all the examples come from one particular gender and one particular ethnic group – and I’m teaching you FinTech – you have to learn FinTech and you have to imagine yourself doing this when all the examples I’ve given you don’t look like you and don’t come from your community. That’s twice as resilient.
So, why not have examples that come from a wide variety of communities? Why not have speakers, companies, situations that you can connect to, that everyone can see themselves in this. Thus, it’s not just that I have to learn FinTech, but you understand, I can see how this will benefit the people that I love, the communities I come from, the experiences that I’ve had. This is why this is important.
We’ve been doing a lot of work in our curriculum to ensure that we’re bringing in technology, but also bringing in examples that people can resonate with, and they can connect with. So that’s one space – that’s sort of the known space.
But the other challenge that I would say is there’s a whole lot of things that are happening before people get to university. And there’s a whole lot of things that are happening after they leave the university. If we’re serious about truly being an impactful organization, we have to also play in those spaces. It’s not just what we do while we’re on campus.
So, this has been a big push for us. We’ve launched programs that have allowed us to now engage with high school students, get engaged with them earlier, shape the way they think about their careers, expose them to opportunities, get them excited about opportunities.
I’ll share a story. When I first arrived – I am not from California, I did not grow up here, I don’t really know the vibe here. And I thought for me to understand this, maybe I should go visit the high schools because I’m going to get those students and I don’t really know what their experiences are. I’d be better prepared as an educator if I did.
So, I started visiting high schools and I noticed that in several of the high schools, even though they may have been 60% Latinx, when I went to the business classes, the technology classes, very, very few Latinos/Latinas in those classes –even though they were the majority. And I thought, “Wow. And these are 14-, 15-year-old kids. Why are they self-selecting out of these classes?” You know, when I was that age, I didn’t even know… I couldn’t have figured out what to do.
And I talked to different educators and principals, and they said, “You know, oftentimes the students just don’t seem to find themselves interested.” I said, “Well, if they’re not interested in high school, they’re definitely not going to show up on my doorstep four years later.” So, we need to be doing something.
So, we launched this thing called the Future Leaders Initiative. It’s a summer program that we run in partnership with Santa Ana Unified and Anaheim Unified High Schools, as well as Santa Ana College. And it’s all about exposing students to career opportunities that sit at the intersection between business and technology, giving them awareness of these opportunities, access to professionals and role models that they can relate to that are doing this work, so it becomes real and tangible for them. And then working actually with our career center to give them tools to create ambition. What is your 10-year plan? How do you go from being a sophomore in high school today to being a successful FinTech executive 10 years from now? And if I can get more at the earlier phases of the pipeline, certainly we’ll get our fair share here at UCI and then that means there’s a bigger pool for us on the back end.
Last year when we had our graduation for that cohort, we asked all the parents to come. And I asked the parents who came, “How many of you have ever been to the University of California, Irvine campus?” Most of them had never been before.
As a parent myself, it’s great when you can take your children to a place that they’ve never been before, and you see the impact it has on them. But there’s nothing like a child taking their parent to a place they’ve never been before and seeing the impact it has on the parent.
And now you know that that parent, when they’re speaking to that child as they talk about education, they’re always going to say, “Well, what about University of California, Irvine? That was a great place. You should be thinking about being there. Or a place like there.” It sets the expectation not just for the child, but for the family.
And that, to me, was one of those moments I said, “We’re doing something special here.” So, last year we had 40 students. This year we have 110 students. So, it’s really been a big success and we’re probably going to have even more next year.
Yeah. And so, it’s also looking at what can we be doing in community, both with the high school students and then also working with those professionals that are out in the field. We launched our Leadership Development Institute, which has a set of customized non-degree programs to be accessible to people that aren’t going to come back for an undergraduate degree. They may not come back for a master’s degree, but they still need to go through a digital transformation in their company. How can we give them the tools to be successful at doing that, particularly in underserved communities? So, we’ve broadened out our activities, but the goal here is to fundamentally change the pipeline of talent that we have access to here in Southern California.
On a bigger picture level, how have you seen business education evolve since the pandemic?
Everything that we thought we knew, we don’t necessarily know anymore. We are being disrupted just like everybody else. I think it is an extraordinarily exciting time to be in higher education and specifically in business education. I am leaning into this. I actually think this gives us opportunity to make a very big impact.
I’ll just give you a very simple example. One of the things that has come out of the last, say four or five years is a very serious conversation at a societal level, but certainly within business, around sustainability. And that’s environmental sustainability. But also, you can’t have a pandemic and not think about the social issues that are prevalent in our communities. And people begin to appreciate very clearly, I’ll say, access to healthcare is not just a health issue, but as it turns out, it’s a supply chain issue because we couldn’t buy anything because people weren’t healthy, and they weren’t healthy because they didn’t have access. And we didn’t know how to handle those things.
And so, it really brought to everyone’s attention that we cannot be passive as business leaders about the pressing social issues that we have in our community because we’re embedded in these communities, and we will go as far as they go. So, you know, sustainability is an issue that now is far more important and far more salient to a lot of the conversations about financing, about how we operate.
In response, we added an ESG track to our Master of Professional Accountancy. How can we train accountants to better measure and understand the impact of things like emissions and report those more effectively for investors, for managers, so that as we think about risk that companies are facing – whether that be from a financier’s perspective or whether it be from a manager’s perspective – we can accurately report that, track that and incorporate that into our decision making.
This is, I think, a very novel and innovative approach, and we would see more and more of that, cascading across all of our disciplines. And so, these are the types of things we’re bringing into our curriculum. The environment has shifted. Businesses are expected to play a role in these issues. And certainly, the savvy business leaders understand that issues around social justice, issues around sustainability, issues around participation in our society – these are all workforce issues. These are supply chain issues. These are marketing issues. These are product development issues. And so, we’re bringing that more and more into our curriculum so that our students are prepared to lead organizations in this way.
And it certainly circles back to our first topic about how employees really want to work now for corporations and companies that are prioritizing all of the elements that you just shared.
I think there used to be a perspective in business that people would work, they’ll do what they need to do, they’ll make money, and then in their later years, they’ll take that money that they’ve accumulated, and they’ll try to do something positive with it, which is fine.
But this generation is not of that sequential mentality. They have a parallel mentality that they say, “I want to be a phenomenal accountant and I want to use my accounting skills to have a positive impact – not just on economic outcomes in my community – but also broader social outcomes in my community. How will you as an employer allow me to do those two things simultaneously? And if you allow me to do that, I’m committed. I will work hard, I will skill up to be able to do this. But if you don’t do that, I will not find that work fulfilling. It’s the expectation that you’re going to pay me, but I will be at my best if I’m also doing work that I know has a meaningful contribution.” And this is, I think, how they are shaping the way work is done.
I love that idea. One thing that I’ve really enjoyed seeing is your devoted commitment to participating in the conversations with the community. You mentioned very early, how can we create a coalescence between UCI, the people around us, the communities in the next few concentric circles. You’re just really out there, networking with business leaders, lending your expertise on panels – sometimes you moderate, sometimes you’re a panelist. Which of those experiences that you’ve had so far have really stood out for you?
One of the reasons I became an educator is someone told me in this profession, if you want to, you can learn something new every day. And I thought, “And that’s a job? You get to learn something new every day. Sign me up. Right?”
And now as an administrator, as a dean, I still hold onto that and it’s slightly different, right? And so, for me, we are a service provider to our community. We’re a state institution. The state is entrusting us with its funds to serve the community around us. I have always thought that you cannot serve people you don’t know. It’s never going to be the case you understand what they need if you don’t know them, if you don’t spend the time engaging with them. And we’re fortunate, we get students from every community in Orange County, every particular demographic group, every religious group… you name it, I have a student from that community.
How am I going to provide an educational experience that is meaningful, supportive and relevant for them if I don’t actually have a context of what they want to use it for? And so, for me, it’s about doing my job well. Like I need to go out and find out.
So, you know, this is why I engage with the Vietnamese American Chamber, right? We have the largest Vietnamese community in the world outside of Vietnam in Orange County. It’s a phenomenal community, a truly innovative business community. This is why I want to engage with the Chinese American Chamber. You know, to understand how are they thinking about business opportunities –not just here in the US but globally – and what are some of the innovations they’re engaging with? Or why am I engaged with the Hispanic Chamber and understand the way they’re thinking about business opportunities and why we invited the Hispanic Chamber to actually put their headquarters in their offices on our campus, so we can have them close and be near to them. Or the Black Chamber of Orange County.
These are all organizations that represent the voice of their community, that represent the desires of how business plays a role in that community. And then that allows us to better serve that community through our business education. So, I enjoy it. I love learning something new. I love learning new cultures. But, even if I didn’t enjoy it, I would see it as my responsibility. And I think it makes us a better business school. It allows us to be able to provide an experience that all of our students can relate to.
This summer, your outreach has gone worldwide. You’ve been traveling extensively. Take us through some of the highlights of the trips that you’ve been on to, like you said, bring that community outward from Orange County and have it reach everywhere.
One of the great things about Orange County is we have truly world-class organizations. What is happening here in many different spaces – healthcare, electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence – it’s not happening anywhere else on the planet. So, we’re doing things that people around the world want to know about.
I think it’s incumbent upon us to tell that story. As a university representing this region, we should be out there telling that story and then attracting people to want to come here and be a part of that.
This summer I went to Taiwan. We have many successful alums there; we recruit a lot of students from there. But we also formed a partnership with Taipei Medical University, one of the largest medical universities there that is doing some amazing work in innovation around healthcare. Obviously, healthcare is a very important sector here in Orange County. So, how can we exchange ideas and talent and opportunities between this amazing innovative community in Taiwan, this fantastic university, and how does that benefit our students?
From there, I left and spent some time in Singapore where I did some lecturing there, but also met with our alums and our incoming students. Again, Singapore, an amazing community, a global trade hub, the largest port in the world, one of the most important financial sectors in the world. Truly a bridge between sort of Asia and America and Europe. And how can we learn from that? And how can we bring those insights into our curriculum? In fact, we’re going to have our EMBA students go do an international study trip to Singapore in September.
Which will be fantastic for them to get exposure to how that part of the world is thinking about finance, investment, sustainability, operations… I think they’ll have a great experience. But we have alums on the ground that can share their story about living there and doing work there. They’re our alums – they know the context of UCI; they know the context of The Paul Merage School. So, forming those partnerships is very important.
This fall, I’ll visit Brazil – another key market globally. I’ll work with the business school there – Insper –and look at ways in which we can form partnerships. And the other thing that I’ll do this year is I was invited to speak to the African Business School Association Conference. So, I’ll go visit, uh, with them in Mauritius at that conference and have an opportunity to meet with over 50 different business school deans from across the African continent. And I’m very excited about understanding how we as a business school can begin to deepen our relationships in those spaces as well.
Certainly, the African continent represents huge opportunity going forward and I want American companies to be aware of that, our students to be excited about these opportunities and then also for the leaders there to say, if we’re going to engage with business in the United States, we should go to Orange County. And I think that’ll be beneficial for us as well.
I feel silly asking this follow-up, but what else are you working on?
I am an HR professor, and I just finished a book on the future of work and I’m very excited about that project. It’ll be coming out early next year, I believe. And you know, it touches on what have been some of the structural changes that we’ve seen in the way we work over the last say 10-15 years, as we move to be more of a service economy, as technology has changed what we’re doing. We have a little bit of time in there – we talk about artificial intelligence and remote work and how that’s impacting and changing what we’re doing.
I’m not going to say that I can predict the future, definitely not. But I do think it’s a great resource for practitioners because it’s designed to be very accessible. It’s not designed to be an overly academic book but more of a synthesis of academic research for practitioners. I think what it does is it allows people to ask the right questions about their workplaces, provides the right context to understand their choices, but most importantly, provides some context for people to understand we’re not what we were 10 years ago and we’re not going back. And for some companies, that’s going to be viewed as a threat. But for the great companies, that’s going to be viewed as a great opportunity and hopefully this is a resource they can use to realize that.
It sounds like your new book is going to be a really helpful resource for both employees and employers – I’m looking forward to reading it. Thank you so much for joining us today, Dean Williamson.
It’s my honor. Thank you very much for having me.
For the latest UCI News, please visit our recently redesigned website, news.uci.edu. I’m Cara Capuano. Thank you for listening to our conversation, which we recorded at the studio of UCI’s ANTrepreneur Center. The UCI Podcast is a production of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs at the University of California, Irvine. Please