The Business of Advising

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, November 2011

Through the years I’ve had the privilege of serving on many advisory boards and committees for government, academia, and industry.  It is volunteer duty, but I’ve always gotten a great deal of benefit from it – concise education on technology and strategy, working with the best and brightest, and the satisfaction of involvement in important issues.  However, sometimes I wonder if the people receiving the advice got commensurate benefits.

The answer depends a lot on what the expectations are of the people hosting the advisory committee.  They may be looking for advice on a difficult issue, but often this aim is blended with other objectives.  They may be looking to have their own plans endorsed by an outside group, or they may simply be looking for your money.

If you are asked to join the board of the local opera or museum, it is very clear that you are expected to contribute personally, and they really don’t want you to tell them what to stage or display. But this is well understood and many volunteers feel that the association is well worth the charitable expense.  The problem comes when it isn’t an obvious charity that you are invited to join, and while you may be assured that they are looking for your expert advice, later you may discover that your donations are really what they expect.

A more common aim is the endorsement of existing plans.  This is usually unspoken and subtle, but the information conveyed to the advisory group may be carefully crafted to achieve this result.  When you are the advisee, as I have been on occasion, this aim is so natural that you may not even be aware of it yourself.  Your fondest dream is that the distinguished advisors will find nothing wrong with your management or strategy except that you should receive more funding for the wonderful work of your organization.

It takes a confident organization to open up its inside problems to an advisory group. I remember coming out of a board meeting and being intercepted in the hallway by an unknown employee.

“You people don’t know what’s going on here,” he whispered to me.

Before I could think of any reply, he was gone.  Well, of course, he’s right, I thought.  We parachute in a couple of times a year and spend a day hearing hand-picked employees giving carefully rehearsed talks.  How could we possibly know what is really going on?  On the other hand, I might have replied that while it was true that we didn’t know what was really going on, neither did he.  There are many views of an organization, depending on where you sit, and no one has a truly integrated understanding of such a complex maze of interactions.

Government advisory committees have a unique flavor.  Most often the outside group is chartered to study a particular problem – one that is current, thorny, and in our case, at least partly technological.  However, through the years it has been my experience that technology is seldom either the problem or the solution.  I look around at these meetings and see world famous technical experts and believe that they will possess some secret knowledge that will be a magic bullet for the problem being studied.  Alas, it seems never to be so.

In the absence of a magic technology, and after much wordsmithing, the studies often revert to the generic conclusions: reorganize, appoint a czar, and increase funding.  Also, the organization or agency is referred to previous studies of the same problem in past years with essentially the same recommendations, which have been consistently ignored.  Some issues become perennials that are studied again and again, such as the federal acquisition system, which has been studied without noticeable effect for decades.  In making these observations, I don’t intend any slight on the people involved.  I’ve always found that they are dedicated and knowledgeable.  It’s just that all of us are enmeshed in an infinitely complicated system of rules, laws, organizations, and legacy conditions.  I’m amazed that it works at all.

Going back to my original question – that of benefits – I do believe in the value of advisory committees and boards.  Sometimes we’ve given good advice, and sometimes I think back on a past report and cringe.  But in any case the outside group forces the inside group to study itself through the preparations and meetings involved.  Moreover, an honest endorsement of existing activities can be helpful and reassuring.  Still, I often wish there was a good problem to be solved, and that the solution involved a powerful new technology of which only our advisory group was aware.  Maybe some day this will happen.