Role of an Advisory Committee

An Advisory Committee is a Board or Group without governing responsibilities of the organization they represent. An Advisory Committee can be a very useful asset to the Board of Directors and staff of an organization. They support the organizationís activities by providing guidance, information, resources, prestige, etc.

There's a difference between a Board of Directors and an Advisory Board of an organization.

Typically, the Board of Directors is the governing body of the organization and is responsible for hiring, firing and evaluating the organizationís growth, identifying vision, mission and values, setting strategic direction and monitoring progress towards goal attainment in accordance with the strategic plans.

There can be more than one Advisory Committee to an organization (to different groups / teams / departments, etc.). Did you know that the Food and Drug Administration, USA, to assist in its mission to protect and promote the public health, uses 49 committees and panels to obtain independent expert advice on scientific, technical and policy matters?

An Advisory Committee can be valuable to any part of the organization. The insights one can derive from the Advisory Committee groups - about perceptions of service levels and beliefs (or myths) about the business, as well as the interchange of communication between the technical staff and their clients, can be helpful. But to derive the maximum value from the Advisory Committees, keep several key points in mind.

First, note that the Advisory Committees should not be confused with "project teams" and "work groups," whose mission is quite different. Project teams or work groups often have a specific start and end time, with clearly stated objectives; for example, upgrade all desktop computers to the latest operating system, replace the current e-mail server with new equipment, or implement an identity management solution, etc. The membership of these groups tends to consist primarily of the core technical / expertise staff, with a few senior organizational members who serve as functional advisors.

On the other hand, Advisory Committees tend to have a longer life span, possibly lasting for many years, with a diverse membership consisting of representatives who are from the same industry. Its primary goal should be to provide guidelines and policy on matters related to the use and implementation of inputs in a specific functional area (discipline, department, college, university. affiliate, region, etc.); not to provide technical specifications or requirements.

Often such Committees can become highly political and difficult to manage if allowed to evolve without appropriate guidance and good communication. The following tips are intended as guidelines to help one use Advisory Boards effectively at an institution / organization.

Make sure that you have a clearly defined mission for the Committee and that every member understands it.

If the group is to provide strategic direction, donít let them get bogged down in day-to-day details of why somethingís "not working for me today." If itís a policy Committee, keep them focused on policies, not on procedures. Setting the parameters upfront and getting a clear understanding of what the mission is (and sticking to it) are much easier than trying to turn around a Committee thatís gone astray. Reiterate the mission and operating principles of the Committee regularly and as necessary. Be sure to establish the mission and principles again at the beginning of each financial year.

Be clear about membersí roles.

Help members understand that they represent a larger constituency, not their own special individual interests, and that the Committee has a greater goal to accomplish than taking care of their own interests. Help them understand that the Committee serves the organization and therefore some compromises may have to be made by compromising on their personal agenda, ego, etc. inorder to "serve the greater goodĒ.

ē Be clear about the term of membership.

For Advisory Committees to remain vital and useful, it is often best to set up specific terms for Committee membership. Optimally, the members will have staggered terms so that there can be some continuity of understanding and philosophy from year to year. Technology can be complex and the policy issues surrounding it formidable to the uninitiated. It will take time for some to gain an understanding sufficient to provide informed and helpful input on policy issuesómaybe a year or more depending on how often meetings are held and how productive the conversations are. Once the members have established that understanding, you donít want to lose it. Around a three-year term of office is just about right, if one can find people willing to make that kind of commitment. Any longer - stagnancy of thought may set in; and any shorter - the value of the input may be lessened by a lack of understanding.

ē Recognize the value of two-way communication.

Remember that the Advisory Committee members talk to others; this is an opportunity to "get your message out." At the same time remember that how you interact with the Committee will be echoed throughout the groups being represented by those Committee members. Itís important to be impartial and fair with all Members, as well as not to over-communicate with them. Only part of your message will actually make it back to the constituency group accurately.

ē As much as possible, try to keep Advisory Committees focused on the "big issues."

The initial tendency for many first-time members of such Committees is to get caught up in details. In short, be patient with their natural inclinations but donít allow them to drive the meetings and the time you spend in communication. Run meetings with the priority of resolving issues and coming to conclusions; do not allow endless speculation about what will happen given certain scenarios. Meetings that descend to this level rarely accomplish much.

ē Donít forget that you are the technology expert. As such, you often will be the one responsible for successful implementation of the policies emanating from the Committee.

Sometimes Committee members can sound quite authoritative on whatís technically best for a solution. If you are not knowledgeable about their discipline, it is easy to slide into accepting their assertions as gospel. Weigh each assertion against the challenges of implementation and support. Balance those assertions with practical, straightforward implications of each decision.

ē Donít be dogmatic in asserting your technical responsibilities; be willing to compromise when you can.

The art of compromise is a careful balancing act between what must be done and what can be done. Recognize the difference, and recognize when something isnít required. Be willing to compromise on what can be done. The political capital you earn by such compromises can pay off in much bigger ways later.

Of course, many of the above recommendations are basic principles of good management and donít apply only to Advisory Committees. If one can practice these principles on a daily basis in the interactions with staff, faculty, and other managers, then doing the same with your Advisory Committees will become easy. The recommendations simply become an extension of your normal managerial behavior.

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