The Advice Business

Sometimes it seems the advisors get more out it than the advisees

Illustration: Greg Mably

Through the years I've had the privilege of serving on advisory boards and committees for government, academia, and industry. The work is unpaid, and sometimes there's a lot of it, but I've always gotten a great deal from it—working with the best and brightest is a crash course on important new technologies and strategies for using them. Sometimes, though, I wonder what's in it for the recipients of my advice. Are the benefits for them commensurate?

The answer depends a lot on their expectations, which often reflect a blend of objectives. If you're asked to join the board of the local opera, it's clear that you're expected to contribute personally, and they don't want you to tell them what to stage. But other charities may have goals that are less obvious, and while you may be assured that they're looking for expert advice, you may discover that donations are what they really expect.

A more common aim is the endorsement of existing plans. This is usually unspoken and subtle. 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. Of course your distinguished advisors will find nothing wrong with your management or strategy except that the organization should receive more funding for its wonderful work. In such cases, the information conveyed to the advisory group is carefully crafted to lead to a rubber-stamp approval.

It takes a confident organization to reveal its problems to outsiders. 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 to 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 said 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 topical, thorny, and (for those to which I'm invited) at least partly technological. However, it's 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 who presumably possess some secret knowledge that will solve the problem being studied. Alas, it seems never to be so.

Often, after much wordsmithing, a study is produced that reverts to generic conclusions: reorganize, appoint a czar, increase funding. It will refer to previous studies of the same problem that gave essentially the same recommendations. Indeed, 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 to slight the people involved. I've always found that they are dedicated and knowledgeable. It's just that we are all 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 existence of the outside group forces the inside group to study itself in its preparations and in the meetings themselves. 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 someday this will happen.

About the Author

Robert W. Lucky (IEEE Fellow), now retired, was vice president for applied research at Telcordia Technologies in Red Bank, N.J. He is the author of several books, including Silicon Dreams and Lucky Strikes Again.

 

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