Participating in an Advisory Board: Five Principles

Having created and served on advisory boards in a number of organisations and countries, I’ve begun to see some principles that can guide others serving on an advisory board. I am not a management consultant nor an expert on advisory boards, but as I try to think through my own experiences on boards, I thought it would be fun to write about my views on what could be key principles. These have been learned the hard way, by seeing the reactions of organisations and other members of boards to my interventions – efforts to give advice and support organisations, mainly those involved in academic research.

Any organization, such as an academic unit, can get too insulated or too loosely connected to a multitude of important stakeholders, ranging from other academics to policy and practitioner communities and any audiences it seeks to reach. They may ask themselves: Is our work meeting the high expectations set for the organisation? Are we doing our work in ways that are recognised as best practice in relevant communities? How can we excel further on any number of criteria? Are we missing important topics or areas of work? Are there new and promising sources of funding? To answer such questions, it can be helpful to set up a group of individuals who are trusted to be constructive but also have a critical perspective that can inform the unit moving forward.

Given such questions, the organization often sets up an advisory board to review the unit’s work on a periodic basis and give them feedback on notable strengths and any weaknesses that could be addressed. A report or multiple documents are assembled for the board members to review and provide feedback during a short but substantively rich meeting of the board. So what principles might help board members in contributing to their next board meeting? I apologise in advance for keeping this simple, but I often forget them in the process of meeting.

  1. The organization knows far more than the board about its activities and practices.

One positive role of a board meeting is that it should force or at least incentivise the organisation to pull together a clear overview of its activities and the issues it is facing. In the process of pulling this information together and communicating it to the board, a large proportion of the work of the advisory board is accomplished. The managers and leadership of the organisation updates its sense of who has done what and with what impact over the last period of time. In the course of doing so, the organisation develops a better understanding of its strengths and weaknesses, and how they can or cannot be addressed, before the board even meets.

An obvious corollary of this point is that outside advisory boards really can’t possibly understand internal personnel and management issues. They might need to know they exist but without knowing the individuals and circumstances in detail, they have no basic grounding for advising an organisation. Keep the board focused on the work of the organisation and its implications. At the same time, I’ve been impressed when an organisation does not hesitate to note that it is facing some interpersonal, management, or leadership issues as one aspect of conveying the factors facilitating or limiting its work.

2. Advice is not likely to be the only – or even primary – objective of meeting with the board.

An advisory board can help progress a number of objectives with advice being only one and not necessarily the primary reason for its existence. As noted above, it creates an occasion for self-reflection by the organisation. In addition, it can help the unit reach out to other stakeholders and constituencies – by incorporating influential individuals across these different targets for outreach and providing them with information about the organisation. It can provide support to the organisation, endorsing its activities and practices. The status and diversity of individuals on the board can communicate something about the importance and diversity of the organisation. The board in a reflection of the organization.

3. There is limited time for advice.

It seems inevitable that there is limited time a board can be expected to spend reading material before a meeting, and meetings are generally limited to one or at most a few hours. Once board members reintroduce themselves to one another and the organisation presents information to remind the board about its activities and accomplishments and any new developments then little time is left for real feedback or discussion. Organisations should and usually do try to ensure there is ample time for discussion, but often over-program meetings in ways that little time is actually left for feedback. It doesn’t help to send a questionnaire or email soliciting further feedback, as the organisation will only hear what there is time to communicate during the meeting.

This is one reason why online meetings do not work nearly as well as personal face-to-face meetings of a board. Recent experience during the pandemic suggests that more advisors can attend an online meeting, which is one of the best features of meeting online. However, most in person meetings are able to embed meaningful but informal communication around the event, such as a dinner or site visits. These occasions enable individuals to clarify their assessments, time for people to get over their differences of opinion and ‘makeup’, and for the group to gain a better sense of its value to and support by the organisation.

4. Advice is difficult to give and to receive.

It is common for board members to provide very general feedback that recognises the accomplishments documented by the material communicated to the members and validating the challenges the organisation has identified. In 1995, I put together a document for the Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT) that I directed which was entitled a “A Profile of Research and Publications 1995”. My key aim in compiling this was to communicate the incredible range and quality of research projects and publications that the PICT centres had completed. I was delighted when the board noted that we had done a great deal over the span of the project – they were impressed as they had not seen this pulled together until this report. It was 120 pages jammed packed with information about our work and its impact. So the members simply acknowledging the productivity and quality of the programme was exactly the feedback I had hoped for. Very simple.

Too often, as a member of a board, I can get carried away with a perceived need to provide advice, partly, I am sure, as a reflection of commonly being asked to review books, articles, or proposals, when critical comment is genuinely requested. But an organisation probably does not want a review of its report to the board and most advice we could give is already known by the organisation. As above, they know more than the board about the strengths and weaknesses of their organisation. So I try to prioritise what I have to offer in case I have a very limited time to speak – what would be my one idea.

Nevertheless, organisations need to listen and accept that they have asked for advice in creating an advisory board. So do not be surprised if you get advice you don’t want to hear. There is no need to take the advice. More than likely it is something that should have been considered before, but it is always worth understanding what the advisor is seeing and saying, and asking why particular advice was given and whether it is an idea for the leadership to kill, further discuss, develop, or possibly better deal with in your communication about the organisation’s project(s).

5. Advise and forget.

Finally, despite all I have said above, it is entirely fair and appropriate for any member of an advisory board to give any feedback that seems useful for the board member to convey. In my opinion, as a board member, you really should not worry about how it is received or whether it will be well received. Some may regard your advice as simplistic, wrong, old-fashioned, patronising, ill-informed, or in any other way, unhelpful. But that is not your problem. You are simply responding to what you’ve read and heard and think important to communicate. That is what you volunteered your time to do, so board members really can’t afford to second guess whether to communicate what they’ve gathered from the material. It is the option of the organisation to take or leave your advice. If your feedback is unhelpful, such as in misunderstanding what the organisation has done, then they need to do a better job in communicating their work or in selecting advisors.

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In conclusion, and to be fair, the aim of any member of an advisory board is not simply to give advice. People join an advisory board because they have been asked, or because they want to keep up with the field, support an organisation, or meet other members of the board – network, or you name it. In commenting on this blog, a colleague put it this way: “In addition to giving advice, I see the board’s role as providing a web of professional networks that create an additional resource for the organisation. Advisory board members should use their networks for a variety of functions, such as raising visibility, distributing information about outputs or vacancies, and helping organizational leaders establish contacts.”

Given these potential payoffs, I’ve found every advisory board I’ve served on to have been beneficial in many ways, both personally and professionally.

Is there another principle I should add to this list?

Social Distancing Education

Social Distancing Education: Questions Abound over Online Courses

One major response to social distancing in light of the Coronavirus has been a rapid move of schools and universities to online education. To many, this is a stopgap measure that will end when guidance on social distancing ends. To others, this was an innovation long waiting to happen that should alter the future of education at many levels – moving online teaching from the periphery to the core of educational institutions. 

I can understand why so many are convinced this change will be successful. Nearly all faculty and students use the Internet and related digital media in their everyday life and work, so it is not as major of a transition as it would have been in earlier times. Also, informal learning – outside formal institutions – has worked well online, with many routinely seeking advice or instructions on YouTube and other platforms. Moreover, the tools exist in the form of online platforms for course delivery. Many training courses and some university courses are already delivered online and many institutions are using these platforms today. Do they simply need to be scaled up to accommodate more students? Has it taken this pandemic to push conservative institutions and faculty into the obviously more efficient future of education? 

However, as one of many who has followed the development of online and distance education for decades, I worry that many of my colleagues are not aware of the serious difficulties that lie ahead. 

Since 1974, I had been studying and writing about computer-mediated communication and began studying innovations in online education with the rise of the Internet. In the midst of the dotcom bubble, 2000-2001, I was the faculty senate president at a major US university and worked with the administration to take our university into the future of higher education. I worked with colleagues to organize a forum on online education and edited collection, entitled Digital Academe: The New Media and Institutions of Higher Education and Learning (2002).* It was dedicated to Michael Young, the founder of the Open University. I was very optimistic at that time, but even by the time this book was published, the problems were becoming more apparent. 

Here are some of the issues to consider:

  • The rapid transition in response to the pandemic is pushing many educators and students into the use of tools and techniques that they did not choose and have not been trained to use. For instance, you can already see some of the teething problems with the problem of zoom-bombing. 
  • The tools and platforms do indeed exist but they are not up to speed with the platforms used by most Internet users. They are relatively slow and clunky and more limited, such as with the use of video, or accessing the wider Internet, depending on the particular platform.
  • We don’t really know how to do online education in a way that is successful in motivating and holding students. The dropout rate of students in many online courses is unacceptably high. This is not to say that individual faculty think they know how to teach online – many sincerely believe they do. But the track-record of online courses has not seen the successful patterns of many other online innovations, such as shopping. To the contrary, many who have taught online have realized that it is far more difficult to teach online and even then the outcomes are not as satisfying to teachers or students. 
  • So much of education is not simply the transfer of information. We can transfer information very well online, and online materials are being substituted for books and articles, but there are other processes that might be even more significant. These include social comparison with other students, learning from peers, and the social presence of the teacher, who can recognise an exceptional or a failing student and help them earlier and more effectively. 
  • We really don’t have a business model or let’s say the business model of traditional educational institutions does not accommodate online education. Online courses need teams to deliver them well, when traditional teaching can be handled well by individuals. Already you are seeing students asking for reductions in their tuition payments. There will be some students who will pay whatever it costs to get a degree from a prestigious institution, but then we are moving into the territory of selling credentials, rather than teaching. 

Today, possibly because of the lessons learned over the past two decades, I am more skeptical than in the dotcom bubble, despite advances in technology. I expect that the transition will be far more difficult in the short run than many institutions expect, and very problematic indeed to sustain in the longer run.

One possibility is that serious innovation might result from tens of thousands of teachers experimenting with online teaching. We should work hard to capture best practice, what works, and what might even begin to diffuse among teachers locally or globally. If there is a breakthrough in the techniques, equipment, or practices of online education, let’s capture it.

That said, I have also written about what I called ‘innovation amnesia’, which referred to the way everyone tends to forget the history of information and communication technologies, and therefore, many try to reinvent the same innovations time and again. This is good in that as time changes, the context might be more favorable and supportive to innovations that failed in the past. Early innovations in video communication were in 1974, with PicturePhone!

With respect to online learning, we shall see. I hope I am as wrong today, as I was 20 years ago. 

References

*Dutton, W. H. and Loader, B. D. (2002) (eds.), Digital Academe: New Media and Institutions in Higher Education and Learning, London: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.

**Dutton, W. H. (1995), ‘Driving into the Future of Communications? Check the Rear View Mirror,’ in Emmott, S. (ed.), Information Superhighways: Multimedia Users and Futures, London: Academic Press, 79-102. 

The Realities of Disinformation, Social Media, and Relationships Through a Screen

Speaking in Lisbon, Portugal, at CEIS-IUL and OberCom

I am back from a stimulating visit to Lisbon to speak at two events. The first was a talk before lunch on 9 April 2018 with a group composed of individuals from the media and regulatory agencies concerned with disinformation and data protection in the social media world. This was at the beautiful Palace Foz, where OberCom (Observatório da Comunicação) https://obercom.pt/is located, and where communication was centered during Portugal’s period as a constitutional monarchy. My talk focused on conveying the findings of our Quello Search Project. The slides are posted here.

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Palace Foz (Lisbon)

The second talk, on the evening of the 9th, was at CEIS-IUL. I was invited by doctoral students to kick off a panel that was primarily focused on online dating research. My talk aimed at more broadly speaking about the role of social media, and how the realities generally differ from the implications portrayed in the news. I entitled the talk ‘Social Media and Society: News and Reality’.

I was able to bring some of our early research on online dating into the talk. The slides are posted here. I was joined by Cristina Miguel from Leeds Beckett University, Cláudia Casimiro from EIEG/ISCSP-ULisboa, and Jorge Vieira from ISCTE-IUL. My host, Gustavo Cardoso, introduced and moderated the session. Everyone remarked on the imagery of the poster for the forum, entitled ‘Dating Through a Screen’, and the talks on dating underscored how the field has shifted from studies of online dating per se to critical and empirical studies of particular platforms, like Tinder, Match.com, and eHarmony.  Screen Shot 2018-04-02 at 15.36.48

Great to catch up with Gustavo Cardoso, who has a new book out, jointly edited with Manuel Castells, Olivier Bouin, João Caraça, John Thompson, and Michel Wieviorka, entitled Europe’s Crises(Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018). See: http://www.worldcat.org/title/europes-crises/oclc/993624071 The editors put together a group to discuss the crises in Europe, which yielded this impressive collection that will add more analytical scholarship to the growing body of work seeking to make sense of developments across Europe, from the financial crisis to Brexit. Eighteen chapters are grouped into three sections dealing with economic, social and political crises – take your pick – plus an introduction and conclusion. This could be a beautiful text for a course.

 

A Dirty Dozen: 12 Reasons Candidates and Networks Fail to Move Presidential Debates Online by Tracy Westen and Bill Dutton

At a time when the 16 GOP candidates are preparing for televised debates on August 6, 2015, in which each candidate might get about 5-10 total minutes of air time, without significant time for rebuttals or follow-up questions, it is appropriate to ask: Why aren’t the debates moving online?

The Internet could provide a platform that would accommodate all 16 candidates, enabling them plenty of time to fully address more questions, in video, audio and textual formats. Based on past experience with initiatives aimed at informing voters online[1], we suggest that there are at least twelve reasons why candidate debates have not moved to the Internet, despite all of its amazing capabilities and potential be provide a fair and more informative debate platform:

1. Digital Divides. Candidates and networks may fear accusations that they are disenfranchising voters who are not online. Although the 20 percent of Americans who are offline are disproportionately older, they are higher propensity voters and a key target audience of the campaigns. Younger Internet users are less likely to vote. However, given the likelihood of the networks covering online debates by capturing key moments for broadcasting, the disenfranchisement seems to lack merit. Moreover, Internet debates can be in addition to, not a substitute for, some television debates.

2. Competitive Advantage. Debates can be influential.[2] However, they are not equally advantageous for all candidates. Generally, those candidates in the lead before a debate have the most to lose by debating with candidates who are lesser known and have had less exposure.[3] Even if 5 to 10 candidates are on a televised debate, adding more to an Internet orchestrated debate could raise the profile of a lesser-known candidate. For this reason, the ten leading candidates are unlikely to support or participate in a more inclusive debate in which all 16 get equivalent billing and time.

3. Losing Money. TV debates haven’t been profitable for TV networks, so there isn’t a large enough cadre of experienced TV producers who have cut their teeth on profitable TV debates and are thinking about ways to scale the debates and move them to the Internet in a profitable way. This would not explain why Britain, with its public service broadcasting traditions, has also failed to make this move to the Internet, but even they need to spend to produce a debate that might not generate the audience garnered by less costly programming.

4. News Credibility. A network might want to broadcast candidate debates to gain news credibility, not for profit. Providing a platform for debates would be a good thing, and boost the public service image of the broadcaster. Moving to the Internet might lose this credibility boost, and the networks might fear it would drain away their TV audiences.

5. One-Offs. Debates are periodic – happening only every 4 years for presidential candidates. Internet sites are less likely to invest the sums necessary to develop and promote a sophisticated debate interface, when they would only operate every 4 years. Every election cycle, the network would have to start all over again with graphic web design and promotional work, unable to spread the costs over a large number of debates.

6. Media Events. TV debates can be promoted as happening at a certain time and therefore have the potential to become a national media event. Currently, the run-up to the first GOP debate with Donald Trump ahead in the primary polls has created a sense of anticipation. The Internet’s strategic advantage is being accessible anytime, from anywhere, yet it may not create the mass audience that television and advertisers crave. The advantages of the Internet might undermine the strategy of TV to create a must-watch media event with the potential for a large mass audience.

7. Avoiding Issues. Candidates often want to avoid talking about issues, at least with any specificity. They can lose voters every time they take a stand on a particular issue. Candidates would prefer to remain vague and talk about “moving the country forward,” how their opponents are “weak on terrorism,” or against the “right to life.” Short answers and 5 minutes of airtime allow them to avoid specific issues. In contrast, the Internet would not impose an artificial limit on a candidate’s response to a question concerning a specific issue, and would therefore push them into more and more specific issue positions. So most candidates might want to resist an Internet debate scenario that puts them in a position where they are expected to participate fully, rebut others with specifics, and answer specific voter inquiries.

8. Push Pull. Candidates love campaign ads on TV, because they capture the attention of viewers who probably did not turn on the TV set to find political TV ads – they might have just tuned into see the evening news, or a show that attracts their particular demographic. Likewise, the placement and timing of debates can gain an audience that did not search out the debates. In contrast, the Internet is more of a pull medium – prospective voters need to decide to pull information from the Web and seek out candidates’ views. Candidates may avoid participating in a medium in which users have to find them, instead of candidates finding the viewers.

9. Ad Placement. It is not clear that ads on the Internet work as well as TV ads in saturating viewers’ attention, so candidates may not find the medium as desirable as TV. Internet ads may be a little like newspaper ads — it’s pretty easy to skip right over them and concentrate on the text of the news stories. By contrast, you can’t avoid the TV commercial unless you mute it or fast-forward over a pre-recorded show.

10. Swing Voters: TV ads often try to reach ‘un-decideds,” who may not vote, but if they do, aren’t sure for whom to vote. These may not be the people who will spend time seeking out information, debates or candidate statements on the Internet. Un-decideds may ultimately vote because they like a candidate’s looks, or think she’s “honest,” or make their decision on the basis of a single issue (religion in the schools). Candidates may feel it’s easier to reach these potential or swing voters with TV ads. This keeps their campaign strategically focused on the mass media of TV.

11. (Ir)Rational Voters. Ultimately, use of the Internet to enable a full set of candidates to more fully debate the important issues at stake is based on the premise that the rational voter will want to have more information on the issues at stake, not a series of canned sound bites. However, the rational voter might not wish to invest much time into information gathering and instead take shortcuts, like voting on the basis of party affiliations or taking cues from others who follow politics (and how much difference will their vote make, anyway?). Experiments with online voting guides suggest that voters have at least 3 strategies for deciding which candidates to support: (1) issues: a small minority of voters cast their ballots based on candidate positions on the issues that matter to the voter; (2) emotional responses: many more base their vote on a ‘personal gestalt’, such as whether particular candidates seem personable, smart, a “real person like me,” tough, family oriented, honest – or other personal aspects of the candidate; and (3) shortcuts: many voters just support candidates who belong to a specific political party, or are endorsed by people or organizations they trust. Online platforms can address the needs of all three of these voter strategies – by enabling candidates to provide textual or detailed video responses to specific issues for the issue-oriented voters, short videos for those wanting to assess their personal character, and endorsements by outside groups for the short-cutters.

13. Innovation. In the early days of the Internet, such as during the 2000 Presidential election, the idea of an online platform for candidates to convey their positions on issues was innovative and exciting. Since then, while advances in such capabilities as online video streaming have been dramatic, the idea of online candidate discussions may no longer seem to be an innovation. Many developments, such as video communication or online news, have failed repeatedly, but they may eventually find the right time and circumstances to succeed. Online debate platforms may require the emergence of novel formats and new modes of presentation – techniques that will excite candidates and voters to experiment once again and draw them to this new medium.

The next logical question is: What kind of design would provide a sufficiently innovative and effective Internet-based platform for candidate debates? We’ll address this in a subsequent post.

Tracy Westen and Bill Dutton

July 31, 2015

Notes

[1] Tracy Westen was the director and founder of The Democracy Network, an online platform for candidate debate and voter information, which was launched in 1996, adopted by Time Warner and AOL, and by 2000, received millions of visitors a week before the Presidential elections. The League of Women Voters subsequently adopted it as an online vehicle for improved voter information. Many of the following considerations are based on the experience gained from this early and innovative experiment in adapting the Internet to political debate.

[2] PEW surveys found that two-thirds of voters watching the Obama debates said the debates influenced their votes. See: http://www.pewresearch.org/daily-number/most-say-presidential-debates-influence-their-vote/

[3] For example, see an analysis of the first televised debates in the UK, which appeared to advantage the lesser known candidate in Dutton, William H. and Shipley, Andrew, The Role of Britain’s Televised Leadership Debates in Shaping Political Engagement (September 28, 2010). LEADERS IN THE LIVING ROOM: THE PRIME MINISTERIAL DEBATES OF 2010: EVIDENCE, EVALUATION AND SOME RECOMMENDATIONS, S. Coleman, Reuter’s Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2011. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1778442