Building Strong Advisory Boards

Advisory boards that serve individual departments can help point the entire business school in the right direction.
Building Strong Advisory Boards

ALL DEPARTMENT CHAIRS want their corner of the business school to be current on industry trends and deeply engaged with the community. One way to achieve those goals is to establish an advisory board at the departmental level.

Like boards that exist to provide insights to the entire business school, departmental advisory boards (DABs) are composed of knowledgeable volunteers who provide advice, assistance, and resources to a program, major, or department. Unlike general boards, DABs are tightly focused on a specific business discipline and can provide in-depth insights to departmental leaders.

At the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business in Athens, the MIS department has operated a DAB for 30 years. While we’ve learned many lessons about what works and what doesn’t, we also wanted to discover if there were ways we could use our board more effectively, so this spring we conducted two surveys. The first, which collected data from 46 members of our own MIS board, included a question about their motivations for serving. The second, which went to 42 coordinators of advisory boards in MIS/IS/CIS fields at other schools, explored the composition, activities, and practices of different boards. We also conducted telephone interviews with board coordinators at Appalachian State University, Temple University, Texas A&M, the University of Alabama, the University of Arizona, and Virginia Tech.

What we learned was that the perspectives of DAB members can enrich any department—if coordinators keep them engaged, have them interact with students, and provide clear direction. We also identified six best practices for administrators to consider when they create departmental advisory boards.


1. Use meeting time wisely. Prepare a well-thought-out agenda with topics that matter. But don’t plan to tackle too many topics at any one meeting, because that will negatively affect participation. You do not have to update board members on all departmental activities. Encourage board members to do more talking than faculty do. And, as one survey respondent said, “Do not have PowerPoint presentations—ever.”

Meetings are more likely to be productive if you can ensure a good turnout. At UGA, we have a large board—103 members—so we generally have between 35 and 50 members who attend each meeting. For smaller, more targeted meetings, we make personal phone calls to encourage people to attend. Some boards have an attendance requirement; for instance, they might say a member must attend at least one meeting every two years to remain on the board. We have not instituted this requirement at Georgia, but we are considering taking it to our board for discussion.

2. Keep members engaged. Do this through meaningful, purpose-driven activities. For instance, arrange for workshops, breakout groups, or panels that explore topics in depth, such as whether to offer a new master’s degree program.

At UGA, one of our most interesting board events was a debate on whether outsourcing was good for the individual, the company, and the country. It was held in a historic UGA building, home to a university debate club, the Demosthenian Literary Society. The debate teams were made up of students, faculty, and board members, and they followed the society’s rules for debating. The event, the location, the topic, and the mix of participants all served to make board members more engaged with the program.

3. Act on advice. For board members who travel to campus, a board meeting can take a full day of their time, so they want to be sure that time is well-spent. This means they want to know that their recommendations are being seriously considered. One of our survey respondents suggested that coordinators regularly give boards feedback on how their advice is being used. Such feedback helps create a sense of ownership for the program and motivates board members to remain involved.

At times, board members might give advice that doesn’t seem immediately applicable because they might not understand the structure and limitations of the typical b-school curriculum. For example, board members may want programs to contain more courses than can possibly fit in the curriculum. Others may have specific suggestions about computer programs or enterprise development platforms—such as Java or .NET—that run counter to what faculty members are convinced is best.

Coordinators should take the time to explain school realities to board members, but they also should take the time to sift through the advice to understand how it could work in context. As one survey respondent said, “Listen to board members even if they express themselves in a manner that you do not wish to hear.”

4. Include students. While only 17 percent of respondents have students on their departmental boards, UGA’s experiences with students are so positive that we highly recommend including them. For one thing, students can help with the time-consuming work of planning and executing events, such as handling registration duties. For another, most members join the board because they want to have a positive effect on students’ academic lives, so they tend to enjoy the experience more if students are involved and showcased.

In addition, student board members can take on other activities and projects that benefit the MIS program. At Georgia, we have them speak at new student orientations or travel to high schools to discuss MIS opportunities. They also have taken the lead in our mentoring and social media programs. (For instance, our student representatives worked with journalism students on a video about our MIS department:

At UGA, 10 to 15 students apply every semester to serve on the board. Their reasons are varied: They enjoy the prestige; they want to give back to the program; they’re looking for chances to further develop skills such as public speaking; they value the additional exposure to companies that might hire them. One student called board service “one of the most fulfilling and fortunate opportunities I experienced at UGA.”

To be chosen for the board, students must have a GPA of at least 3.25, display good interpersonal skills, and demonstrate success in completing projects. Because in many ways the students are the “face” of the MIS program, we also strive for gender, ethnic, and racial diversity.


The results of a University of Georgia survey of MIS departments about their boards of advisors.

 >Click to view full size PDF 


5. Plan for continuity. The vitality of a board often is directly related to the efforts of a departmental coordinator who cultivates relationships with its members and their companies. Should the coordinator retire or change schools, however, the board can suffer. One respondent said it may even be necessary “to rebuild the board.” Consequently, it is wise to have multiple faculty members involved to insure a smooth transition in leadership.

Similarly, if an industry representative leaves the board, the school risks losing contact with that company, so it makes sense to have multiple representatives from the same firm on a board. At UGA, we like to staff our board with human resources professionals and MIS managers from the same companies. Not only do they bring different perspectives to meetings, their presence helps maintain continuity if one of them leaves.

6. Charge membership dues. While departmental advisory boards aren’t designed to generate profits, they shouldn’t operate at a loss. We’ve found that most companies are willing to pay dues, especially if the money is used to cover board-related expenses and support student activities. Also, most of the companies represented on DABs recruit the programs’ students and often view membership dues as a recruiting expense. It is even common for dues to be paid out of the HR budget.

Even so, survey data indicates that only 35 percent of boards assess membership dues. Some programs that don’t charge dues will ask companies to contribute to scholarships, support special events, and fund research projects. But we believe is easier for the board coordinator and companies if board-related expenses are covered by dues rather than event-by-event requests for funding.

The schools that do collect dues usually have modest fees, but the range varies widely. Our assumption is that departmental boards for different academic disciplines can charge dues at different rates. For instance, accounting programs have long-established relationships with firms that want to hire their graduates, so they can typically set higher dues. Among our survey respondents, the MIS department at Texas A&M reported the highest, with three corporate levels: Terabyte ($6,000), Petabyte ($10,000), and Exabyte ($14,000); the school charges less for small firms with fewer employees.

At Georgia’s MIS department, we assess dues at three levels: individual ($100), red ($1,000), and black ($3,000). Specific benefits are associated with each level. For example, all board members are invited to attend meetings and speak to classes. Black-level corporate members can attend our student organization’s recruiting dinner for free, which is a $500 savings; red-level members receive a 20 percent discount. We reimburse the student organization for the discounts.

Black-level members also can attend the Top 10% Event, where they get a chance to interact with our best students as determined by GPAs and demonstrated leadership skills. They meet the students through “speed dating” activities; at the end of the event, we give them flash drives that contain all the students’ résumés. This added access to students is a highly regarded perk of board membership.


Findings of a University of Georgia survey of board coordinators and board members.

>Click to view full size PDF 

Final Thoughts
The success of a DAB depends on a variety of factors, not all of them within the coordinator’s control. One factor is location. If a school is far from a metropolitan area where many companies and potential board members are clustered, it will be more difficult to bring members together for meetings. Coordinators can consider holding fewer meetings, holding them closer to the members’ locations, or even using video conferencing—but they shouldn’t underestimate how much board members enjoy being on a college campus.

A second factor is the degree program itself. While we know a departmental board works well for IT-related programs, it might not be as feasible for different majors. For instance, at Georgia, the departments with the strongest and most active boards are accounting, MIS, and risk management and insurance. That’s partly because the programs all have well-defined constituencies, including a core of companies that hire our graduates. These companies are willing to invest their time and resources in making sure those graduates have the necessary skills; they also want to make sure that students know about employment opportunities within their firms.

At the same time, the MIS and risk management and insurance programs aren’t as well known to business students as marketing and management programs might be; that means these departments have to work harder to attract students. One way to do this is to have strong boards whose members can provide graduates with job opportunities.

But DABs might not work as well for other departments. For instance, the management major is a conglomeration of several functional areas—such as human resources management and organizational behavior—so it might be more difficult to find a natural constituency of board members. Other departments might be less focused on finding their students jobs, so they might find less value in a DAB.

In any case, it appears DABs can be useful no matter what the size of the school or the department. Respondents to our survey ranged from those with only about 50 students in their MIS/IS/CIS departments to the University of Lahore in Pakistan, which has 4,000; the average was about 200 students.

No matter how big or small the department is, it can be well-served by a DAB full of alumni and business leaders committed to the success of its graduates. In fact, one survey respondent summed it up best with this piece of advice: “Find board members who are passionate about the university, the MIS program, and the board. Give the board and board members ownership for various programs and activities, and hold them accountable for results. Team those board members with faculty and students.” Following that formula, every DAB should be a success.


Hugh Watson is a professor in the department of management information systems at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business in Athens; he also is the faculty coordinator of the MIS departmental advisory board. Andrea Castresana, Jeremiah Clark, and Leydiana Munguia are either current or recent student representatives on the advisory board.