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Copyright ©1998 Daniel R. Tobin

The Human Resources Development (HRD) director for a large manufacturing company told me about her organization's advisory board: "It's pretty worthless. When I started in this position two years ago, my manager, the vice president of human resources, recruited the ten business unit vice presidents to serve on the advisory board. The first couple of meetings were pretty good, but today we're lucky if five of them show up for any given meeting. We haven't seen several of them for more than a year."

"Can you tell me something about the meetings?" I asked.

"We meet on the first Monday morning of each month. We're supposed to start at 9:30. This gives the members a chance to get in early to check on important messages and such before coming to the meeting. By the time we have everyone here -- everyone who is coming, that is -- it is usually a little after 10. The afternoon subcommittee meetings are a joke. Half the time, one subcommittee or another has nobody there, and another will have only one person. For all practical purposes, the subcommittees no longer exist."

"What happens at a typical Monday morning meeting?"

"We start off by presenting the statistics for the past month: student hours, ratings, budget data, and so on. Then we talk about any new programs that have rolled out in the past month and any new ones scheduled for the next month."

"Is there any discussion?"

"Once in a while, someone will ask a good question about a new program. Most times, the questions focus on trends in enrollment. They also pay a lot of attention to the budget data -- how much we are spending and why. Once in a while, someone will pass along a comment about a particular program from one of their employees."

This company's advisory board (AB) is basically useless. I don't blame the no-shows, and I wonder why the others bother to come. But is doesn't have to be this way. The AB can be a vital strategic tool for any HRD director, whether managing a one-person shop or a company wide function with dozens of employees.

Why Have an HRD Advisory Board?

If HRD is to play a key role in helping the company and its employees succeed, it must endeavor to fully understand the company's business -- strategic business directions, core competencies, competitive challenges, new strategic business initiatives, etc. Whether HRD has one or dozens of employees, it is difficult to keep up with everything that is happening in the company, to understand all aspects of the company's various businesses, to understand all the competitive issues and pressures. A properly selected AB can provide key insights and understanding for the HRD group.

At the same time, the AB can act as key advocates for HRD activities throughout the company. AB members can become sponsors and champions of key HRD initiatives, and can provide pointers to key knowledge resources inside and outside the company. The AB can provide key linkages throughout the company, helping to ensure that the company's HRD resources are being utilized to maximum advantage.

Recruiting Members for your Advisory Board

Who should sit on your company's Advisory Board? In the earlier example, the AB had a very high-level membership -- the vice presidents/general managers from the company's ten major business units. Membership in some ABs tends to be focused more on functional lines -- representatives from sales, marketing, engineering, manufacturing, etc. In other companies, there is a mix of functional and business unit representation. Some companies recruit AB members, others call for volunteers.

Too often, business leaders consider it merely a matter of corporate citizenship to have a representative on the AB. "Sure, an HRD Advisory Board is a good idea, and I'll appoint someone from my group to be on it." After making this "commitment," the leader asks his staff, "OK, who has some time available to sit on this board," without really considering (or caring) who the best representative would be.

In several cases where I have been asked to do a training session for a corporate HRD advisory board, it became obvious that the people in the room were there because their managers had told them to be there, and not because of any great interest in the work of the advisory board, or even in the general topic of human resource development. An AB with the wrong membership is, at best, not useful and, at worst, a detriment to the achievement of HRD's goals.

To be an effective member of the AB, a person should have at least the following qualifications:

·         A thorough understanding of the business unit or function he/she represents. The AB member should know how his/her function or business operates, what its key challenges and core competencies are, and be involved in the planning and execution of the function's or unit's strategic business initiatives. This is the key value that members can bring to the AB: the ability to help HRD understand the company's business.

·         Credibility in his/her own organization. The AB member should be a person whose opinion carries weight in the organization -- "If Mary thinks this new program is a good idea, we should give it a chance."

·         Time and willingness to help, to work with other AB members and with HRD staff to fully understand the challenges being faced, and to work cooperatively to develop solutions to those challenges.

·         A basic understanding of and belief in the value of knowledge and skills in meeting company, organizational, and individual goals. Too often, ABs count within their membership a number of cynics who don't believe that HRD can do anything to help the company succeed. Without a reasonable attitude going in, AB members will not be effective and may end up being dysfunctional. 

Some HRD directors feel that the higher the level of AB members, the greater the prestige of HRD in the company. They pressure their own vice president to recruit his/her peers to serve on the AB. While an AB composed of vice presidents can be effective, I believe it more important to ensure that AB members meet the above-stated criteria. Too often, as in the initial example in this paper, vice presidents are too wrapped up in running their own businesses to have enough time or energy to devote to the AB.

It is also important that the HRD manager personally recruit AB members. The personal relationships between the HRD manager and AB members are of critical importance. If the HRD manager leaves selection and recruitment of members to his/her vice president, he/she is missing an important opportunity to start building these relationships.

When you have recruited your AB based on these qualifications, you have made a good start. But now that you have a AB, what do you do with it?

Advisory Board Orientation and Training

You have recruited your AB to help HRD better understand the company's business. And just as you have been so busy running your HRD group to develop this understanding yourself, so AB members have been so immersed in running their own businesses that they typically have not had time to develop a full understanding of your HRD business. Therefore, it behooves you, at the initial meeting of the AB, to provide some orientation to the training function, including:

·         The charter and goals of the HRD group.
·         An overview of current and planned HRD programs and services.
·         Current statistics on participation, quality ratings, etc.
·         Key internal and external relationships.
·         Key players from the HRD staff.
·         A tour of HRD facilities.

If HRD in your company has not historically been viewed as a key contributor to the company's success, it may also prove useful to provide the AB with an overview of some success stories from other companies which demonstrate how an effective HRD function can add value to the company's strategic business initiatives.

Once the overview is complete, it is time to move on to defining the mission and role of the AB itself.

·         Why have you asked these people to serve on the AB?
·         How can HRD help them and the functions/organizations they represent?
·         How can they help HRD?
·         How should the AB function at meetings and between meetings? It is a good idea to present some ideas for these ground rules, rather than to just throw out the question, sit back, and watch the action. While the first meeting should be run by the HRD manager, the AB should elect its own officers and give them responsibility for setting future agendas, of course with the assistance and advice of the HRD manager.

Members of the AB will be very familiar with the tools and methods they use to plan their own businesses, but may not be at all familiar with those used by HRD. It will serve you well to familiarize AB members with your methodology, but in doing so, it is vital that you present your methods in a way they understand. Too often, we get so caught up in our own jargon, which makes perfect sense to us, that we fail to recognize that it may be totally incomprehensible to others who do not share our training and experience.

For example, one company's HRD director asked me to review a "Human Resources Development Planning Guide" which his group was just completing for use by his company's business unit managers. The guide presented a very comprehensive, systematic planning process which would enable a business manager to start with his/her business goals and, working through a series of steps, determine the training and development activities required to enable employees to meet those goals. While the guide was very well done, it had two basic problems which would doom it to collect dust on the business managers' bookshelves:

First, it was written in the language of HRD. As an HRD professional, the language made sense. For a business manager, it was all but incomprehensible.

Second, the planning process detailed in the guide had no relationship to the company's well-established business planning processes. If I were a business manager reading the guide, my reaction would be: "I've just finished months of work developing plans using the company guidelines, and now you're telling me I have to start over from scratch just to determine training needs? You're crazy!"

One of the first and most vital tasks you can undertake with your AB is to develop your own understanding of the company's business planning processes and then work with the AB to extend those processes to determine the learning needed to enable and facilitate the achievement of company, organizational, and individual goals. When the AB realizes that HRD is not trying to reinvent the wheel, but is trying to add value to the business (their businesses), it will become a powerful strategic tool for helping HRD achieve its own goals.

At this initial orientation and training meeting for the AB, it is also wise to select a high priority company need on which you can focus your initial efforts. For example, is one division trying to implement TQM, introduce a new product line, improve customer service ratings, or move to concurrent engineering? Use the AB to help select one high priority area that you can work on together to test the planning methodology and, at the same time, provide evidence that HRD can really add value to the company's strategic business initiatives. A quick, effective response to this type of need will go a long way to establishing (or re-establishing) the credibility of your training organization within the company.

Running the Advisory Board

The AB should be convened on a regular, typically quarterly basis. Depending on the urgency of the items on the agenda, the AB may at times need to meet as frequently as once a month. But you must remember that this is an advisory board, not a management group. In the earlier example, it was ludicrous to think that the ten senior business unit managers in the company would take a full day each month to devote to the AB (and the first Monday of the month at that!).

This does not mean that the work of the AB takes place only four times a year. If the AB is convinced that it can add value to the company through its work, it will appoint its own subcommittees and work on key issues on a regular basis, outside the quarterly meetings. The HRD director should also provide AB members with regular monthly updates on key issues and programs and should feel free to call on AB members for advice or assistance as needed. At the same time, AB members should be calling the HRD director for assistance in program planning, to advise the director on changes in priorities or on upcoming strategic programs to which HRD can add value, etc.

Each quarterly meeting should be well-planned by the AB chairperson and the HRD director to ensure that the meeting time is well utilized and that AB members feel that their time at the meetings is worthwhile. The typical agenda items of reviewing enrollment statistics, budgets, and quality data should be handled in written reports delivered to AB members before the meetings -- little value is added to the training function or to the AB members by sitting and looking at table of statistics and listening to someone reading them off the charts.

A properly constituted, properly run advisory board can be a key strategic tool for HRD directors who are seeking to make their organizations a key contributor to their companies' success. The AB can help to revitalize a HRD group that has lost its focus and can become key advocates for the work of the group.

Please contact Dan Tobin with any reactions to or comments on this article.