Advisory Boards: Bringing Added Value to Business School-to-Business (BS2B) Collaborations


By Dr Cathy Garner

Advisory Boards in UK business schools can bring significant advantage in terms of a school’s effective engagement with business. Understanding the best way to leverage value from the considerable expertise gathered on advisory boards requires a strategic approach to the Board members’ engagement and a realistic understanding of the barriers and challenges that exist in successful Business School-to-Business (BS2B) collaborations.

Understanding the Challenges:

There are well recognised and extensively researched barriers to overcome in building effective and successful university-business partnerships.  The barriers to effective business engagement can be summarised under 5 areas[1]: Awareness; Acquisition; Assimilation; Transformation; and Exploitation.

These together describe what is termed a business’s absorptive capacity.

The first three challenges lie at the heart of the interaction between business schools and business. The final two barriers relate to the capacity of the business itself to absorb and benefit from external knowledge assimilated. All barriers are pertinent when examining successful BS2B collaborations with SMEs. Faced with differences in mission and objectives; incompatibility of structures and policies; different knowledge interests; different timeframes for action; and differences in views on costs and benefits, it is hardly surprising that BS2B knowledge exchange can prove difficult.

Business schools face particular problems because of the fact that businesses are both their study subjects and their clients for knowledge exchange. Business schools may be perceived, and may perceive themselves, as the experts in business processes and thereby are more likely to be positioned in an adversarial space than experts in other university research. Advisors can guide and shape the space in which BS2B can thrive.

Overcoming the Challenges:

Advisors in the majority of UK business schools are individuals with recognised stature in business, who also understand the School (they may be alumni or from local public bodies); are most likely to be from either locally or nationally large businesses or global corporations. Their business profile can most obviously be used to raise awareness of the School, its work with business and its calibre of graduates for recruitment. In relation to the acquisition of knowledge by business and its assimilation into business, advisors can enter dialogue with potential business collaborators in non-academic language and through contributions to master-classes, guest lectures, newsletter blogs and general promotion of the success stories coming from the School, thus creating safe and non-adversarial “learning spaces” which enable businesses with different capacities to engage and benefit. Such activity also addresses the issue of getting busy business executives across the door of the School and begins to build mutual respect and trust which is vital to successful knowledge exchange collaborations.

In relation to transformation and exploitation businesses must have the courage to invest and commit resources to make best use of the knowledge and innovation that may flow from interaction with universities. For example, to develop new products and processes they may need to change their business models and business process engineering and such organisational change must be championed by the leaders and driven by the managers in the business. New knowledge will be of no benefit if the business does not respond by developing into new markets, winning new customers or growing sales to existing customers. Exploiting that new knowledge for business growth and undertaking the necessary changes to the business operation to take advantage of that knowledge is the ultimate objective of undertaking knowledge exchange in the first place.

Advisors can not only provide important role models for business leaders and managers at times of change and business risk but also may specifically coach leaders and become involved in business support networks. Experience in business schools, such as Lancaster, has shown that peer to peer learning and the engagement in action learning networks are key to providing leaders with the type of support and challenge necessary to drive positive change and growth. The phrase used at Lancaster “working on the business rather than in the business” describes this process of necessary transformation perfectly.

Ensuring Advisory Board Members are Engaged Members of the Team:

To enable Advisory Board members to contribute to breaking down the challenges above it is obvious that Board members need to be viewed as a valued part of the School’s team. As such they need to be seen as a crucial two-way communication channel to the School’s targeted business clients, be they local SMEs; family businesses; national companies based outside the locale; or increasingly global corporations operating in key student markets. To enable this effective two-way channel, not only do Advisory Board members need to be informed and knowledgeable about the School’s activities but the executive need to have the opportunity to listen to the Board’s advice on their BS2B activity and then to act on that advice.

For example, Lancaster University Management School has an Advisory Board comprised of 15 external members and 15 executives drawn from the School’s management. Each meeting consists of a range of formal and informal activities where the team gets together to hear feedback on performance; new activities and future plans and to explore and receive input through working sessions on specific topics where external business views are sought and valued. Opportunities for ongoing engagement either virtually or through smaller specific workshop sessions frequently arise.

[1] Zahra, S. and George, G. (2002) “Absorptive capacity: A review and re-conceptualisation and extension”, Academy of Management Review, V. 27 (2), pp 185-203. Adapted for use by (Ternouth, Garner, Wood and Forbes,” Key Attributes for Successful Knowledge Transfer Partnerships”, CIHE, 2012).

Dr Cathy Garner

Director of The Work Foundation and Member of Lancaster University Management School’s Advisory Board