By Alister Esam, Managing Director, eShare
The quarterly board meeting may be one of the fundamental aspects of traditional corporate structure. But it is a structure that has remained completely unchanged, still relying, in the majority of cases, on hundreds of pages of paper presented and collated up to several weeks before the meeting. In an era of rapid global business with short lived opportunities and the need for immediate problem resolution, just how effective is this model today? How many critical decisions are shelved ‘for the next meeting’ due to lack of information? And how much time does any member spend considering these critical issues in between meetings?
This ‘minute and forget’ approach is simply no longer acceptable. Not only does the board need to improve its decision making during meetings, but members need to interact and engage with the business far more effectively throughout the year. And that requires a better way of information sharing than the traditional volumous paper board pack.
In an era of smart devices, there is no excuse for such outdated paper based processes. In this article, I will outline the value of online information and meeting management, with integrated decision making and risk assessment, in transforming the way the board interacts, both during and between quarterly meetings.
Over the past decade, business intelligence and anytime, anywhere access to information has transformed the speed of decision making across every aspect of the business. Employees are expected to respond quickly to new opportunities, rapidly flag potential problems and, essentially, take every possible step to enable business agility. And yet with an estimated 75% of company boards still reliant upon paper based documentation, it is becoming clear that the decision making bottleneck is now at the top of the business.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that 95% of those organisations still adhering to the traditional 250 to 500 paper board pack have not yet made attempts to update this model. But why? Paper is inefficient and inconvenient. Managing paper based resources is time consuming. How much time is wasted in board meetings simply verifying the information to hand – rather than actually discussing and taking essential strategic decisions? Furthermore, how much time is wasted by the secretariat – including the highly responsible Company Secretary – undertaking mundane print, copy and collate tasks before each meeting?
This model is not only flawed, it is massively outdated. Whether a company operates a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) or Choose Your Own Device (CYOD) policy, the vast majority of senior workers now routinely use some form of mobile device to access corporate information when travelling, at home and, increasingly, in the office. There is simply no reason – and certainly no justification – for this inefficient approach.
Of course a few organisations have attempted to remove the paper burden by opting for electronic documents transmission, emailing directors pdfs of the board papers. But this model is actually a retrograde step. Not only is there no version control, creating the risk of more confusion during the meeting, but board members are forced to download various third party annotative tools in order to make comments on the papers - comments which cannot be easily shared. The result is nothing more than a poor imitation of the traditional paper based process – and certainly no improvement in decision making activity.
The ‘google’ of board packs
Instead organisations need to exploit targeted meeting tools that provide a fast, consistent way of providing that essential board pack. A way that enables individual board members to access board papers, securely and efficiently from a tablet, at any time and delivers that information in a structured, ordered format. With multiple options that include both on-premise and cloud based models that enable the secretariat to store one version of the board pack – securely, in facilities that are compliant with local data regulations – that can be accessed by board members via any device, organisations can achieve significant benefits in line with their corporate IT data strategy.
In addition to providing board members with the chance to access information at any time, the key benefit comes from exploiting technology to enhance the way information is presented and shared. For example, documents and links can be easily assigned to particular agenda items, making it easier for members to go directly to specific items of interest. Documents can be annotated using simple tools – and these annotations shared with other board members before the meeting, if required. And, critically, board members can search current and historic documents easily at any time – including during the meeting, to create a far more interactive discussion and decision making process.
Improving Decision Making
With one click document distribution, not only can the organisation drastically reduce the essential paper, print and collate costs, it frees up the secretariat to undertake the far more valuable and important day to day activity that is typically interrupted by the quarterly board meeting. But that is just the start. This online information approach changes the way board members can make decisions – both within and outside meetings.
For example, during the meeting the board can exploit in-built interactive risk assessment and governance tools to provide a top level view of corporate risks. Rather than trawling though hundreds of pages of paper, members can understand immediately the current risks, the controls that are in place and identify gaps that need to be addressed. They can use the real time search to locate relevant information and gain the insight required to make a decision immediately – rather than re-tabling the issue for a subsequent meeting.
Furthermore, while real time access to information clearly provides a chance to improve the effectiveness of board members during the meeting, the most fundamental change is the way members can interact with the business between meetings. Combining alerts to information with updates on key topics raised during the meeting, plus decision-making functionality that incorporates discussion and voting tools, and reminds members of outstanding items, can enable boards to take votes and make decisions outside of the board meeting, which can lead to considered conclusions that are less likely to be swayed by more dominant members of the board. This ensures delays are avoided – and the board meeting can concentrate on the top strategic issues, rather than risked being derailed by minor yet pressing concerns.
Given the pressure on businesses to become ever more responsive and agile, it is clear attitudes within the board have got to change. The era of ‘minute and forget’ is over. With continuous real time access to information via a raft of devices, board members have the chance to be constantly engaged with the business, taking decisions throughout the quarter, not just at meetings. Those boards that take the step away from paper and look to actively and continuously exploit real time access to information will transform both the speed and effectiveness of decision making at every level.