Attaining the truly paperless boardroom
Al Percival, Managing Director, Asia Pacific, Diligent APAC Board Services, identifies seven best practices that will help ensure that your board portal will deliver on its paperless promise.
Given the amount of information that is distributed to board members before each board or committee meeting, many boards have attempted to ‘go paperless’. However, without taking into account how people actually use information and interact with technology, well-meaning efforts can easily backfire – preserving many of the inconveniences of traditional paper documents while failing to deliver on the full benefits of going digital. Thorough planning and a user- centred approach, however, can make the paperless boardroom a reality.
Getting rid of paper vs getting rid of problems
Any attempt to reduce paper in the boardroom needs to begin with the understanding that going paperless actually occurs along a spectrum. On one end is the traditional, 100% paper environment, in which paper packs and all other information is distributed to board members in hard copy form, either at the time of the board meeting or in advance by courier. At the other end of the spectrum, the board relies on a board portal – a secure third-party app through which board members sync their tablets or PCs to access a digital version of the board pack, which they can then annotate, discuss and vote upon using digital tools.
In between these two ends of the spectrum are intermediate points like emailing documents or using a file- sharing system. These half-way solutions are not as paperless as they may seem, considering how people really use them. Often, even if board materials are distributed digitally, many problems of traditional distribution persist. PDF files and desktop documents, for all their convenience, are not very reader friendly, leaving some board members to use consumer-grade annotation tools and insecure storage methods while others may resort to printing out files. When updates are sent, board members must keep track of the latest version of each file as well. To read more on this topic, visit: www.boardbooks.com.
Seven best practices in transitioning to the paperless boardroom
Board portals can provide a solution to this ‘paperless paradox’, but they aren’t a silver bullet. They require well thought-out transitions based on a clear understanding of how information is distributed to and used by the board, and a focus on the human elements of the change. Based on the several thousand implementations that Diligent has conducted for boards of all types and sizes around the world, we have identified best practices that help ensure that the board portal delivers on its paperless promise.
1. Be committed
Commitment from the chairman, CEO and company secretary to going paperless is essential. The success of a paperless transition is not a matter of technology but rather one of changing habits. And asking a group to change the way it gets its board information requires a clear signal of support from the top, as well as champions who will lead by example in their own use of the portal.
One example of this was the way Businesslink – the Australian NSW government specialist provider
of outsourced business services – transitioned to a board portal. Its chairman and Executive Officer, Angela Leonello, realised that working with hard copy board packs, which could weigh as much as 2.5 kilograms, was an inconvenience.
‘On a Thursday afternoon it was a frantic rush to ensure papers were approved and ready for packaging so the courier could collect them and distribute to the relevant committee/board members by Friday. I was tasked with seeking a solution that would ease the way committee/board papers were distributed and also made available as soon as the agenda items were completed.’ The board portal was a solution that helped her board become far more fast, efficient and reliable.
2. Map your information flow
A good paperless implementation starts with a solid understanding of how and when your board packs are compiled, distributed and updated. After mapping out each step, the new paperless platform is then designed to replicate the current process as closely as possible. That might seem ironic, but one way paperless systems can fail is by trying to be revolutionary from the start rather than evolutionary. Once everyone gets comfortable with the board portal and what it can do, people will naturally begin to discover improvements to the workflow in a way that makes sense for their organisation.
Mapping the information flow will also help ensure that the paperless platform is right-sized. A traditional main board that meets four or six times a year will have one set of needs; an organisation like FirstRand, a financial services firm with operations across Southern Africa that manages an advisory board, a management board, subsidiary boards and committees that generate more than 8,700 board packs a year, will have another. It was a central requirement that their board portal be able to reliably handle that level of throughput.
3. Don’t skimp on training
A major determinant of whether or not a paperless portal takes hold is the quality and thoroughness of training given to the portal’s administrators and users. Training for end users – the directors and board members – typically is straightforward and often is conducted over the phone.
Despite the outdated stereotype of limited digital literacy on the part of directors, the overwhelming majority today will embrace technology if it is intuitive to use and comes with a proper level of training. Indeed, an Age UK (a UK charity dedicated to the elderly – www.ageuk.org.uk) report on digital inclusion of older adults in the UK found that the number of people aged 65-plus who have used the internet has overtaken those in that age group who have never used it for the first time. Of the 42 million adults online in the UK, 4.7 million are aged 65-plus. Seventy-nine percent of those feel they can communicate confidently via email but this drops to just 20% for social networking, Skype and similar systems, suggesting that education and learning still play an important role.
At the same time, directors will differ in their level of technical experience and savviness, and personalised training allows each to get comfortable with the portal at their own speed. No matter how busy directors are, they will appreciate the option to test the system in private, get all their questions answered and go into the first paperless meeting fully prepared.
Conduct all training for directors shortly before their first paperless board meeting. This can be a challenge, particularly with the harried schedules of non-executive directors, but it ensures that everyone gets up to speed at the same time, is able to access the materials prior to the meeting, and is confident in their skills in using the portal when the meeting takes place.
Training and consulting with the administrators of the portal – usually the executive assistants in the CEO’s office or the secretariat team charged with managing the current system – is essential for a smooth implementation. It is the administrators, after all, who upload the raw documents and then insert the various functions that make the digital documents so easy for the directors to use, such as the virtual section dividers and the links between documents. They are also the ones who enable the additional capabilities the portal might have, such as the ability to vote on resolutions or a central repository for secondary documents like by-laws, committee charters and meeting minutes.
While a well-designed portal makes the transition for the administrative team simple, well-trained and committed administrators are essential for getting the most out of a portal. Remember that administrators have seen initiatives come and go; a certain amount of healthy skepticism is to be expected. Spend the extra time up front to ensure their enthusiasm and buy-in.
4. Insist on white-glove support
Most portal systems are highly reliable, but questions do arise, and often at inopportune moments such as when a director is having connectivity problems while trying to sync documents before boarding a plane. For such situations, it’s important that the portal provider includes 24/7/365 support from a team of ‘always on’ live experts.
Similarly, no matter how smoothly the implementation goes, follow-up training should be scheduled. This is particularly true for the administrators who will be able to utilise the full investment in the portal only when they become 100% familiar with all its capabilities.
Sydney Airport Company Secretary, Jamie Motum, has been very pleased with the performance of their board portal introduced in February 2013. ‘I expected that we would have a number of teething problems with this technology, but it was eagerly accepted by all of our directors, and has worked consistently well. The board portal solution has saved countless hours of board-pack printing and collation time for my team, and the responsiveness of the help desk to any minor issues has been first class,’ he says.
5. Don’t treat all information the same
The vast majority of documents in a board pack are on standard size paper, with dimensions that transition easily to being read via an app on a tablet. But a board pack might need to include larger-format documents that don’t lend themselves as well to tablet viewing.
One city council in Australia that adopted a board portal took a two- pronged approach to the detailed financial statements, drawings and architectural plans their packs needed to include. The council continued to distribute these documents in hard copy while also including them in the digital copy. They then brought in large flat-screen monitors for the council meeting and used them to display the larger documents at the appropriate points in the agenda. In this way, they continued to reinforce the overall migration to paperless working without forcing paperlessness where it could have compromised readability.
Remember that the remaining issues involving ease of viewing will resolve themselves as devices continue to evolve and as boardrooms become more explicitly designed to handle different forms of digital media. In the meantime, even the most digitally committed boards will benefit from flexibility.
The administrators compiling the board packs will find that moving to a paperless format will highlight any inconsistencies regarding typeface, font size, line spacing and other layout variables, even more than distributing the board pack as a single bound document did. Transitioning to a board portal is a good time to make sure that there is a standard corporate style for board documents and that it is followed when the papers are assembled.
6. Don’t go cold turkey
It is natural to think that there will not be any paper at the first paperless board meeting, but the transition needs to be less abrupt to maximise the chances for success. It’s a good idea to either distribute the hard copy packs before the meeting as usual, or have copies in the boardroom to which directors can refer. Remember that they have been able to access the paperless portal prior to the meeting.
After the meeting, poll the directors individually about whether or not they still want to receive hard copy packs. If training has gone well, most directors will find they have little use for paper packs after the first paperless meeting. When a leading UK energy supplier implemented a board portal system, they found the transition so natural that they went from using paper one week to being paperless the next.
Prior to the first board meeting using a portal, some of the directors of Lonmin, a UK-based mining company, requested paper copies, as they were unsure whether the solution would meet their needs. Rob Bellhouse, Lonmin’s Company Secretary found, however, that those requests faded after the first meeting. ‘After they got
to use the solution and experience for themselves how easy it was, the take-up was very fast. Switching from paper to iPad does require a culture change, but for us this did not present a significant problem,’ he says.
7. Peer pressure is stronger than decree
Even if all goes well, it isn’t unusual to have a director or two who want to continue to have hard copy packs delivered after the first paperless meeting. Those directors can continue to use paper packs, which can be easily generated from the portal, either by the company secretary or by the individual director.
As the rest of the board becomes more comfortable with the portal the holdouts will find that it takes them longer than their digital counterparts to navigate between sections and find the comments they want to share during the discussion. As board meetings begin to run more quickly and efficiently, the holdouts will not want to be responsible for slowing things down.
When a leading insurance company in the Netherlands switched to a digital board portal, a few board members insisted on using hard copy. But after a few months of watching everyone else using a board portal, on their iPads, they abandoned paper without looking back. The boardroom is a collegial place, and peer pressure can be a powerful force. Furthermore, the fact that directors won’t get their hard copy updates as quickly as everyone else will be a subtle disincentive to stick to paper.
Making the paperless boardroom a reality
The paperless workplace has been a much-pursued goal for almost as long as there have been computers in the office. For decades, partial solutions that demanded too much compromise from the user kept that goal easily imaginable but ultimately unachievable. The development of board portals combined with powerful, easy-to-use tablets has finally made paperlessness and the efficiency it brings possible in the boardroom. Those who make the transition – and keep the user at the centre of the change – are likely to find that it delivers on its long-held promise.
Al Percival, Managing Director, Asia Pacific, Diligent APAC Board Services. The author can be contacted by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.