Much has been made of the value of board 'going digital' in recent years. Many software-based systems have been produced including offerings from Boardpad, Diligent, Boardpacks and Board Management, amongst others. The benefits of these systems are reasonably self-evident: improved coordination and management of board reports, reduced administrative costs and improved security, not to mention far less weight to carry to and from meetings.
However, 'going digital' is not without its challenges. Some perhaps less credible claims have been made about software-based systems for boards, leading to misplaced optimism. Take the promise of increased engagement for example. Glance around the table at your next meeting. How many directors are listening intently, fully engaged in the discussion, and how many are covertly checking their devices for messages? Engagement with devices and systems has certainly gone up, but what of engagement between directors and with the topic at hand?
In my experience (hundreds of board meetings over the last fifteen years, as a director or an observer), the task of direction is a full-time commitment requiring total concentration, especially if the board is large and/or the topic at hand is complex. It's a tough job, with a hidden twist to boot. While directors attend board meetings, they don't make decisions—boards do. If directors are to do their job well, they need to express their opinions and concerns; ask questions; debate topics; listen carefully (to hear both what is being said and what is not being said); and, depending on arguments raised, they may need to gather more information and modify their opinions. Messages on electronic devices can wait.
While computer- or tablet-based board productivity systems can improve the administrative aspects of board meetings (and greatly so), directors cannot afford to be at their beck and call. They provide no substitute for discussion, debate and collaboration as directors meet together to carefully consider important matters and make decisions. Let's not forget that.
[Postscript: Technology and devices are appealing. I get that. I'm happy to support the introduction of any system that improves director effectiveness. The challenge for directors is to learn how to use systems well, so they can concentrate on what they are actually there for—to make decisions.]
I agree Peter. Technology is great for administration however the Board is a team and has to perform as a team with each if its parts doing their job within their scope of expertise. Boards are made up of humans and as such humans need to use their five senses to absorb information (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch)These may seem unwarranted at a Board table however we all use these senses all of the time. Sight is 50% of the sensory filter therefore if it is completely digital we are not getting the entire picture into the filter. Simple agenda items yes BUT NOT complex, higher risk or influential decisions.
Nothing more to add, Lloyd. Agree completely. Digital is convenient, a time and expense saver, and also good in a pinch. Big decisions? The 'read' of all and with all the senses absolutely paramount.
I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote, "They provide no substitute for discussion, debate and collaboration as directors meet together to carefully consider important matters and make decisions." I have witnessed the implementation of the one of the products you highlight above across 10 companies, and it effectively removed the excuse that no-one had access to the same materials prior to the meeting. It did not, however, improve engagement among the Directors significantly. If a culture of engagement does not exist prior to the implementation of the digital solution, then it will not improve engagement after implementation.
Thanks Aarn, great to hear from you and thank you for weighing in with your experience. It's pleasing to learn that I'm not the only one with questions over the adoption of digital technologies.
It was a great experience while reading your blog post. I bookmarked and love to visit on a regular basis.
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