Spare a thought for company secretaries. While boards face ever-increasing pressures to change and adapt to digitisation, diversity, investor scrutiny, regulatory compliance, the prospect of Brexit and cybersecurity, it is company secretaries who hold it all together, and make important strategy meetings possible.
Put it this way: without company secretaries staying on top of complex meeting schedules, agendas, reports and minutes, nothing would get done.
The company secretary’s role is changing too. It’s becoming more strategic—mostly out of necessity—and carries growing responsibility for corporate governance throughout any organisation. If company secretaries get it wrong or buckle under growing administrative pressures, then something has to give.
We commissioned some research recently of 300 senior executives, and found that more than half (51%) of UK business managers say they have been to meetings where documents were found to be missing, or else incorrect or out-of-date papers were presented.
Close to a third (31%) said that they were aware of erroneous decisions having been made in meetings as a direct result.
It would be easy to point the finger at the company secretary, but is that really fair? Given their increasing pressures and workloads, of course they need tools and services that help them ease the stress, but those tools have to fit the job. That can sometimes mean a paper solution.
Paperless pipe dreams
So, is it right that company secretaries should buy into online board portals and digital products? Are we leading, following or just force-feeding?
The reality is that boardrooms are complex places, comprising a mix of skills and interests. It is the company secretary’s job to manage this complexity—and to that end, boardroom tools should mirror the culture.
We have heard a lot about the paperless office idea recently, particularly in relation to board packs. The paperless office is an old idea, first dreamt up by Frederick Wilfrid Lancaster in his 1978 book, Towards Paperless Information Systems.
But is there such a thing as a paperless boardroom? Will there ever be?
What company secretaries do not want is to force members of the board, which may prefer paper-based board packs, to go digital.
The company secretary needs to support each board member, help them prepare by providing all the relevant information to them in a format that helps them work best. If that means paper, then so be it. If it’s digital, then great.
The bottom line is that there has to be an equally effective choice; management tools should reflect that and ensure there is no extra workload in getting packs updated.
Using a board portal and management tool to coordinate everything makes perfect sense, as long as there is built-in flexibility, giving as much credence to printed packs as to digital ones. This makes it easier for company secretaries to manage the packs, as they are built once, but can be delivered in many formats.
This should reduce time wasted in compilation, and coping with last-minute changes while ensuring governance is enhanced and rules adhered to.
Empower not punish
We also have to make sure we empower and not punish company secretaries when it comes to pricing and licensing. Offering flexible terms to meet their flexible needs is important, so as an industry we must ensure we are helping, not hindering, company secretary development.
Why should a board have to pay for a new user, for example, when a member leaves? Where is the flexibility, the customer care? Developing trust through relationships and working with company secretaries to reduce the admin burden is about putting people first. Yes, all companies need processes in place that work, but not at the expense of people.
The same applies to the provision of board packs and tools. The technology should ease the pain: we believe digital tools can condense a day or two’s work into an hour or two, but still fit within the culture of the company secretary and the boardroom.
The digital approach is certainly in the transitional stage. Our survey found that just 15% of business executives say that their meeting packs are exclusively collated and accessed online. Far more common is for packs to be printed. That’s despite 54% saying it would be better to have meeting packs available online as opposed to printed versions.
There is a willingness to explore the technology, to adapt to change—but at a pace that suits the board, not the providers of the tools. To that end, it is up to the company secretary, as the glue that binds the boardroom together, to call the shots and to determine the rate of change.
Portals should be able to cope with this, to help company secretaries do their job and not force the pace. For a long time to come, flexibility will be the name of the game.
Graham Bowstead is sales director at Perivan Technology.
This article has been prepared in collaboration with Perivan Technology, a supporter of Board Agenda.