Technology smarts

Thursday, 01 October 2015

Matthew Sainsbury photo
Matthew Sainsbury

    Technology continues to play a bigger role in Australian boardrooms by helping directors access information quickly and in real time. But it also brings potential security risks if used poorly, writes Matthew Sainsbury.

    Company directors are in love with their gadgets and that is just as well, because those gadgets are going to make them far better at their jobs. From the release of the original iPad just five years ago in 2010, there has been a rapid increase in the number of tablets that have found their way into boardrooms and it is easy to understand why.

    An iPad can be loaded up with the director’s board papers, cutting down on the sheer bulk of what needs to be carried around. If a director sits on a couple of boards, it is also convenient to have all those papers in one central location. In addition, the ability to add annotations on the fly, or access other features while using the same device (such as email or video conferencing), only further enhances the device’s capacity to be a single hub of a director’s communications.

    “We are even seeing directors use iPads to gather information in real time during meetings,” Colin Panagakis, business development manager of BoardPad, says. “A director might have some really critical information that he or she needs sent in the middle of a meeting, so they will send a quick note to the secretary asking them to forward it on. Then the director will be able to make notes on it and share it with the rest of the board instantly.”

    While some directors still prefer to read documents in printed form, from the perspective of document version control, having board papers hosted in the cloud makes much more sense and removes the risk of error when updating papers. “Directors are far less likely to encounter issues where they are basing decisions on out-of-date information,” Panagakis added. “The papers that they host in their boardroom apps will always be synced and up-to-date.”

    There are also efficiency reasons as to why boards are moving their entire team of directors to tablet devices. There is a measurable saving of one or two days of an executive assistant’s time when board papers and packs can be simply managed through an online portal and accessed from remote devices by directors, says Tessa Court, CEO of IntelligenceBank. “That is not to mention the cost of putting together physical board packs and the savings there.

    “Not only does having a board pack securely available on an iPad make them more portable, but the ability to create electronic annotations to documents and even do this in offline environments is what directors really value,” she adds.

    Moving beyond the iPad

    However, it is not all about the iPad now. While that remains the most popular tablet device – particularly among company executives and boards – Apple’s 48 per cent market share is facing stiff competition from Google (Android) and a revitalised, newly released and tablet-focused Microsoft (Windows 10) platform. Panagakis says the Windows devices especially may become a favourite among directors for their added work functionality in the near future.

    “We are seeing board members bringing in their Windows Surface Pros 3 a lot more now, because it allows the director to do things like use Microsoft Excel and Word, and track-change documents, while at the same time offering the flexibility of a tablet.”

    As a result, it is likely that there will be three different kinds of tablet devices in boardrooms in the future. While the technology behind board portals allows each of these different devices to read documents without compatibility issues, the IT teams within organisations will need to provide support across three different devices in order to keep them secured on a device level, and this adds additional complexity to an organisation’s IT management.

    Furthermore, many organisations are looking to further manage tablet devices in order to ensure that directors are not misusing them. From an accountability point of view, the use of these devices do give the company secretary and chair an added level of confidence that the directors are properly following through with their responsibilities, Court says. “It is a director’s duty to read all board papers provided, and an audit trail within a board portal gives the company secretary and chair confidence that directors are doing their job, and not skipping over information or even skimming through papers five minutes before the meeting.”

    Board matters first

    IT teams are also being asked to lock tablets used for board meetings out of certain functions in order to facilitate good boardroom etiquette, Court adds. “Some of our board portal clients have provided iPads with email and social media apps disabled, to ensure everyone stays focused on the agenda and not incoming emails. While technology creates efficiencies, it can also create distractions if there is not a house rule on technology etiquette.”

    The challenge that organisations have in restricting their directors’ access to functions is that for most directors who sit on multiple boards, they are not going to want to carry around an individual tablet device for each board they sit on. However, best practice in terms of giving directors access to apps through their tablets while locking down areas of risk still needs to be determined.

    Dealing with big data

    With access to information much easier than it has ever been before, and the world’s largest organisations all understanding that data is their point of competitive differentiation, both executive management and company directors are coming to the realisation that their own businesses need to be data driven.

    The statistics all support the idea of just how much raw value is in data for modern businesses. Facebook recently passed one billion users logging in to its free service within the span of a single day. It is one of the wealthiest businesses in the world, and its success has been entirely based on its ability to see the deep, rich data of its customers and sell that on to advertisers. Google’s massive empire is built on giving away products that other businesses charge money for in exchange for data.

    The drive towards data has, however, created new challenges for company directors. Whereas previously decisions would be made based on a small sample of data, or tables and graphs, directors now find themselves inundated with data that delves deeper into both the business and its external customers and stakeholders, because it is that data that is fundamentally responsible for the business’ success.

    “Just having big data is not enough and a board member may not have the time or inclination, or perhaps the skills, to wade through terabytes of meaningless ones and zeros. How could a director make a decision based on all of this? They cannot,” says Mark Taylor MAICD, director of consulting firm Taysols.

    “To make all of this data palatable, it needs to be synthesised into meaningful and consumable information that a director can rely upon to make an informed decision,” he says. He adds that if a director is being asked to approve the spend on a piece of capital equipment and the data suggests that with some judicious maintenance, the current equipment could be used longer without any detrimental effects, then big data has played its part. “For consumer-facing companies, the impact of social media is ever expanding. Using big data here to collect what people are saying and thinking about a director’s organisation can help them to craft marketing initiatives and be proactive rather than reactive,” he says.

    Greater options

    Now that company directors have access to devices that can display data feeds in real time, anywhere in the world, and now that group teleconferencing is also available on tablet devices, it is possible to hold impromptu meetings, regardless of where directors are physically located. Annual general meetings and the like should still be held in a physical location, but providing directors with the ability to be more responsive and immediate when making decisions over the course of the year is only going to escalate the need for more solutions.

    Security challenges aside, a well-managed device with the right applications and support behind it could become the most convenient way for a company director to filter and manage the mass of data used to make decisions.

    “There are specialist organisations that can do this, by having the mechanisms to collect and coalesce vast amounts of data and provide companies with summarised contextual information upon which to make decisions,” Taylor says.

    “It is no longer a question of ‘do we need to invest in big data?’ but rather ‘how will we invest in big data?’”.

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