The adoption of online board portals is part of a growing trend of embracing e-governance in both non-profit and corporate boardrooms.
The expanded use of technology in the boardroom can be very cost-effective, boost efficiency and is a real time-saver for both board members and support staff. It also opens up in-your-own-time opportunities for directors to communicate and collaborate outside of board meetings. This article will hopefully clarify how board portals work, and help you to make a more informed decision about whether your organisation could benefit from a greater use of technology in the boardroom.
Firstly, let’s clear up what some of these terms mean:
E-governance is a general term that refers to a digitally based system developed for boards, governments to support their governance practices. It can involve a broad variety of systems including storing and distributing information, delivering services and integration of internal programs and communication. Board portals are form of e-governance commonly adopted by boards of directors.
A board portal is a type of Cloud based Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) designed for use by a board to facilitate communication and support the electronic storage and distribution of information. Typically, board portals will be used to keep board members connected between board meetings and allow information such as board papers, meeting agendas and the minutes to be distributed efficiently between directors. Board portal software is often accessed via your preferred web-browser on any Internet connected computer (desktop or laptop) and may even be used on a portable tablet device, such as an iPad, so that it can be brought to meetings as well as used between meetings.
5 reasons board portals are valuable for organisations of all sizes
- Saves time and money
- Improves governance capabilities
- Remote access board meetings
- Reduces paper usage and waste
- Reduces board member risk
The preparation and production surrounding a board meeting can be quite involved. Given the limited amount of time that boards spend together, it is important that board meetings are run effectively and that necessary data and documents are provided to board members efficiently. Board portals can save hours of staff time before and after every board meeting. In any non-profit organisation, and particularly smaller organisations, staffing time is a precious commodity.
Board portals make it easier to create and distribute board papers. Typically, the software provides customisable templates that can be used to automate the compilation of board papers, securely share files, develop agendas and promptly review and approve the minutes via polling features. Board members can propose changes or additions to the agenda prior to meetings. Board portals free boards from the necessity of preparing, printing, binding and delivering board papers so far in advance of the meeting that any newly developing information is unable to be included. The capacity to distribute large documents electronically also eliminates the not insubstantial costs of printing and couriering board papers.
Electronic contact between board members means that they are never behind the times or out of step with the organisation. Board portals can facilitate collaboration and communication between board members via online discussion forums and chat rooms to ensure ongoing conversation on important topics, in between meetings, when face-to-face collaboration isn’t psychically feasible.
Survey tools make it easier for boards to facilitate their formal evaluation processes, whilst administrative features, like meeting scheduling tools make it pain-free for support staff to seek commitment from board members on their attendance or absenteeism at the upcoming board meeting.
Searching capabilities make it possible to quickly locate past board papers, governing documents, financials and other important information that may reside in the board portal’s “paperless filing cabinet”. Board paper annotations and comments can be made whenever convenient and shared instantly with other users.
Board members can suggest changes to the agenda and make annotations on documents that are visible to all other directors. It also means that minutes can be accessed as soon as they are available and approval or any changes made while the meeting is still fresh and changes proposed.
Staff time is precious in any non-profit organisation, but this is particularly true for smaller organisations with limited resources. In the long term, systems that can automate distribution and alleviate the burden of board paper production on staff will be invaluable in saving time and streamlining the interaction between board members outside of the boardroom.
Precipitating smoother proceedings in the boardroom allows the board to spend more of each meeting on high-level functions and makes it easier for them to improve their governance capabilities. Some distractions are difficult to avert, but others can be solved by the use of a well-designed board portal in facilitating the development of agendas and clearing up any minor discussions prior to meetings.
There are many roadblocks that can hold up a board meeting. Newly arisen but not urgent issues might derail the agenda or one board members might become side-tracked discussing a trivial issue. Board portals allow minor queries and misunderstandings to be addressed in online discussions prior to meetings. Some discussion before a meeting will make it clear whether or not a particular issue needs to be addressed in the board meeting. Agendas that have been agreed upon prior to a meeting are more likely to be adhered to, resulting in a more effective meeting.
In addition to making board meetings run more smoothly, board portals help individual members to better manage the workload of the board. Board members have a heavy workload and, in particular, a lot of documents to read. Board portals make that reading commitment more manageable, keeping the documents within reach for whatever time is convenient. Reducing the burden of paperwork allows board members to commit their time and focus to higher-level duties and considerations.
The responsibilities of board members are many and varied. Board portals alleviate some of the pressure of some of these tasks by making them easier to manage, but they do not diminish how important these tasks are. Making these tasks easier ensures that they will be carried out more effectively and to a higher standard. The consequences for board members overlooking a particularly significant detail can be severe.
Regardless of the size of an organisation high standards of governance are a necessity. Being seen to adopt new technology also demonstrates to stakeholders, donors and prospective board members that your board is ahead of the curve and serious about effective governance practices.
Although having all board members present in the boardroom for every board meeting is ideal, it is not always possible. Many board members have a range of other commitments that might make it difficult to attend all board meetings. Shared diaries and collaborative scheduling can help to agree upon the most suitable date and time, but sometimes it is just not possible for all board members to physically attend every meeting. Organisations in isolated areas often face a significant battle to find enough suitable directors nearby to attend any board meetings.
Board portals can easily facilitate remote access for board meetings. In conjunction with video or telephone conferencing, a board portal can make remote board member access a viable and manageable option. The enhanced capacity for collaboration, communication and document sharing provided by board portals is an ideal support mechanism for remote board members. Without a board portal, the cost of sending documents significant distances to board members may be restrictive. The continual improvements of other technologies, such as video conferencing on Skype, have made remote access board meetings an increasingly viable option for boards.
Remote access board membership is particularly important for organisations in isolated areas that, with the assistance of board portals, are more readily able to recruit board members with the requisite skills to execute good governance practices.
As with other areas of business, education and entertainment, the world is increasingly moving away from paper and onto the computer screen. Given the substantial size of board papers, monthly editions for in or around ten board members for every organisation is a lot of paper! There will also be minutes to be printed and distributed after every board meeting. All of this can happen multiple times if any mistakes occur.
Environmental sustainability is a growing concern of many organisations and businesses in Australia and New Zealand. Board portals and other e-governance systems are just some of a range of strategies that can be utilised to “green” non-profit Boards.
In addition to environmental concerns, the cost of printing and distributing these documents every month for every board member can be significant.
Board portals can greatly reduce risk by providing board members with secure access to all their important information online. Hard copy board papers could easily and inadvertently end up in the wrong hands and email is not the most secure way to disseminate confidential information (like financials) to individual board members.
Boards can rest easy in knowing that all their important information is accessible only via the secure online environment of a board portal, which more often than not, will offer greater safeguards and top-flight security than physical servers maintained on premises.
Early-adopters of new systems and technology tend to be larger organisations, with financial and staffing capacity to develop new programs. Although larger organisations are leading the charge with e-governance, more and more medium and smaller sized organisations are coming to appreciate its capacity to save time and money. Resource-strapped organisations are discovering that board portals can enhance the capabilities of their boards. Board portals bring technology into the boardroom in an unobtrusive way that can help to facilitate the improvement of governance practices.
It is important that all board portals are supported by security and technology policies and systems. In the next article in this series on board portals, we will address three things that your organisation should consider when establishing your board portal.