Meet Watson: Your Newest Non-Profit Board Member




Recruiting and retaining qualified and skilled directors with plenty of time available to contribute to your non-profit board is a perpetual challenge for many organisations. But what if it didn’t have to be this way? What if you could have access, anytime you needed, to an additional board member’s skills and insights without the headaches of having to recruit them? Or even better what if you could tap into decision-making with the click of mouse?


While this seems like a pipe dream, a time when you may have another member of your board available 24/7/365 who has deep expertise in a wide range of fields isn’t as far away as you might think. Once the realm of Sci-Fi films, decision-making algorithms and artificial intelligence technologies are developing in leaps and bounds. Amazingly these technologies are already making decisions and/or augmenting decisions in the boardrooms and upper management levels in large corporations. Which begs the question, how long will it be before we see such technology in use in non-profit boardrooms?


The technology most commonly associated with the boardroom is the board portal (also know as e-governance or electronic boardrooms). Although not yet ubiquitous in non-profit boardrooms, tools like board portals and even Skype are allowing geographically dispersed directors to attend board meetings remotely, in addition to solving a wide range of other problems boards and directors experience.


Computer technology has been used inside boardrooms since the 1980s. This use was spurred by the birth of personal computers (PCs) which allowed mass access to cheaper and more compact computers. During the late 1980s computers, in the boardroom context, were used for streamlining the documentation of board minutes and storage of lengthy documents, but it was still rare to find computers utilised for board business anywhere but the boardrooms of large corporations. Eventually mass adoption of personal computers and the internet spurred the creation of the first board portals, leveraging the technology of the world wide web to allow information to be transmitted and accessed anywhere on the planet. The creation of the early board portals occurred in the very late 1990s/early 2000s. Again at this stage board portals were, like computers and boardrooms in the 1980s, limited to use in corporate boardrooms due to the vast expense of building and maintaining such software.


Fast forward 15+ years to the present day. While the use of board portals is now much more widespread, we are still, on the whole, doing nothing more exciting with them than recording decisions. Yes, they have a plethora of features and are easier to use (largely due to the commoditisation of board portal software — you can find hundreds of options just by searching google), but since their initial creation, innovation in board portals would be considered far more incremental and linear in nature rather than leap frog.


Although the huge innovation leaps aren’t there, board portal technology did give us a way to solve many of the problems of the traditional boardroom. Whether it was heavy packs of board papers, loss of information, having to collate and mail board papers in advance, accurate recording of decisions, inaccurate minutes, accessibility to key information or directors having to be in a single location — technology successfully relegated all these issues and more to the past.

The question is can technology move beyond solving these simple issues and help alleviate a major problem most non-profit organisations face (filling that vacant board position so they can get on with the actual business of the board — making decisions) ?


When we get down to brass tacks, the entire point of the plethora of recruitment tools, process and advice available to non-profit boards is to fill the vacant board position with another director, in order to give us access to another brain and assist us in making decisions for the organisation. Current boardroom technology just keeps us organised once we are making or have made boardroom decisions.


If you are currently looking for a new director to join your non-profit board (or even if you’re not right now) I’d like to introduce you to Watson.


Watson has an impeccable skill set. Watson doesn’t have any major biases and is highly objective. Watson has very few personal commitments that will clash with your boards requirements and will be available whenever your board meetings are, wherever they are. Watson is one of the most effective and decisive decision makers I know. Watson might be considered by some to be the perfect director. However there’s one catch…Watson isn’t a person.


Watson on Jeopardy


Watson is a cognitive technology, essentially a form of artificial intelligence, created by IBM in 2006. As IBM puts it “Watson processes information more like a human than a computer — by understanding natural language, generating hypotheses based on evidence, and learning as it goes. And learn it does. Watson ‘gets smarter’ in three ways: by being taught by its users, by learning from prior interactions, and by being presented with new information. This means organisations can more fully understand and use the data that surrounds them, and use that data to make better decisions.”


Watson was created to compete on Jeopardy (where it crushed it’s human opposition), but its first commercial application was in 2013 to assist in making “utilisation management decisions in lung cancer treatment at Memorial Sloan–Kettering Cancer Center”. While it may seem far fetched that we might one day have a computer algorithm or artificial intelligence appointed alongside us as a fellow director, informing and even participating in our decision making — that day is already here.


Earlier this year Hong Kong based Deep Knowledge Ventures, a venture capital firm, appointed a computer algorithm it calls VITAL as the sixth member of its board of directors. VITAL makes investment recommendations regarding companies that Deep Knowledge Ventures is considering as investment opportunities by sifting through vast amounts of data that a human or even a group of people could not digest. According to Deep Knowledge Ventures, VITAL has already helped to approve two major investment decisions (both in companies that produce technologies similar to those underpinning VITAL). While one BBC article points out that VITAL should be considered nothing more than a PR stunt, many top level management thinkers are already taking artificial intelligence and algorithms for C-Level and board level decisions very seriously.


Earlier this month McKinsey Quarterly featured two articles covering artificial intelligence in management and corporate c-level decision-making. Artificial intelligence meets the C-suite highlights that artificial intelligence and decision making-algorithms are no longer to be considered in the realm of fanciful nonsense, as “Many of the jobs that had once seemed the sole province of humans — including those of pathologists, petroleum geologists, and law clerks — are now being performed by computers”. The role of the non-profit director is not exempt.


A second article Manager and machine: The new leadership equation ponders the potential impacts of such technology on the very human realm of leadership.


Bringing artificial intelligence and decision-making algorithms like VITAL or Watson into non-profit boardrooms is at this stage as likely as having a board portal was in a non-profit boardroom in the 1990s —purely because it is cost prohibitive. However, with growing numbers of non-profit entities becoming significant in size (revenue and turn over) and with the pace at which technology is evolving and becoming commoditised we may see the introduction of artificial intelligence or more specifically decision-making algorithms in the non-profit boardroom sooner rather than later.


The realm of computers making decisions to either inform or even replace human decision-making is an interesting and potentially important space for directors to keep an eye on. It is a reminder that even the boardroom, just like the marketplace and landscape that all organisations compete in, is not immune to disruptive forces.


Avatar About Raphael Goldsworthy

Raphael is the Managing Director of Better Boards Australasia. He regularly writes and speaks on leveraging the power of business for social good, governance, leadership, technology and not-for-profits. During his time at Better Boards, Raphael has helped hundreds of not-for-profit directors and executives on their journey to master the Art & Science of the Boardroom. When he’s not in the office Raphael can be found on mountain biking tracks around Australia and New Zealand.

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