How to Improve Meeting Efficiency With Board Management Software

Shelagh Donnelly
8 min read
Have you ever attended a meeting that simply wasn't up to snuff? Of course you have, at one point or another in your career. Conversely, there'll have been occasions when you, your directors and colleagues departed the boardroom with a palpably positive buzz following a productive meeting that made effective use of participants' time and expertise.

This is good for business, and it contributes to a healthy board culture. Effective meetings don't unfold by happenstance, though. While there are additional factors, good meetings are the result of effective planning and advance preparation.

Let's consider a couple of reasons for frustration in the boardroom. Perhaps, despite good intentions, management didn't provide supporting documentation in a timely manner ' or needed to revise it due to circumstances beyond control. When this happens, directors may not have adequate time to properly digest the information before arriving at a committee or board meeting. In other instances, hopefully infrequently, it can be the quality rather than the timeliness of briefs or executive summaries that's lacking. In any of these scenarios, directors' ability to make thoughtful, well informed decisions can be hindered. This can lead to meetings running long, while decision makers understandably ask questions and probe to ensure that they have the information they need and can assess both short- and long-term ramifications of any decisions they make.

Sometimes, even though materials meet a high standard and are circulated in a timely manner, one or more directors may have additional questions or feel a need for a more fulsome than intended discussion of a given agenda topic. This can reflect anything from a director's recent arrival on the board to a director feeling less than comfortable with his or her depth of knowledge when it comes to an agenda item with which they don't have expertise.

The upside of meetings gone wrong, long or both is that they present opportunities to learn and improve. Whether you reflect quietly in the privacy of your office or debrief in conversation with your Chair, you want to determine whether you can improve meeting success through one or more of the four Ps, as I think of them. That would be practices, processes, procedures...and a portal.

Board Management Software for Improved Board Meeting Efficiency

Regardless of the frequency of your board and committee meetings, substantial effort goes into each meeting. You and your colleagues invest time and expertise as you build each agenda package (book). These meetings also require significant time commitments on the part of your directors. It makes sense, then, to identify efficiencies that provide the best return on investment (ROI) for each and every committee and board meeting.

I know from direct experience that adopting board management software can enhance meeting efficiency. I also understand that, at least in North America, I'm in the minority in having benefited from such technology, while 48% of European boards and 54% of boards in Asia Pacific now rely on portals, a mere 32% of North American boards currently invest in board portal software. These figures are provided in Forrester Consulting's October 2018 report, Directors' Digital Divide: Boardroom Practices Aren't Keeping Pace With Technology. Forrester's report follows the consulting firm's April 2018 study commissioned by Diligent Corporation. In the process, Forrester surveyed 411 governance professionals across 11 countries in North America, Europe and Asia Pacific.

Just as tapping into technology to support governance needs may be a new concept for some, we also have a relatively new term for this practice; it's called enterprise governance management (EGM).

While we may tend to think of meeting efficiencies primarily in terms of actual time spent around the boardroom table, meeting efficiencies are also derived through effective advance preparation. An obvious advantage of having a portal is that governance professionals are able to get meeting materials on directors' screens more promptly than they can circulate hard copy agenda packages. Should circumstances require revisions to a board book, they can also be accommodated and communicated quickly and efficiently.

Why Use Board Management Software

Directors are typically busy and in high demand. Some travel frequently. If you were a director traveling in advance of a board meeting and wanted to prepare for it while in an airport lounge or during a flight, what would you prefer? Would you want to extract a bulky agenda package from your carry-on bag and settle in with a pen and perhaps a marker to review the latest board book? That's assuming, mind you, that delivery of a hard copy agenda package coincides neatly with directors' travel schedules.

Or would it not be preferable to open a tablet or laptop, log on to a portal and dive into sections of an online board book as time permits? Directors needn't rely on non-secured wifi services to access their agenda packages. That's because individuals can easily synchronize ("synch") any and all agenda packages from the security of their office or home, in order to then access material without wifi.

It's not only your directors, of course, who have demanding schedules. You may find your CEO and other senior executives also need to take advantage of travel time to prepare for meetings. They'll already be well versed on agenda items reflecting their portfolios but will want to be prepared on all fronts for meetings.

Whether or not your directors and colleagues are frequent travelers, they'll benefit from using a portal for meeting preparation. With Diligent Boards'Ѣ, your directors won't need pens and highlighters to mark up their agenda package with their questions or comments. They can use the portal software to securely comment on documents and pose questions associated with specific agenda items and documents.

Let's go back to that relative newcomer to your board, or any director who finds s/he doesn't have a solid grasp on a particular agenda item. Or there may be situations in which a director who fully comprehends the materials identifies a concern that may understandably be raised at the table. Rather than using meeting time to address such matters, your director can preemptively pose questions or concerns through the portal. The director may choose to make such comments visible to the board, to the board and your executive team, or to a more limited group. In some cases, a director may feel more comfortable posing questions solely to you, to the executive responsible for a given report, or to a board mentor. People can raise questions through the board book in question, or via Diligent Messenger.

Improving Boardroom Communication

Diligent Messenger is an innovation that represents yet another element of EGM, enterprise governance management. Parties can communicate in real time and share attachments. Sometimes it's best to pick up a phone when responding to questions or concerns. In other instances, especially when time zones, schedules and travel are factors, it's more helpful to use the secure portal to respond to one another. Whatever the means of communication, knowledge gaps can be addressed in advance rather than in the boardroom. When one of your executives receives an early heads up on concern with an agenda item, that colleague won't be caught off guard during a meeting and will be better positioned to meet your board's needs.

Sometimes, simply having access to archived meeting books can meet a director's need for context or historical perspective on a matter. With a portal, typing in a search term will yield a list of all books in which the term appears. That's accompanied by previews of each such book, and this is far more efficient than extracting and digging through old files or hard copy meeting books. You as a governance professional can also quickly take advantage of this technology should a question on past practices arise during a meeting.

Access to a portal can help you and your board achieve other efficiencies once a meeting is underway. You can provide opportunities for your directors to vote electronically, which means you needn't manually tally the results. If you conduct post-meeting evaluations, you can also do this within a portal.

When it comes to recording meetings, what governance professional wouldn't welcome additional efficiencies? With Diligent Boards'Ѣ, you can open your meeting book and click on "Take minutes". The portal will create and populate your minutes with attendees' information and the meeting date as you presented them within the book. Rather than revising your minutes template manually for each meeting, you can rely on the portal to incorporate headings that reflect the online tab structure (agenda labels) you create for a given meeting. All of these additional minutes technology is available with Diligent Minutes.

Then, with the core of your minutes document in place within the portal, you can record the actual meeting once it's underway. While still in the minutes interface, you can switch to an Action Items tab to add and assign responsibility for any follow ups arising from the meeting. This software also enables you to send notifications to the individuals responsible for given action items. Once directors and colleagues know they can rely on you for timely portal-driven nudges on their commitments, they can focus on participating in the meeting rather than jotting down notes about their deliverables. Diligent Boards'Ѣ also enables you to track completion status for each action item.

Once a meeting concludes, you want to make your minutes available as soon as possible. For some, that process includes vetting by the board or committee Chair. With Diligent Boards'Ѣ, you have a couple of options. You can transfer your minutes directly to your next meeting book for approval, or you can export them to a Word document for any edits or tweaks prior to publication.

If you and your board are among those who've yet to embark upon the EGM path, incorporating all the available technological resources at once may be overwhelming ' for your board, your colleagues or for you. Your board may choose to avail itself of the benefits of a portal incrementally rather than on a wholesale basis. Once you set yourselves on the EGM path, however, you'll find meeting efficiencies are just some of the governance advantages to be had.
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Shelagh Donnelly
Shelagh Donnelly writes about governance and the world of administration, and speaks internationally on both topics. She's been a direct report to C-level executives, including four CEOs, in the private and public sectors. Shelagh spent the last decade of her 21-year higher education career immersed in the world of governance. As the institution's governance point person, she elevated the directors' onboarding program, championed the introduction of portal software, and introduced efficiencies and practices that enhanced operations and ongoing board development. Responsible for effective operations of the institution's governance system and accountable to board Chairs and the institution's CEOs, Shelagh supported all five of the board's committees. She worked with four board chairs, more than a dozen committee chairs and multiple directors. Shelagh's professional affiliations have included the Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD) and the National Association of Presidential Assistants in Higher Education (NAPAHE). Through the Association of Governing Boards' (AGB's) Board Professionals Leadership Group, she served as a board professional mentor. She remains a member of Governance Professionals of Canada (GPC) and has served as Chair of the Board of Directors of CICan:GPOP (GPOP), a national professional association affiliated with Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan). She is one of only two individuals to be recognised with the CICan:GPOP Award for Distinguished Service. Shelagh began publishing Exceptional EA, an online professional development resource for career assistants, in 2013. She continues to publish Exceptional EA and write for other publications, and is the author of the forthcoming book, The Resilient Assistant. Exceptional EA: ' Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan):