Why Searchability is Key for Public Boards

Lena Eisenstein
5 min read
The most important feature of board software may be the one you least suspect. It doesn't scream 'sexy' and it doesn't scream 'strong.' But without it, your governance operations may be slowed to a virtual standstill, your public organization may look more and more like an Orwellian bureaucracy and you may lose the confidence of your private-sector board members, who expect innovation and speed when they work. Nimble, responsive and labor-saving, searchability makes the routine tasks of board governance so much more effective that all who try it swear they can't live without it. With an attachment-level search function, your board portal makes meeting preparation, meetings themselves and research tasks more productive in less time.

Most users are familiar with searchability from their word processing programs. Using MS Word, if you've opened a document, you can enter a search term in the box next to the 'magnifying glass' icon. It will put yellow highlighting on that term every time it appears in the document. Instead of reading, say, an entire 10-page document and stopping to highlight the word or phrase every time it appears, you will immediately see all 10 pages as thumbnails on a single screen, with the highlighting apparent in every usage. You've saved half an hour to an hour versus reading the entire document. And you get a more useful image that shows all 10 pages in a single view.

You also feel smart and effective, rather than bored and resentful ' and that matters a great deal on boards that often rely on unpaid members with day jobs in the private sector. As board liability increases, budgets shrink and responsibilities multiply, it can be hard to keep needed members on board. All three trends have affected public boards over the last 10 years. At work, they might enjoy sleek computer features, catered lunches and their own administrative assistants. Turning to their public board duties may feel like traveling back in time to the Dark Ages. Suddenly, everything is sluggish, inefficient and slow.

Attachment-level searchability picks up the pace of public board governance for work that calls for perusal of board packets or historical reference materials. Say the chairperson posts on the portal the agenda for an upcoming meeting with a board packet that includes the last meeting's minutes, three five-page committee reports, a 10-page consultant's analysis and a three-page New York Times article on trends affecting the board. When they get their packets, the members read all of the materials. (With the phasing out of paper copies and the risk of email attachments, members are more likely to get not the packet itself, but an email telling them they can access the packet on a secure portal.)

As they plan their own contributions to the meeting, however, board members may have a question they need clarified; they may need to review the packet for all references to a single term or phrase. As there are multiple attachments totaling 28 pages, the benefits from the initial MS Word scenario are multiplied by a factor of nearly three. The split-second search now saves up to three hours of rereading the materials. That's three hours that busy parents and executives simply can't spare.

That difference in speed and frustration goes from a luxury to a necessity when a quick search is needed within the meeting itself. If turns in the discussion make a search necessary, there is no time for each member to read through all the documents. The quest for an answer will also break the spell of group cohesion; as each attendee looks through his own papers, the chair will effectively lose control of the meeting.

With searchability, however, a single designated individual (presumably the board secretary who is taking the minutes) could conduct the search of the entire packet in a heartbeat and deliver the results to the group ' who could also be looking together at the search results on a projector screen at the front of the room. The secretary would simply conduct a search of the provided portal archive, where the packet would be stored. The group would sustain its sense of shared focus, and the discussion would move to the next step. Without the ability to search, the topic would likely be tabled until someone did further research to report back to the board. In that time, an opportunity for a contract, a new hire or a special discount could well expire.

For committee projects that occupy time outside the meeting, the search function saves even more time. Public bodies notoriously store voluminous records. The full board may well need the personnel committee to find out the starting salary of every staff member hired over the past 10 years. Poring through binders is the slowest option. Retrieving each document digitally and conducting an MS Word search within it is less slow, but barely (if more than a few files are involved). A good portal will contain an archive where historical documents are stored ' even the outrageous quantity used by public entities. (A portal should never charge extra to store more data.)

At this juncture, a single keystroke can deliver the needed results if the portal is searchable at the attachment level. A single search of all the files (or select folders) in the archive can deliver all the results. It's like asking a Mac computer to 'search this Mac' ' penetrating all the files stored in the hard drive, as opposed to opening each and every file to conduct a separate search. For committee members who are volunteering their time, the difference in speed and satisfaction means reduced burnout and turnover.

Some board portals feature searchability that does not extend to the attachment level. That is, only the agenda itself can be searched, but the board packet cannot. If they do provide a virtual filing cabinet of historical documents, that too often lacks searchability. In that case, the searchability function does little to save time or frustration. An agenda for an upcoming meeting typically covers one or two pages. There's really no need to 'cut to' a needed term in the agenda, as it takes only a few minutes to read it.

Searchability down to the attachment level gives a public board the power and speed that board professionals expect. By reducing the time and frustration associated with board service, it can make board members more effective, less frustrated and more likely to stick around.