The quarterly board meeting may be one of the fundamental aspects of traditional corporate structures. But it has remained completely unchanged, still relying in the majority of cases on hundreds of pages of paper presented and collated up to several weeks before the meeting. But with budgetary pressures and the need for real-time problem solving, just how effective is this model today? How many critical decisions are shelved ‘for the next meeting’ due to lack of information? And how much time does any member spend considering these critical issues in-between meetings?
This ‘minute and forget’ approach is no longer acceptable. Not only does the board need to improve its decision-making during meetings, but members need to interact and engage with the organisation better throughout the year. And that requires a better way of information sharing than the traditional voluminous paper ‘board pack’.
In recent years, resident involvement has become central to the way in which government and local organisations approach the delivery of housing services. The benefits of resident involvement can be considerable, to the business, residents and the wider community.
Indeed, many housing providers value a tenant’s perspective at board level; housing boards are unusual in that only a minority of board members have any experience of the type of service that they are governing. In contrast, school governors and board members of healthcare trusts will all have first- or second-hand experience of the relevant service. Including even one or two residents on a housing provider’s board is therefore often seen as being important in ensuring that the focus and strategic direction of the organisation takes account of residents’ experiences.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that 95 per cent of UK organisations still adhering to the traditional 250-500 page board pack have not yet made attempts to update this model. But why? Paper is inefficient and inconvenient. Managing paper-based resources is time consuming. How much time is wasted in board meetings simply verifying the information to hand, rather than actually discussing and taking essential strategic decisions? Furthermore, how much time and money is wasted by administrative staff undertaking mundane print, copy and collate tasks before each meeting?
Of course, a few organisations have attempted to remove the paper burden by opting for the electronic transmission of documents by emailing members PDFs of the board papers. But this model is actually a backwards step. Not only is there no version control, creating the risk of more confusion during meetings, but also board members are often forced to then download various third-party annotation tools in order to make comments on the papers, even though those comments can’t then be easily shared. The result is nothing more than a poor imitation of the traditional paper-based process and is certainly no improvement in decision-making activity.
The ‘Google’ of board packs
The question is how can housing providers take advantage of this insight and extend the efficacy and responsiveness of the board beyond the quarterly board meeting?
Housing providers need to consider the use of targeted meeting tools that provide a fast, consistent way of providing that essential board pack. A way that enables individual board members to access board papers, securely and efficiently from a tablet, at any time and delivers that information in a structured, ordered format. With multiple options that include both on-premise and cloud-based models that enable administrative staff to securely store one version of the board pack that can be accessed by board members via any device.
In addition to providing board members with the chance to access information at any time, the key benefit comes from exploiting technology to enhance the way information is presented and shared. For example, documents and links can be easily assigned to particular agenda items, making it easier for members to go directly to specific items of interest. Documents can be annotated using simple tools, and these annotations can be shared with other board members before the meeting. And, critically, board members can search current and historic documents easily at any time, including during the meeting, to create a far more interactive discussion and better decision-making.
With one-click document distribution, not only can the organisation drastically reduce the essential paper, print and collate costs, it frees up administrative staff to complete the more important day-to-day activities that are typically interrupted by the quarterly board meeting. But that is just the start; this online approach changes the way board members can make decisions both within and outside meetings.
For example, during the meeting the board can use in-built interactive risk assessment and governance tools to provide a top level view of corporate risks. This is crucial for the housing sector, following the introduction of the HCA’s Sector Risk Profile in 2013, aiming to raise awareness of the key risks associated with housing providers. It also supports the National Housing Federation’s ‘Excellence in Governance’ code intended to help housing providers take a more systematic approach to compliance.
Rather than trawling though hundreds of pieces of paper, members can understand immediately the current risks, the controls that are in place and identify gaps that need to be addressed. They can use the real-time search to locate relevant information and gain the insight required to make a decision immediately, rather than re-tabling the issue for a subsequent meeting.
Beyond the board meeting
Furthermore, while real-time access to information provides a chance to improve the effectiveness of board members during the meeting, the most fundamental change is the way members can interact with the business between meetings. Combining alerts to information with updates on key topics raised during the meeting, plus decision-making functionality that incorporates discussion and voting tools and reminds members of outstanding items, can enable boards to take votes and make decisions outside the board meeting. This can lead to considered conclusions that are less likely to be swayed by more dominant members of the board. This ensures delays are avoided and the board meeting can concentrate on the top strategic issues, and better harness the insight of the resident board members rather than risk being derailed by minor yet pressing concerns.
Given the pressure on housing providers to become ever more efficient, responsive and agile, it is clear that tapping into the valuable insight of residents can have a positive impact on the business, the residents and the wider community. But in order to truly maximise the value of this insight, housing providers need to extend the decision-making capabilities of the board beyond the quarterly board meeting.
With continuous real time access to information via a raft of devices, board members have the chance to be constantly engaged with the organisation, taking decisions throughout the quarter, not just at meetings. Those boards that move away from paper and look to actively and continuously exploit real-time access to information will transform both the speed and effectiveness of decision-making at every level.
Alister Esam is the managing director of BoardPacks.