Broadening the use of board portals
Senior executives spend much of their lives on planes and in airport clubs, but what about living inside the company board portal? That’s where expanding configurations on these digital devices that have replaced physical board books are enabling senior managers to ‘reside’ when they carry out many of their day-to-day responsibilities.
‘Executives are starting to spend their days more in these portals than out,’ says Brandon Korbey, BoardVantage’s vice president of sales and field marketing. In BoardVantage’s case, what’s made that possible is a revised portal design the firm undertook about a year ago, creating segregated work areas independent of the board area that leadership teams could access.
‘It enables distinct departments, projects and country teams to work in their own separate areas of the portal without awareness of or access to each other’s work spaces,’ Korbey explains. ‘From the board members’ perspective, when they log in, it’s no different from what they saw yesterday.’
For the CEO of one of BoardVantage’s client firms, that means no more manila folders stuffed with the daily agenda and briefing documents. Now, with broader use of the portal, ‘he just grabs his iPad and has his own private space [to access and annotate documents],’ says Korbey. And just as portals several years ago eliminated the confusion of directors showing up to meetings with various versions of documents as some hadn’t seen emails with the latest update, their broader use is solving that problem for executive teams, he adds.
By making it easier for directors to consume information, board portals enable them to become more intimately involved with a firm’s daily affairs and allow their role to become more strategic, says Adam Ross, vice president of corporate solutions for governance at NASDAQ OMX – and that’s driving the expanded use of portals into other departments.
Because boards are becoming more strategic, investor relations officers (IROs) are now being asked to populate the portal with information that facilitates this. Boards can get the most relevant information about press releases, the company’s shareholder base, shareholder activism, feedback from meetings the IRO may have had with portfolio managers and how all of that ties into the stock price, which ‘helps the board become more educated, more strategic and ultimately more effective,’ Ross says.
In addition to helping IROs share critical information with the board, the portal is improving IR workflow, he adds. The set-up of the portal – the ability to share information, seek approvals/ comments and review documentation – makes the IR function more efficient and permits a wider range of collaborative activities outside the boardroom, such as preparation for earnings releases, analyst days and non-deal roadshows. Non-deal roadshows, which do not pitch an IPO or other corporate action but focus on discussions with investors, require information to be provided to the COO and CFO before it’s shared with analysts, so ‘it follows the same [four-step] procedure as board documentation: creation, review, approval and distribution,’ Ross explains.
Computershare is seeing directors push for more content on a more timely basis. If directors can get regular updates and reports outside the meeting period, it reduces the burden of information they need to digest during board meetings, says Andrew Moore, president of governance services at the company. Computershare is also starting to outfit its portal as a kind of one-stop shop where directors can access anything relating to them, such as evaluations and surveys – even their compensation plans.
‘If I receive compensation outside my standard pay, like stock and options, why shouldn’t I be able to see what’s going on with that through the portal?’ Moore asks. ‘You could maybe push comments back to plan managers or HR. It’s at a very early stage right now, but we’re starting to see the distribution of other content along those lines.’
Executive teams prefer communicating inside the board portal as rigorous permission controls make it secure from internal eyes that haven’t been approved to view uploaded content. ‘It’s a hosted service and it’s completely confidential outside the users of the system,’ says Gilbert Jeffries, Thomson Reuters’ global head of strategic planning and operations, speaking about the BoardLink portal. ‘It doesn’t go through their email and can’t be forwarded by someone else in the company.’
Another reason executive teams are moving to portals is that ‘boards are consumers of content, and executives tend to work much more like boards [and less] like peer-to-peer project teams,’ Korbey says.
Beyond the board
A multinational corporate client would typically start using the BoardVantage portal with 25 users, including a dozen board members, a handful of executive staff and a few administrators. ‘Now when we roll out to the top two or three tiers of leadership around the world, there are many hundreds of users, if not in the low thousands’ for a fairly large company, Korbey notes.
Three years ago, AAA, with more than 54.6 million members in North America, began using BoardVantage so that its board, which meets across the country, could avoid producing, shipping and later having to shred large volumes of paper with proprietary information, starting with about 18 licenses for the national board and supporting staff.
‘The first year we were with BoardVantage we were pretty much exclusively with the board, and in the second year we started to see all the utility and cost-saving advantages, so we expanded it to our committees and our executive management team,’ says Henry Scarfo, AAA’s managing director of corporate affairs and assistant secretary. ‘Then directors and managers on all these committees found [it useful] so now there are more than 20 of our 44 clubs using it, and collectively we’re approaching more than 600 licenses.’
Similarly, Diligent Board Member Services has seen a lot of executive committees in larger client organizations using its Boardbooks product – ‘certainly in banks, where the boards are using the product and then decide it would be perfect for their loan committees’, says Jeff Hilk, director of client services. ‘Some of our physicians’ boards in hospitals are disseminating materials about things they’re collaborating on, and it gives them the ability to share their notes, have a discussion around that material and then archive it the same way you would a board book.’
In April Diligent launched a new Boardbooks app for Windows 8.1 devices in response to demand for more convenient portal access to suit users’ busy lifestyles. The app allows easy syncing, viewing of materials by boards or committees and access to annotation and voting items, as well as enabling navigation with swipes and fast links to specific tabs or pages.
Just as accessing the portal on mobile devices has improved board members’ engagement in company matters, Moore believes the same protocols can serve employees. ‘Certainly, they all have mobile devices,’ he says. ‘They’re not always sitting in the office inside the firewall. And something like a board portal, if properly employed and managed, can address those internal/external communication barriers.'