Best practice: establishing an electronic meeting management process

Aug 17, 2010
<p>How South Jersey Industries successfully moved its board meetings to an electronic platform</p>

Corporate secretaries and others involved in running board meetings have been trying to move to more dynamic and efficient ways of working. This has become increasingly important as companies hold more frequent board and committee meetings and directors demand ever-increasing levels of information.

Despite the obvious advantages of using technology and moving to electronic meeting management, few companies have achieved buy-in and taken board meetings to an electronic platform. Some have, however, and South Jersey Industries (SJI) is one such early adopter.

‘I often get calls from peers saying, So and so is on my board and he tells me you don’t have paper in your meetings. How can we get on that system?’, says Gina Merritt-Epps, corporate counsel and secretary at SJI.

The most important first step is realizing that polling the entire board and seeking unanimous support may be  a mistake. ‘I think the key for us in the beginning was the fact that the decision to go paperless was made by the board chairman,’ recalls Merritt-Epps. ‘My predecessor went to the chairman of the board and laid out the arguments for improved efficiency, cost savings and the concept of it being a best practice, and the chairman made the decision.

‘I hear a lot of people saying, We haven’t done an electronic board book because we surveyed the board and a couple of people said they didn’t want it. Our chairman explained the benefits of going paperless and moving to a web portal, and then outlined the next steps in the process.  That was really the first step in setting the tone.'

Laying the foundations
Achieving that initial buy-in is usually the most difficult part of the process but, even with the support of the chairman, there is still work to be done. If adoption is going to move smoothly and everyone is truly going to accept the process, certain things need to be achieved.

‘Every board is going to be different as to how it can achieve buy-in and how it can politically avoid pushback from certain people,’ explains Merritt-Epps.

The second part of the process is involving certain key directors in the selection process for the web portal. It is easy to know which directors may be hesitant or have concerns, and it can be a good idea to make them part of the selection committee.

People are less likely to resist when they have had the opportunity to participate in the selection process and have any concerns addressed up front,’ explains Merritt-Epps. ‘What we did was look into the providers. We looked at five companies and narrowed it down to two we thought we could live with. Then we got the chairman to invite the key directors in on the selection process.

‘After the selection team picked the company it preferred, we had the firm come in and do a full presentation to the board. Basically, at that point it was, We explained that the presenting company was the best for the job and is here it is to answer any questions. At that stage, the ball was already in motion.’

Once the vendor selection has been made it is important to identify the individual – or team – from within the company who will be the dedicated support person. This is important to avoid situations where the secretary’s office gets calls from directors asking basic technical questions. Most portals have 24/7 support, but it is still necessary to have someone within the company taking care of things.

Moving ahead
So the decision has been made, the board has been told, the vendor has been selected and the internal support person is ready to go. Now what? This is where the real fun can start. The next key thing Merritt-Epps did was to survey directors to determine their level of technology preparedness, asking questions like ‘Who has Wi-Fi at their house?’, ‘Who needs a new laptop?’, ‘Who has a laser printer?’, ‘Who needs an aircard?’ and ‘Who travels overseas?’

‘We did this to avoid problems with implementation based on technological limitations such as an older laptop or lack of wireless internet. It was about foreclosing all those technology questions.

‘Next we purchased all the technology for those who needed it on a bulk rate. It didn’t end up being everyone, and it wasn’t that expensive. People shouldn’t think that if you have 15 directors you are going to be buying 15 sets of hardware; many are set up already.’

To avoid complaints regarding the transport of the laptop, the  company bought individual tablets for each director and which are available in the boardroom. ‘When they come into the boardroom I have each of them logged on at his or her seat with his/her username and password already up,’ says Merritt-Epps.

Gadget envy

Don’t be afraid to exploit the ‘shiny new toy’ response most people have to new technology. ‘Those people who went paperless had that cool little tablet at their desks when they came in. By the next meeting, we were completely paperless.

The end result is that SJI now has completely electronic board and committee meetings. Apart from the obvious savings from printing and mailing, Merritt-Epps feels it greatly improves the efficiency of the meetings. ‘I think it is better in all respects,’ she says. ‘It makes the people who are preparing the documents streamline their work and can save significant time during each meeting period. Plus, it gives me and the rest of management time to prepare and distribute documents ahead of deadlines.

‘I really can’t say enough about what this development has done for our office and the people who are involved. The whole executive area would shut down for a board mailing before, but that’s not the case any more. The web portals – particularly if you get the right one – bring about an air of professionalism that is consistent with the technology people are using for other areas of their lives.

‘My life is definitely a lot easier as a result – and I am very thankful to my predecessor for getting this process started.’ 

Key tips:

  • The corporate secretary does the research and gets board leadership approval.
  • The chairman of the board announces the decision to go paperless based on the benefits, including enhanced security.
  • Involve key directors in the selection process.
  • Select a 'director friendly' IT person.
  • Purchase the necessary technology.
  • Resist the urge to provide documents in hard copy and/or via email, even when the documents are not confidential. Always post documents and direct the directors to the portal.
  • Review the loaded documents before making the documents viewable to check for the appropriate print size, layout, etc.
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