How will board meetings shape up in the future
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How will board meetings shape up in the future

How will board meetings shape up in the future

The new board tech should be able to keep members more focussed

Gulf Business

Now that we know the Covid pandemic is a game changer in comparison with other crises that come and go, businesses and economies are talking of various alphabets from K to V and W to describe the different scenarios that are evolving in waves across the globe. Businesses have moved beyond cobbling together short-term solutions into long-term rethinking of processes and structures.

Isn’t this socially-distant sanitised form of business (or way of life, for that matter) our long-term reality – or the new normal – even with vaccination?

Board meetings, as we know them have changed in the last few quarters. The question is how this new normal would alter corporate governance. Remember the last proper meeting of your board? Gathered around the table, flipping through your board book, the chair saying “next item on the agenda,” sitting through presentations, shooting comments back and forth? What if that actually was your last board meeting? You didn’t know it at the time, but what if that was the final instance of this board gathering face to face before the next stage of corporate governance evolution?

Despite all the technology and speed that have reinvented global business over the decades, many of our corporate forms are still very archaic. Read a 2020 legal brief, and the language and style are relics of the last century. Some of the world’s stock and commodity exchanges still have shouters and runners on a crowded trading floor. But even before the Covid crisis, stock exchanges in most developed countries had gone electronic, and trades moved at the speed of light. So what about the retro idea of gathering busy executives around a board table?

We are not the only ones who wondered if a shift to virtual board meetings, and to governance overall, is the future. A discrete, “board meeting” day focusses directors on their governance role for a few hours at quarterly intervals. The “drip feed” approach of ongoing virtual governance keeps the company in the back of their minds day by day (and also cuts the cost of board meetings by 90 per cent). In most board meetings, electronic devices are distractions, with the members texting when they should be paying attention. Online board sessions make the wired director a one- person network, tuned in to other members, presentations, resource materials, outside research and side chats – all at once. Even with board portals, the board “book” is still largely designed as a single package of info, rather than as the hyperlinked document it could be.

We can’t predict that the traditional “sit down around a mahogany table” boardroom meeting is dead. But after the pandemic shakeups, it sure looks endangered. Besides, virtual board meetings seem to be more efficient and cost effective in many ways, so why not continue with the same?

We’ve all learnt a lot of lessons in making this great migration effective (and become pros at using Zoom or whatever). But where do we go from here? Now that online board meetings have become the new norm, where will virtual governance take us in the future?

Virtual board and committee meetings are about to become our default, expected governance tool. In 2020, virtual meets were a clumsy substitute for “real” board meetings.

By the end of this year, online will have become the real board format, and face-to-face will seem odd, and awkward. Hybrid boards will become truly digital, unleashing the power of digital meetings, signatures and documents. A governance phase change is underway.

However, the process is pointing toward the future – board meetings will be on-demand, modular, “drip feed” affairs. The big, singular “board book” a week before a discrete, day-long “board meeting” will seem clumsy. Micro agendas, convening the board for 30 minutes at a time on one item, will be arranged by intelligent tech that checks and juggles each board member’s schedule. Instead of holding up the board book mailing for last-minute items, each session will have its own board book, and a digital assistant will tell members when it is available, and use AI to point up important items.

The board chair will also gain digital tools to help run meetings. What is the best way to prioritise agenda items? Who hasn’t spoken up and who’s dominating the discussion? The chair has allotted 15 minutes for this item on the agenda, but now it’s pushing to half an hour. An AI timekeeper signals the chair on all of these, perhaps even giving a graph on which speakers have the most “air time”. Meeting going on too long? The software can remind everyone when it’s time to get up and stretch.

Board meeting tech will become even more supportive (or creepy, depending on your viewpoint). AI monitoring of directors’ facial expressions, posture and voice tone can tell who’s bored or zoned out, when participation is lagging, or when a presentation is dragging. The chair will be able to gauge these “viewership ratings” in real time during the meeting. None of us like having our enthusiasm constantly graded, but the unique membership of the board could push back on any Big Brother abuses. If a member of the board finds your meeting content boring, the director isn’t the one who’s in trouble.

The new board tech should be able to keep members more focussed anyway. Rather than separate on-screen boxes with presentations, board book info, financials, etc., these items will be immersive, part of the total visual presentation on screen, and probably with virtual reality tools. The board meeting could include VR plant tours, on-site discussion with employees and customers, walk-throughs of production or logistics issues. The board should be able to have meetings on Mars, or see what really happens at the company’s deep-sea oilrig.

At the moment, your online board meetings consist of postage-stamp size images of attendees who are all squinting at their screens. Background “green screen” tools can make it look like you’re sitting near the Taj Mahal or the Golden Gate, but these are distracting.

Next up – boardroom avatars with VR versions of attendees actually sitting together around a virtual board table. The chair really gets to sit at the head of the table, the CEO at her side, and so on. Your computer cams, instead of just broadcasting your image, will capture your movements and facial language and process them into your avatar. We regain the context and subtleties of an in-person board meeting, and you can even be a cartoon character if you want. Talk of getting younger in boardrooms!

Ralph Ward is global board advisor, coach and publisher, while Dr M Muneer is a co-founder of the non-profit Medici Institute and a stakeholder in the Silicon Valley-based deep-tech enterprise Rezonent Corp

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