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June 3, 2016

The Board Portal

I am a member of the board of directors for a number of organizations, both for-profit and non-profit.

I will tell you that there is something that all of my boards have in common – they churn through a tremendous amount of paper. One board I joined about nine years ago used to courier me the board package every quarter – it was a 3” binder packed full of paper. The production and courier costs of those binders alone would have easily paid for iPads for every board member.

It is crazy.

board01Even today, I have fellow board members arriving with binders, fully printed and tabbed, to each and every committee and board meeting. Say 100 pages per meeting package, multiplied by five board meetings and eight committee meetings per year, equals 1300 pages – or 2.6 reams of photocopy paper.

For years I have been encouraging these organizations to go to paperless. Nothing makes more sense than a paperless board of directors’ meeting. Why paperless? Well, besides the obvious savings in cost and trees, there are a number of other benefits:

  • Everyone has real-time access to the absolute latest version of each document
  • Archived documents from previous meetings can be referenced instantaneously
  • Documents can be searched, tagged, and cross referenced in notes, agendas, and meeting minutes
  • Users can flip between multiple documents in an instant, or multiple documents can be open on the screen at the same time – for easy referencing
  • Minutes of meetings can be produced and distributed almost instantly
  • Confidential information can be secured to restrict access by non-authorized individuals
  • There is only one version of each document – or one version of the truth

Add back the cost savings and tree savings, and the case for going paperless is very compelling.

I will write a post in the near future on how to best run a paperless meeting. For now, I want to focus on how to best distribute paperless digital information to board members. The tool of choice is the Board Portal. I now have one of my boards moving to a full board portal, and many of my non-profit clients have successfully implemented portals for their boards.

The Board Portal Tool

The goal of the board portal is simple: provide a place where board members can access the digital information associated with the organization and its board of directors.

The means that the distribution method has to conform to a number of rules:

  • Only one version of the truth – one version of each document
  • Accessible in real time – always on
  • Contain documents and databases of information – structured and unstructured data
  • Has digital security to allow some information to remain confidential, or only be accessible by a subset of the stakeholders or board members

With those goals in mind, there are a number of products that can do the job. The one chosen by most of our clients, and by my boards, is SharePoint by Microsoft. It can handle unstructured and structured data, and it is something that is readily available at a reasonable price point. In fact, many of our Office 365 clients are excited to learn that SharePoint Sites are included in their Office 365 package.

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There are a number of key elements of the board portal that seem to be common for most boards of directors:

  • Board meeting documents – usually arranged by meetings, projects, or subcommittees
  • Board calendar – the master record of all Board meetings, committee meetings, and events
  • Board contact list – a list of board members, key staff members, and executive assistants
  • Board announcement – notices about board matters and events
  • Reference documents – often a separate document library for the organization’s terms of reference or bylaws, policy documents, and other reference material

All of this material is available through a web browser, 24 hours per day, with the absolute latest information posted for viewing at all times. There are no longer any questions about the latest version of an agenda, or an updated version of some meeting minutes. It is all real time, anywhere, any device access.

The Challenges

There are a few big challenges with moving to a paperless board that must be addressed:

  • A staff member must be responsible for publishing all information to the portal – there needs to be accountability to ensure data integrity and portal cleanliness (and organization!)
  • Board members need to be trained on the proper use of the portal, and how to best reference that information during a meeting
  • Board meetings must have a healthy supply of power (in the middle of the table, for everyone’s laptop!) and WiFi (so that people can access the portal)
  • It is often a good idea to print the entire board package to a single PDF file and post that file onto the board portal, so that board members can download that file onto their computers before the meeting, thus eliminating the reliance on an internet connection during the meeting – it is a safety measure

All of these challenges can be easily overcome with some forethought, experimentation and training.

The Payoff

Last week we introduced a board portal for one of my larger, non-profit boards. Twenty people on the board, four standing committees, and one task force. That is a lot of paper, a lot of documents, and a lot of information (schedules, contact info, agendas, minutes, etc.).

Based on our first few committee meetings, we have moved some of the committees to 100% paperless.

Whereas a few months ago we would have had endless binders of information on the table, this past week we have had a dozen committee members sitting around the table, each of them with a laptop or tablet, all accessing the board package through digital means. Truly epic.

It will be interesting to see next week how many of the board members will bring a digital package instead of a binder to our first paperless full board meeting. Stay tuned.