Board life in 2030?

Board life in 2030?

Here in 2030, it’s a good time to look back to on how board life has moved on over the past decade.  That tumultuous time of Brexit and Trump all seems a distant memory now.  And when we look back at how boards used to work back then, it seems light years away too!   It’s a bit like listening to the last generation of non-executives who still could talk about the days before email and the internet (yes, there really was such a time).  Quite how  boards could function that way is difficult to fathom.

But with the “digital generation” having finally been allowed onto boards, we’re now used to digitally-driven practices that are perfectly normal – but are light years from where we were.

2030: The new norm

Board “papers” are video-based, masterfully directed by the CEO and produced by her Executive Assistant.  The directors – at least, those who still haven’t got into Virtual Reality – plug in their ear buds, switch on the video download and listen to the execs give their quick 10 minute update, explanation or pitch.  For each item, the exec pulls in his/her team to add enlivening detail that creates a much richer picture.  It’s interwoven with visual detail that makes key figures easy to interpret and brings pithy, relevant points to life.  Interactive charts and tables allow those who want the detail to drill down further, just by saying what they want.

2020: How it “functioned” back then

An entire industry produced “board papers” that had to be read.  Often up to 200 or 300 pages long – sometimes even more –  these “board packs” tended to land on directors just a few days before the board meeting.  With an average reading time of five to ten pages an hour, depending on how much content they had, that was a tough ask.  (And it meant that weekends before board meetings were never quite as relaxing as one’s family might have had in mind…)   Even worse, they’d been using digital distribution for years before it occurred to anyone that there are better ways of providing digital information than pretending it’s all on A4 paper. ​

2030: The new norm

Directors can fill in the information gaps – or ask questions – through “smart board interfaces” and voice activated enquiry.  Do you have a question?  Ask through your device, and AI gives you an answer.  It draws on the in-house data systems, interrogates board and management information – or looks outside for benchmarking data, industry and consumer trends, regulatory reports… Then it illuminates the information by joining the dots between relevant data from different sources.

2020: How it “functioned” back then

Directors usually waited until the board or committee meeting to ask for more information.  So valuable airtime would be spent on questions that might reflect a particular expertise (or hobbyhorse) of no interest to anyone else.  And NEDs would take up meeting time just to reveal the fact that they didn’t know something everyone else had learned long ago.

2030: The new norm

Virtual 3D takes the Board out into the business.  In real time, they are designed to be interactive.  Or, if online, the NED can view it at their leisure, deciding where to go – and, often, who to hear from.  The system is based on learnings from the museum sector.  They were the first to find ways of taking people through huge collections (for which you can read “organisations”) and to bring them alive in a manageable and time-conscious way.

2020: How it “functioned” back then

Boards relied on written descriptions – or PowerPoint slide presentations – for divisional heads to showcase their part of the organisation in deep dives.  This outdated method was too static and relied on managers being able to bring things alive in a one-dimensional way.  Though they had got one thing right – getting out and about in the business, so they could talk to people informally, see things for themselves and generally get a feel for what was really going on.  Even VR, no matter how well curated, can’t replace that.

2030: The new norm

Board meeting structures get the imaginative treatment.  Nowadays directors prefer the sorts of discussions they find more useful and enjoyable in everyday life: small, more intimate, thoughtful debates.  For example, in “break-out sessions” and “cabaret-style seating” with initial quick-fire discussions at small round tables being followed by group/sharing sessions.

2020: How it “functioned” back then

Funnily enough, everybody was used to this more stimulating approach, which was already widely used in training courses and workshops.  But, for some reason, the format of board meetings was stuck in a rut that had hardly changed over 150 years.   It involved sitting anything up to 20 people around a big long table for hours at a stretch – an arrangement that favours those with the loudest voices and the strongest bladders, and is hardly the best for promoting lively, inclusive conversation.

2030: The new norm

Wargaming is a normal and regular feature of board meetings nowadays.  The value of “deep dives” has been appreciated for some time – and cyber-risk wargaming opened everyone’s eyes to the power of working through scenarios as “real events”.  Boards have started to feel much more comfortable that management know how to respond to an unknown threat lurking just around the corner.  Or at least, more often than not,  the lessons are being learnt before the hit comes.

2020: How it “functioned” back then

Lists of risks (sometimes dignified as “principal” risks) were typically reviewed a couple of times a year, despite everyone agreeing that the risk which would hurt them will be one that wasn’t on the list, while an almost universal formula of probability/impact and RAG score was used to give the illusion that uncertainty had been tamed.  Despite previous efforts to liven it up by thinking more about emerging risks, the old approach never really succeeded in provoking enthusiastic debates.  Possibly because  it was necessarily high-level and theoretical.  And also it just looked pretty much the same each time round.

2030: The new norm

Old technologies like Skype, Facetime and Zoom are now slick enough to be widely used for straightforward sessions such as presentations of information when the dynamic is Q&A rather than debate.  This makes a big difference to unnecessary travel.  However, there’s still no alternative to getting the key people in the same room if you want to have a good discussion that really explores things and helps to develop everyone’s thinking.

2020: How it “functioned” back then

If you couldn’t be there you’d only be included through dial-in and voice calls.   Often you got forgotten when you couldn’t be seen or heard, and you couldn’t even interrupt because the anti-feedback technology meant that conversation in the meeting room would stop the loudspeaker from operating.  Callers on mobiles would either forget to mute so there would be an enormous amount of background noise, or forget to unmute so they were talking only to themselves.   Quite why anyone continued to use this outdated “technology” when it was so difficult to hear – at both ends – was never quite clear.

2030: The new norm

The employee voice is literally brought into the boardroom.  Video booth “storytelling” – with a bit of judicious independent editing from Internal Audit – helps the NEDs tap directly into what people have to say.  It brightens up the commute and gives that direct insight.

2020: How it “functioned” back then

Boards put effort into arranging for the employee voice to be heard, inventing all sorts of laborious ways that didn’t exploit technology.  Funny how the Corporate Governance Code options back in 2018 didn’t pick up on the technological solutions.

2030: The new norm

Intelligent listening systems support the board discussion.  Forgotten to consider the stakeholders?  The risks? The employees?  The legal angle?  The climate change perspective?  The system listens to the discussion and prompts the Company Secretary and Chair before the agenda moves on.

2020: How it “functioned” back then

Relying on humans to remember or interject was the norm.  Everyone knows how often conversation moves on without covering some important angle.  Time’s short, no-one can remember everything, and the Company Secretary has so many other tasks in hand.  That’s why, in the past, things just got missed sometimes.

And that’s just for starters.  How about looking even further ahead? What about the Board of 2040?  As a bit of Christmas fun we started playing with a few more extreme thoughts.

In 2040…

No-one actually needs to attend the board meeting any more.  Avatars and holograms can take the place of absent directors.

Pulse and emotion monitoring is used to gauge agreement in board meetings – or when reading the board papers.  (It could monitor everyone’s alertness levels too…).

Sandwich lunch breaks are a thing of the past. Individual sugar-level measurement combined with jet-lag and attention monitoring allows regular injections of energy-enhancing supplements through personalised in-seat supply stations.

Robot representation has replaced “the employee voice” as the hot political topic.  As the Supreme Court has just ruled that robots are emotional beings, boards have to work out how to respond to the new Code requirements.

AI is used to put the minutes together. The parameters are set in line with the minuting policy, voice recognition is activated…and the life of the Company Secretary is immeasurably improved.

Asking Alexa to join the Board?  So convenient, even down to instantaneous communications from various investment bankers whenever the word “bid” is mentioned…



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