There’s no doubt that the profile of the Company Secretary is on the rise. As the regulatory environment becomes increasingly complex, the strategic importance of those charged with overseeing and advising on compliance and strong governance is growing significantly. Company Secretaries hold a critical position between the business and the boardroom, an efficient and well-resourced Company Secretariat is now an essential component of organisational success.
The company secretary and technology in the boardroom
As the role has developed, so has the associated workload, so it is not surprising that Company Secretaries and their support teams are now under greater pressure than ever before. In response, many are exploring technology solutions, such as Company Secretary Software, to digitise Board activities, processes and communications to save time and improve efficiency.
A 2018 survey by Executive Search Consultancy Leathwaite shed light on the challenges facing Company Secretaries in today’s corporate environment. Seventy-seven per cent of respondents, who were largely based in the EMEA region, confirmed that responding to regulatory requirements was the most pressing challenge affecting the Company Secretary function over the coming year. Forty-eight per cent of respondents also felt that the quality of Board information needed to improve, while 32% rated digitisation and automation as a challenge that needs to be addressed.
When asked which areas most needed improvement to meet the demands of the role, 57% said that better use of technology and data was essential, while 43% felt they needed to enhance efficiency. As the report points out, these two functions are “intrinsically linked”.
Judging by the responses to this survey, Company Secretaries are well aware that they are facing a resource crunch. There’s more work to do, and with 76% expecting headcount to stay the same or be reduced, there are only the same, or indeed fewer, people to do it. This underscores the reasons behind the drive for digitisation and the adoption of solutions such as Board portal software: When you’ve got limited personnel who are already stretched, the last thing they need is to be in the office until midnight printing, collating and despatching hard copy Board packs.
Securing critical information in the age of GDPR
Alongside the need to become more efficient, there’s a security factor to consider. No one who has been involved in the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) can fail to realise that data security constitutes a critical business risk. If you’re the Company Secretary involved in ensuring regulatory compliance, you know that you need to look closely at the security of your own department’s processes, not least because you handle some of the most sensitive and confidential materials and communications in the business.
By implementing a secure Board portal, Company Secretaries can eliminate the risk of confidential Board packs being mislaid and can set permissions, meaning that only authorised personnel can access materials via approved devices. When it comes to communications between Directors outside meetings, the use of Board messaging software prevents information from being intercepted in personal email accounts. This improves security compliance and reduces the risk of both data theft and that hefty fine from the Information Commissioner’s Office that everyone is hoping won’t fall at their door first.
However, despite the compelling drivers for organisations to adopt Company Secretary software, there have been some bumps in the road along the route to digitisation.
What, or who, is holding the drive for digitisation back?
The first hurdle comes from the Board itself. The Leathwaite survey found that only 8% of Company Secretaries felt that their Chair was supporting them in embracing better use of technology in the Boardroom. This is a major barrier for the 92% who are struggling to introduce new, more efficient ways of working. The role of the Chair in shaping Boardroom dynamics is a powerful one, and if Chairs are proving reticent about using technology, this will undoubtedly affect adoption.
The appointment of a new director can represent an opportunity to embrace change. We know of cases where newly appointed directors have brought with them the experience of using Board portal software in other directorships and have evangelised to the extent that their new Board has been encouraged to make the move and reap the associated benefits. A Company Secretary who is facing resistance in digitising processes would be well-advised to engage with newly appointed directors to see if they can help support the cause.
Certainly, any solution implemented needs to be intuitive to use for both directors and Secretariat staff to smooth the path of adoption. Strong technical support is also essential, as this helps to mitigate the objections of another stakeholder group – the IT department.
Digitising a business process that was previously mainly analogue – e.g., entailing hardcopy board materials, physical distribution of packs, use of existing email systems – brings that process more fully into the realm of the IT department. While most IT functions will welcome security improvements, those that are already stretched may not be enthusiastic if they believe that they will need to provide technical support during the transition and keep tabs on security going forward. For the IT team to be supportive of a move to a digital Boardroom, they need to be confident that the solution provided uses the highest levels of encryption and can satisfy the security requirements of the most stringent of industries, such as the financial and legal sectors.
Technical support is another burden that the IT department will want to avoid. Choosing a solution that has a dedicated support facility will remove that objection and ensure that some of the organisation’s most valuable citizens – its directors – receive assistance whenever they need it. Support and training for Company Secretaries and their teams is also critical, so that they can get the most out of using the software and run a tighter, more efficient ship.
The role of the Company Secretary looks set to continue growing in importance and profile, while resources are not likely to increase. To meet the challenges they’re facing, Company Secretaries need to engage their Board members and IT teams to overcome the short-term bumps on the road and to gain long-term benefits. Through better use of technology and automation, businesses will save valuable time, enhance security and improve their governance processes – three important wins for under-pressure Company Secretaries.
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