I don't know what the average company board meeting is like, but it struck me how sophisticated the use of IT was at the recent Council meeting of the Australian Computer Society.
The ACS Council meets twice a year for two days to discuss major issues. It is equivalent to the board of a company. Up until about two years ago, the paperwork was distributed by courier to delegates in large three-ring binders. Each meeting started with sheaves of extra papers being circulated, with loud "clacks" as the binders were opened and paper inserted.
A few years ago, some more IT use started to creep into the process. At the last ACS Council get-together, the meeting details and travel arrangements were sent by e-mail to the council mailing list. The papers were put on a closed Web site in advance and hyper-linked to the agenda.
At the meeting, 15 of the 22 delegates had laptops in front of them. There were about six palm tops as well. Copies of the paperwork were provided on floppy disk for those who had trouble with the Web site. There were still one or two bits of paper circulated, but nothing like the phonebook-sized pile previously.
The room had a U shaped desk made of trestle tables. There was a video projector for viewing the agenda and presentations jointly in the middle of the U, pointed at a screen at the open end (the chair sat at the other end). There were also 13 power boards on the floor inside the U to run the laptops and there were two phone lines on nearby desks for dial-up access. There was some discussion that next time there should be a hub and cables for networking the laptops.
Perhaps other organisations run their board meetings this way, but I doubt it. One interesting point is that the whole set-up is temporary and hand portable. There is no built-in equipment, as might have been envisioned for the meeting room of the future.
There are some downsides to the electronic meeting. It is not easy to review papers in spare moments when travelling to or from the meeting. It takes time to get out and set up a laptop and mobile computers are not permitted in some forms of transport (such as aircraft during takeoff) or simply won't fit in economy class.
Version control and enforcing deadlines for submissions is also more important with electronic documents. Because they are easy to update, there is a temptation to keep sending revisions until the last moment before a meeting. The result is that each person may be looking at a different version, or not have had time to read the latest changes in front of them. Each document should have the date on it and preferably a version number. The meeting secretariat needs to enforce deadlines for the submission of documents and should be backed up by the chair's rulings.
A computer screen can display less than a sheet of paper. Electronic documents need to be logically named, so they can be easily found. The format has to be suitable for reformatting into a small window, so several can be displayed on screen. Some format to display an outline of headings also helps.
If a meeting has to break into subgroups in separate locations, some provision of documents needs to be provided for access to documents. Everyone can't cart their laptop off to another room. The secretariat could provide paper documents for these discussions, or if it's a "brainstorming" session then one projected copy might be used. This can be supplemented by special hardware and software for group work, such as the Australian made Grouputer.
The cost of the technology also has to be considered. If meeting participants already have, and know how to use, laptops and the Internet (as Australia's most senior IT professionals obviously do) then the cost for a meeting is minimal. However, many thousands of dollars per participant and many hours of training may be required for the average company board member. There are simple tricks, which make using electronic documents easier. For example a beginner will laboriously clink on each document linked to a Web page to download it. The experienced Web surfer know they can tell the browser to collect all linked documents automatically and store them for later reading.
Australia's board rooms may get a Web productivity boost from learning such techniques. Or do we need to wait until the teenagers of today get to the board?
Tom Worthington is the Canberra-based Director, Publications Board, for the Australian Computer Society. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org