Freeing up time through automation

In this article Diligent discusses how automation can lead to better governance

The latest Quick Question poll that The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland ran with The Core Partnership – published in the June/July issue of Governance and Compliance – touched on the subject of the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the workload of governance professionals and the Secretariat. Some 82% of company secretaries have seen their workloads increase since the start of the pandemic, with 49% stating that their workloads have increased significantly. This points to the critical value that organisations place on good governance– something that they wish to maintain even when under intense pressure.

While historically some might have viewed the company secretary as the ‘Business Prevention Officer’, the lockdown has shown that company secretaries provide genuine support to the board and add definite value. Indeed, we are increasingly seeing the job title of ‘Board Support’ used, which more accurately encapsulates a lot of what the governance professional does.

While the poll findings support the view that governance professionals have played an invaluable role in helping their organisations to navigate the choppy waters unleashed by the crisis, they also reveal that many secretariat teams have taken on the burden of extra work without recourse to additional resources. Only 24% of company secretarial departments have increased headcount since the start of the pandemic. This highlights a need for additional support staff or a move to greater automation of parts of the role.

On 15 June 2021, we hosted a roundtable discussion with Diligent Corporation. A number of experienced governance professionals shared their thoughts on how secretariat teams could leverage automation to build competitive advantage. The majority of roundtable participants work for listed companies, but there was also representation from the private sector and mutual society.

What came across loud and clear from all participants is the supportive role technology has played during the pandemic, notably the switch to the electronic signing of minutes and other documents. The integration of eSigning has been very popular during the lockdown. It has removed the need for company secretaries to keep prodding directors all the time, although there are certain documents that some participants would prefer their chairman to still sign in person. Nevertheless, it is clear that eSigning is one area where technology is helping to free up the time of a governance professional. Only a few jurisdictions now need physically signed documents, which has sped up the process considerably. More importantly, electronic agreement systems have changed the perception that the company secretary is just there to get things signed.

The process will always be a fundamental part of the role, and there remain elements of the job, such as the archaic process for stamp duty, that would benefit from greater automation. Some people fear technology, however, and feel that it will remove the need for their role. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Automation is a good opportunity for the profession. Shared dashboards, data libraries and automated reporting all save time, reducing the need for questions, helping to improve compliance, facilitating better reporting and freeing up time for the company secretary to think more strategically.

It can prevent people from dropping balls and keep governance professionals in good standing. It also offers the opportunity to recognise governance as a core part of the culture of a business. Governance is the perfect place to make cultural change. It allows businesses to make decisions in the right place at the right time. And all of this is underpinned by the nuance that only a company secretary can provide.

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