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Take The Time To Give Us Better Strategic Information For The Boardroom, Say Directors

Posted on April 26, 2017 at 3:30 PM

Any good journalist knows that less is more, when it comes to using words to good effect. It is a lot harder to say something meaningful in 800 words than in 2000 - and a lot more effective as well.

So why does UK plc send its directors into the boardroom groaning under the weight of the number of words they are expected to read and digest, never mind the archaic practice of using bundles of paper ?

This blog reported on Smart and Green Boardrooms way back - in 2011. "And as boards become smarter, they are also (at last) coming into the 21st century with their chosen means of communication. In 2011 it should be unacceptable for a chairman to cite 'confidentiality' as the reason for board papers to go by courier" I wrote.

But research just out from Board Intelligence, the London-based board perfomance specialist, finds more than half (56%) of board members surveyed saying that their board pack has grown to an average size of at least 200 pages, with some packs weighing in at around 1,000 pages. (my emphasis).

They must be kidding. But no, directors reported that they are spending 33% more time reading their packs in preparation for board meetings.

Board Intelligence (@boardintel on Twitter) polled board members from over 60 organisations, including directors of FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies, privately-owned businesses and public sector organisations, repeating a study it first ran, as it happens, when I wrote that blog post - 2011.

Directors may be spending more time wading through the paper, but it does not necessarily prepare them for strategic discussion.

The length of the packs is said in part to be because compliance and regulation are blamed as dominating the agenda. But that sounds like a bit of an excuse to me - particularly as the study finds that nearly three-quarters (74%) of respondents whose packs had not grown in size noted that they felt they had a greater focus on strategy. Maybe that's because they actually read them?

Board Packs, like Topsy, have grow'd. But that is surely because it is the bureaucratic answer to increased risk, not the strategic one.

Source: Board Intelligence, London April 26, 2017

Board Intelligence says 84% of board members surveyed are calling for more succint and re-focused board packs.

Yes, it is true that providing those very things is its raison d'etre. But the company's arrival on the boardroom scene was a welcome response to a heartfelt need at the time - I remember it well. They offered a sharpness often missing in consultancies that prefer to mystify, rather than de-mystify, the boardroom. They are also allergic to jargon. Their research seems to be an accurate reflection of the gap between the reality of what is needed and what is being used by plcs.

"Board papers are getting longer and much goes unread - we are waiting for the next corporate scandal to happen" says Pippa Begg, a founding Director of Board Intelligence.

"We either need to be much more realistic about what directors can achieve and pare back expectations of their role, or they need to spend vastly more time on the job at hand - or organisations need to start to take their board packs a lot more seriously and ensure they cover all of the information that Directors need, in a readable number of pages" she adds.

As Ms Begg puts it: "We shouldn't have to wait for failure for this to become a priority."

It's time to remind businesses and chairmen of that great quote attributed to Winston Churchill, which I used in 2013 to talk abouit integrated reporting on Forbes: "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter." - a startling 20,503 hits and still rising.

Categories: Communication, Governance, Scrutiny