Are smartphones 'smart' for the boardroom?

By Heather Wilson, Director, Research Services

Directors and boards, along with the rest of society, have embraced smartphones, tablets and other forms of technology over the past several years. This technology has become integrated into board work and has allowed directors to participate remotely, store documents more securely and access information more readily than was possible in the past.

Distracted by technology
The plugged-in boardroom presents some challenges as well. Over the past few years, many have complained about the distractions posed by technology use in meetings, with participants paying more attention to their phones than to the matters discussed. If board members are scrolling through their phones or scanning their tablets or laptops, they are not present or paying attention to the board discussion. Board leaders should encourage the productive use of technology which enables better decisions and discussions, but should also discourage directors from using technology for matters not related to the meeting. 

Board chairs may also want to reflect on the quality of the discussions being held if they see directors paying more attention to their phones than to board discussions. Instead of blaming the ubiquity of devices, it may be beneficial to assess the effectiveness of the board meetings and work toward improving the quality of board deliberations, so that directors are engaged in the work they are being asked to do. 

Is big brother (or a competitor) watching you?
Recently, another challenge has emerged – the perception that phones are being used as tools of surveillance. Articles have been published with alarming titles, such as Is your smartphone secretly listening to you?, raising concern among users. The WhatsApp security flaw was exploited by a third-party and facilitated the surveillance of targeted journalists and activists.  This created some alarm among smartphone users, according to Michael Parent, Professor, Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University, and co-academic director of ICD’s Board Oversight of Technology course. But, Parent also notes, smartphones are not the only technology that can be used illicitly – tablets, laptops, Bluetooth-enabled equipment, etc., may also be compromised by malware or software glitches, and used illegitimately. He urges board leaders to exercise the appropriate amount of care with technology. They should be aware of the risks and take reasonable precautions, but the concerns should be balanced against the cost and inconvenience of creating fully secure Faraday rooms and excluding programmable thermostats from board meeting locations.  Prof. Parent says that “directors are targets and their names are public – reasonable precautions, and the awareness of risks are important, but the key is not to worry about it so much that it leads to paralysis.”

So what can board chairs and directors do in response to these challenges? 
  • Context is important.  If a board is discussing something highly confidential which requires absolute control over the board material and discussions, it may be prudent to take extra precautions to prevent surveillance and ensure the security of the information being considered.
  • If you are asking directors for their full attention, make sure you are making good use of their time. Ensure the meeting is productive and making the most of your board members’ expertise and experience. Regular meeting evaluations or feedback provided to the board chair may be beneficial to improving meeting quality. 
  • If you have asked directors to not use their devices during meetings, allow for breaks so that directors may check their devices for important messages.  
ICD Education
Board Oversight of Technology

Technology continues to have a significant impact in and outside the boardroom. Our Board Oversight of Technology (BOT) program is a two-day course developed for directors to enhance board oversight of digital technologies. Participants will gain a deeper understanding of critical areas such as cybersecurity, privacy, social media oversight, reputation management, IT project management, and the impact of emerging technologies on their organization. The lead instructors for this course are Estelle Métayer and Michael Parent. 

Courses are offered across Canada. Learn more.