Board Portal Vendors

Comparing Board Portal Vendors? The 5 Questions to Avoid

Comparing different board portal vendors to ultimately make a selection is serious business. After all, the chosen board management software needs to support the always high-stakes, often confidential, and sometimes controversial work of your organization’s governing body…usually for many years to come. A thoughtful, rigorous board portal comparison is key to ensuring the selection of a board portal vendor and product that stand the test of time. Thankfully, a number of valuable resources, like this one from Great Boards or this one from Gartner, have been developed over the years to assist in that process. Even these, though, become dated or can be prohibitively costly to access, leaving organizations to manage these board portal comparisons largely on their own.

Working with the boards of more than 1,400 organizations, BoardEffect frequently participates in such evaluations and implementations; and we provide a range of resources in an effort to demystify the process. We also field a lot of information requests from organizations engaged in these initiatives. Many of these questions facilitate sound, informed decision-making. But a number of them are not as helpful. Some may even diminish the effectiveness of evaluations by camouflaging the most material issues or oversimplifying complex, far-reaching topics. Below are five of our least favorite questions, along with tips for how to replace them with more incisive questions that lead to deeply informed decisions.

Question 1: Does your product have [FILL IN THE BLANK] feature?

This is the grand-daddy of them all; and we hear it all the time. Technology buyers understandably want to know that any system in which they’ll invest time and resources can provide the capabilities that their organizations have identified (hopefully via a comprehensive needs assessment) as must-haves. But this question is inherently flawed. It neglects the far more important question:

  • HOW does [FILL IN THE BLANK] feature solve my business problem?
  • HOW will the product support our organization’s vision for how we plan to solve that problem?

The “feature” question is also static, ignoring that every organization’s functional and business requirements evolve massively over time. This is absolutely the case in a dynamic and rapidly evolving industry such as board portals. With this in mind, completing a line-by-line check-list of today’s board portal features – WHILE STILL EXTREMELY IMPORTANT – begins to pale in comparison to an organization’s demonstrated ability to inspect and adapt…and deliver. Rather than getting hung up on any one feature today, a better approach involves a two-step investigation. First, as a baseline, confirm a solid mapping of existing features to your organization’s current needs. Then, really press on more far-reaching questions such as:

  • What is your approach to product development?
  • How do you determine what features to build? How do you enlist your clients in that process?
  • How do you go about delivering evolving capabilities to your client community in a consistent, transparent, high-quality way?
  • How can you prove it?

Question 2: Is your product secure?

This question isn’t bad, per se; it just doesn’t go nearly far enough. It leaves room for a simple, binary answer in an arena that is unimaginably complex, fluid, and high-stakes. Security is non-negotiable. And it never ends. Every board portal vendor’s product must be extremely secure AND be in a constant state of evolution. Because if the solution isn’t leaping forward in terms of its security profile, then it is falling behind – and that is unacceptable. Questions about security demand specific, measurable, and time-bound answers. Such questions include:

  • Where does my data reside; and what type of certifications and reports does the associated data center provide?
  • To what degree is any part of the environment where the solution (and board information) is hosted actually shared with other organizations?
  • What is the policy around the privacy, security, and handling of data?
  • In the event of a disaster, how long would it take for the data to be restored, or fail over to disaster recovery?
  • In the event of a natural disaster, how far away is disaster recovery located from the primary data center?

Question 3: How fast can someone build a board book in this product?

The premise of this question makes sense because it is a proxy for the all-important concept of ease-of-use. But, this question is so open-ended, that it sounds to me a bit like: How blue is the sky? The obvious answer: It depends! While some board portal companies tout how fast expert administrators can build a board book, this ignores the simple truth that all board books are different. The single-minded focus on book-creation-speed seems eerily similar to those old contests from the 80’s to see who could solve a Rubik’s the fastest. Just because a highly practiced person can do it in a few minutes, doesn’t make it easy or intuitive for the rest of us. In order to get to the crucial issue of ease of use, we prefer these questions:

  • How easy is the product to use?
  • How do you ensure that it remains intuitive while also adding new capabilities?
  • How have you ensured consistency in the user-interface and work-flows in order that I get comfortable with the solution after only a brief time?
  • How has Help been incorporated into the system to make it easy for me to learn?

Question 4: Is there an iPad App?

The answer to this question is invariably yes. Tablets are a commonly preferred device for consuming information, particularly among board members. This question really won’t facilitate any enlightened assessment of prospective vendor-partners. But it is a good lead-in to a few obvious follow-ons:

  • Is there an Android App? Does it cost extra for these? Do the web interface and app mirror one another?

But a few less obvious questions are even more interesting:

  • How easy is the app to use?
  • How may I configure the app to meet my personal preferences as a user?
  • How do you see the mobile experience in board management software evolving beyond the tablet; and what are your plans to address that environment?

Anytime, anywhere access has been conquered. The interesting question now is how we will achieve anytime, anywhere engagement of your board in a way that tackles the tactical, while also elevating the board’s overall performance.

Question 5: Do I get training with this product?

This question comes in a number of flavors, including:

  • Do you do board training?
  • Do I get 24/7 support?
  • Can I call someone for help?

All of these questions take aim at a central question: How much effort will we need to put in before it’s outweighed by the benefit we get out (and how much help will we get along the way)? Completely reasonable. But the “training” question fails to help answer it. One hour of lecture-based phone training might be overkill to learn how to use a toaster-oven but catastrophically insufficient to fly an F-16. There are so many variables that impact the “training” question, but a few of the important areas to probe include:

  • What competencies do we need in order to achieve our business goals?
  • What are the ways in which you support different user of the system with different learning styles and different levels of tech-comfort?
  • How do you work with us to enable the two-way transfer of knowledge that ensures our success?
  • What happens when our needs evolve, our business goals change, or our staff changes?
  • How do you assist us in driving adoption and usage of the solution?

In conclusion, the five questions highlighted above are not necessarily all that bad; they simply are inadequate to help serious-minded people navigate through the important, complex, and sometimes confusing process of evaluating board portal providers. Instead, the additional questions included throughout each section of this post provide more potent fuel to turbo-charge such assessments. As you undertake your next board portal selection process, I hope that readers will use these questions to assist in making the the best, most-informed decisions for your organization and its board-related stakeholders.

Todd Gibby

Todd Gibby is the Chief Executive Officer of BoardEffect, with a primary focus on supporting client organizations in achieving their governance goals. Todd joined BoardEffect in early 2014, after having previously served as the president of Hobsons’ higher education division. Todd became part of Hobsons in 2011 through the acquisition of Intelliworks, where he was CEO. Earlier, Todd held numerous executive leadership positions at Blackboard, playing an instrumental role in the company’s trajectory from a start-up software company to the global leader in digital education.Todd sits on the board of directors for Compass of Greater Philadelphia and the Rassias Center at Dartmouth College. He also serves as the Network Officer for the Washington DC Chapter of Young Presidents Organization and advises several early-stage companies. He is a frequent public speaker, social media writer, and a contributor to Wharton Entrepreneurship blog.