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“…Great Software, But How Do I Get My Board to Use It?”

At our third annual users’ conference last week, we heard much discussion about board culture, numerous tips for engaging board members, and lots of encouraging feedback about our upgraded platform. We also heard many questions about functionality and implementation, including a familiar line: “it’s great software, but how do I get my board to use it?”

That, as they say, is the money question. According to Idealware, a nonprofit that promotes smart technology decisions, the true challenge of any board collaboration solution is adoption. Any system you implement can be only as useful as your board members make it through utilization. Therefore, the implementation process must include the key ingredient of time, as board members need it to learn how the software works and develop the habit of using it.

Idealware also advises not to underestimate the importance of the human element in introducing board management software. A board is comprised of people who have varying levels of comfort with technology (not to mention change). That said, those who work with boards tend to overestimate the impact of demographics – more specifically, age.

According to an article in Forbes, baby boomers are not the Luddites they’re depicted to be, but rather are “active users and shapers of technology.” After all, the generation that grew up with early technology produced the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Baby boomers account for 40% of total dollars spent on technology, yet represent only 25% of the population.

While baby boomers don’t tend to be the earliest adopters of new technologies, their growth rate in using information and communications technology is higher than younger generations. Studies also show older adults tend to be more thoughtful about technology purchases and buy for a specific purpose, rather than just trend-setting. Such statistics suggest that board members who recognize the usefulness of new software in their board service will adapt readily.

Based on suggestions from Idealware, the following are tips for fostering platform implementation among board members:

  1. Use the right tool(s) for the job. In other words, align features and functionality with the board’s needs at a given time (and plan to add more, as appropriate, at a later time).
  2. Test systems in advance. A board meeting is not the place for a “catastrophic failure”, but is ideal for showing off what your platform can do with the right content.
  3. Familiarize key staff with the tools (and include the chief executive in training). Having platform-ready colleagues gives you a test group, active training partners, and on-site tech support for board members. Prepare for a period of transition and, once you introduce the new software, add time to the agenda for the first few meetings to allow for questions, reminders, and potential challenges.

While essential, receptivity and good preparation aren’t enough to ensure universal acceptance of new software among board members. As we heard (and said) repeatedly at our users’ conference, board culture is a critical factor in promoting not only the use of board management software, but also board engagement and ultimate effectiveness.

According to one of our featured speakers, Mary Graham Davis, President, Davis Consulting Group LLC, culture is defined as the operating norms of a group. They represent the board’s customary rules of engagement and, in a performance driven environment, include:

  • information sharing
  • adherence to fiduciary duties around a sustainable mission
  • strategic discussions about the future
  • generative talk (in terms of solving problems and exploring opportunities)
  • engaged dialogue and decision-making

Similarly, the challenges of a “bad culture” are easy to identify:

  • board members who are: disruptive, aggressive, inattentive, passive, uninformed, unprepared, or ”stuck”
  • a board that is hierarchical or disrespectful of staff
  • the presence of cliques organized by wealth/occupation/tenure /etc.
  • a board glued to the past
  • a board chair and chief executive mired in conflict

As Mary Graham Davis explained, the board chair plays an essential role in shaping board culture, in part by leading the board toward productive behavior. The board liaison – often in the chief executive’s office and a system administrator of the board platform – also plays an influential role as the culture “nudge.” The power of this position is its indispensable role in facilitating and informing communications between the chief executive and the board chair, as well as populating, organizing, and shaping content that reaches the board.

So, back to the original question about getting board members to use their board management platforms. It’s a process that requires time, expectation management, training, and a productive board culture. No product can introduce good governance practices to an organization that lacks them, but effective software certainly can make a good board better.

Sonia J. Stamm

Sonia J. Stamm is Founder and Principal of Stamm Consultancy Inc., a boutique consulting firm established in 2008 to guide nonprofits through critical junctures in their development. With over 25 years of experience in organizational development, Sonia partners with nonprofit boards and executive leadership to facilitate best practices in board development and governance, strategic planning, leadership transition and succession, and organizational effectiveness. Since almost its inception, she has been affiliated with BoardEffect to share perspective on how boards can best implement board management software in the effort to advance their organizations’ mission.

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