Corporate Governance from a Technology perspective

Helen Robinson, Chair at The Network for Learning, talks to Henri Eliot

Helen has led many technology companies over the past 25 years including Microsoft New Zealand.  Helen is the Chair, The Network for Learning Ltd (N4L) and an independent director for a number of organisations including NZ Business Excellence Foundation and Sir Ray Avery’s Mondiale Technologies.  She shares her New Zealand and Global technology perspective on corporate governance.

What is the role of a board from your perspective?

Fundamentally the board has ultimate responsibility for the health, sustainability, and the future direction and performance of its organisation. Practically and firstly to ensure the right and appropriate management is in place, empowered and held accountable to lead the organisation; and to agree and evolve the strategy according to shareholder requirements. The board must balance risks, ensure compliance, but ensure progress and growth (innovative and entrepreneurial) with the right culture of integrity and transparency.

Looking forward 5 years, how do you think the board dynamic will change?

There is increasing awareness of the criticality of the board’s role both within governance in NZ and in the eye of the public. As experiences unfold it is apparent that the “buck stops somewhere” and that somewhere is at the board. My observation and experience is that every board (certainly that I’m involved in) is very serious about their responsibilities, this means dedicated and focused time in preparation and attention; it means constructive, robust debate, and complete commitment to the company’s success. This will only increase in coming years as diversity in thought and acceptance of continuous learning evolves.

It is critical though that we continue to encourage entrepreneurship in all areas of business whilst managing risks. There is an increased focus (rightly) on health and safety (fundamentally nothing is more important than the safety of our people). Boards must ensure that the needle doesn’t swing too far and stymie organisational improvement and growth.

How will the next generation of board members differ and operate?

Without a doubt technology will continue to play a major role in the next generation of board members driving a change of behaviour and work – inwardly facing into the organisation this will mean more innovation at the board table. On-line, mobility, flexibility of workplaces and meetings will be more dynamic and technologically based.

More importantly will be the impacts of the “outwardly facing” – that is where and how technology impacts the company, its products and services, its customers and their means to “buy”. There is a continued and increasing trend towards “blended services” – where does the technology and the company’s products start and stop? This will require future board members to not just be savvy strategically but to be technologically confident and knowledgeable. Social media is driving change to “social cultures” – on-line, all the time (24 hours), real-time are increasing the norm. Given pace of technological change boards must be aware of different company-success-dependent factors, for example in funding different use of markets and market mechanisms (e.g. crowd sourcing), and provide an appropriate, adaptable platform.

How are we preparing the next generation board member for the future?

It is encouraging that there is market awareness for the need for great company directors. Organisations such as Institute of Directors are introducing new programmes to mentor and encourage new directors. However at an organisational level it would be useful to include Director Induction in people development programmes. Companies have the responsibility to continually develop their people. Some organisations do this very well with a proper process, they care about their people’s on-going growth and performance. This remains an opportunity for improvement, and included in this people development focus should also be their next steps, and director development. Additionally the encouragement of senior executive to take on a board directorship helps increase diversity in market and provide opportunities for potential new board members.

What gives you the most sense of achievement on a board?

Nothing is more humbling than being part of a great organisation which is successful. As Sir Ray Avery promotes the “Power of Us”, in an effective and successful board is the right combination of skills and thinking.  Using this diversity to robustly debate and feedback generates the best decisions and outcomes for the organisation.

At a personal level being the one who always seems to ask the dumb questions, it’s incredibly self-satisfying when a topic or suggestion truly drives change, or “saves” the company from potential disastrous impacts. Every day on a board results in new learnings.

Final Word or comment on corporate governance in New Zealand?

It is interesting that boards are not especially known (until something disastrous occurs). Equally my perception is that boards are not particularly appreciated or remunerated for the responsibility undertaken. Probably a little like some other careers (eg. nursing, teaching, police) being a director in NZ is not about the money, it’s about making a difference.

It is heartening to see younger, diverse people being appointed to boards in NZ. This will help increase openness and transparency to the process and to keep pace with technological changes.

Sunday Star Times Henri Eliot interviews Helen Robinson June 23 2013

Henri Eliot is chief executive of Board Dynamics, a consultancy company which provides strategic advice to directors and boards throughout New Zealand and Australia.