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The future co sec: upskilling, automation or coexistence?

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” (Lao Tzu) 

Change is as certain as the waxing and waning of the moon. Just as the role of the company secretary has expanded from “pure” administration to a wider responsibility for governance, so the role of those tasked with implementing good governance will see further change as the role of governance itself changes and progresses. 

As part of that process of change, the onset of the 4th Industrial Revolution has seen new technologies appear that have changed how certain tasks are performed. There is suddenly a very real possibility that many of the tasks that company secretaries currently undertake will evolve or even become obsolete as new technologies are invented and new ways of doing business are discovered. 

New technologies have appeared in the workplace that seemed impossible just a short time ago. Once the mere thought of robotics, machine learning or artificial intelligence seemed to be the stuff of science fiction. Yet those very technologies are now changing the way that we do business and, as a consequence, changing our working lives. 

Artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning are just some of the many technological developments that are being viewed as transformative and worrying in almost equal measure. And yet, while there is no doubt that machines and algorithms can analyse and interpret data faster and more accurately than any human ever could, those very human traits of emotional intelligence and judgement still have a key role to play in many parts of our lives. A language translation app that operates with 99% accuracy will probably have a  transformative impact, for example, but a self-driving car with the same 99% degree of accuracy promises – threatens – to be massively risky, even catastrophic. 

In the words of Bill Gates, The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency. Translate that into a company secretarial context and its clear it will be incumbent upon company secretaries to ensure that they understand enough about the technology on offer to understand if it is bringing benefit or inefficiency. Furthermore, as David Venus, author of ICSA International’s thought leadership paper, Futureproofing: Technological innovation, the company secretary and implications for corporate governance, points out: “Technological innovation gives rise to new challenges of corporate governance which we need to consider as a profession, giving rise to issues of transparency, fairness and ethics. Our boards and our colleagues will require our advice and guidance.”

The question of how automation might affect the world of governance is also something that we explored in this year’s Tom Morrison Essay Prize. Entrants were asked to write on the topic, “In an increasingly automated world, robotics, AI and other technological advancements are expected to have an impact on governance. Consider the opportunities, challenges, benefits and risks that such technologies might bring to the role of the company secretary.”

 This year’s winner, Leonora Rae, and runner up Harry Matthews, will be taking part in a panel discussion moderated by Theodore Spyrou, Associate Director at Ashridge Associates about what the future might hold in terms of automation and the challenges and opportunities that it might bring. Leonora and Harry will be joined on the panel by Viviane Joynes, Managing Director at EQS, and George Zarkadakis, GB Leader Future of Work.

Join Theodore, Leonora, Harry, Viviane and George at 14.50 on 10 July to find out what the future might hold and the competencies governance professionals will need to thrive in the world of automation.


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