The future company secretary: upskilling, automation or coexistence?

‘What lies ahead for the future company secretary?’ This is the question on everyone’s lips. The nature of work continues to change, with such things as distance working and automation increasingly commonplace. With machines now performing complex tasks with greater speed and accuracy than humans can, will we see the role transform into an AI befriending, programme-setting position? Or can automation be leveraged to enhance the role and allow for soft skills to be brought to the fore?

Dividing the company secretarial role into two, looking at the administrative and regulatory procedures on the one hand, and the intangible elements such as being the trusted adviser to the board on the other, helps to establish where AI and automated devices might fit into the equation. We should, however, remain realistic in this debate and not jump to conclusions about technological takeovers or threats to employment. The role is varied and there are still aspects that can only, and will only, be achieved by the company secretary.

Consider minute taking. To the onlooker, it is a fairly robotic task which involves listening to a conversation and typing notes. In fact, though, there is much more to it than that. It requires a great deal of human judgement and sophistication of thought, and consideration of the broader context of the meeting, the discussion, and the outcome. It is not simply an act of recording a conversation verbatim. Apps that have attempted to assume this function have typically failed - not only because the transcripts are incorrect, but because the device is unable to capture the actions or outcomes often gauged by the human eye (as opposed to spelled out). This is where the company secretary is still very much needed, and where their value-add in a meeting goes far beyond the completion of an administrative task. 

Certainly, not all technological advancements are unimpressive, or serve to hinder the role. There are some tasks, such as the compilation and distribution of board papers, which are already being digitised, saving the company secretary valuable time and creating a more practical and secure solution for the board. This is where we are starting to see a coexistence emerge.

Some technological advancements have already brought a wealth of opportunities. Automating mundane, time-consuming tasks, and bringing technology into the boardroom as a provider of reports and data, should enable the company secretary to be a better partner to their board. It should also allow for upskilling and an opportunity to focus on the intangible elements which, we should all hope, a computer is far off from threatening. 

Leonora Rae, who is speaking at this year’s ICSA Annual Conference, will be part of a panel discussion on 10 July about the challenges and opportunities that automation will bring, and the competencies that governance professionals will need to thrive in the future.

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