06 November 2017 by Simon Osborne
The company secretary will always have a place among future technologies
The Labour party’s shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey reportedly told attendees at September’s Labour party conference that a new industrial revolution over the next 20 years could see half of all jobs lost to automation, with many businesses not ready to cope with change.
Her claim that companies are not ready for the rise of machines got me thinking about the impact automation might have on the company secretarial role and what advice we should be giving to the board to ensure that they are ready for the Blade Runner era.
Developments in technology have redefined aspects of the role in a marked way, with meeting administration, entity management and statutory filings all moving online.
Many previously onerous and paper-heavy tasks, like the maintenance of statutory registers and filing annual returns, can now all be done electronically and by more junior staff, freeing senior company secretaries for more strategic work.
Software habitually outperforms humans in terms of processing information at speed or harmonising it across different locations. Global entity management and corporate governance software products are now commonplace, offering company-wide systems for all of an organisation’s governance needs.
In addition, software has streamlined the meeting process, removing the need for board papers to be physically collated, checked, sent out and archived.
Meetings can now be managed securely online, with the latest papers available at the touch of a button to all board members, wherever they might be.
The rapid strides being made in artificial intelligence (AI) mean that we are indeed on the edge of a new age of automation, with machines now able to undertake tasks previously thought to call for human judgment and experience.
Take the deep-learning system created by Oxford University researchers and Google’s DeepMind division that can read lips more accurately than human lip readers as one example.
Robotics and AI can strike fear into hearts averse to sci-fi, but AI is already being used to help businesses understand their customers better or improve operations. Grocery firm Kraft used an AI big data platform to increase its understanding of consumer preferences before reinventing its Philadelphia Cream Cheese brand.
Likewise, AI can be used to suggest the best language for triggering a response to an email campaign, and advanced facial analysis can be used to monitor emotional responses to advertisements and other media.
“AI is already being used to help businesses understand their customers better or improve operations”
According to Michael Chui, Katy George and Mehdi Miremadi, joint authors of the July 2017 McKinsey Quarterly article ‘A CEO action plan for workplace automation’, it is increasingly common for software robots to receive a user ID and perform rules-based tasks, such as accessing email, performing calculations, creating documents and reports, and checking files.
Results include built-in documentation of transactions for audit, compliance and root-cause analyses.
Intelligent verification software might mean that the size of company secretarial teams reduces as the more administrative work becomes automated, but there will always be a need for the human touch: from the person who decides and organises which board papers need to be uploaded, to the person who can listen to a non-executive director’s concerns and smooths out issues with the executives.
Machines lack common sense and cannot always pick up on social and emotional cues, something that is at the core of the company secretarial role.
Emotional intelligence (EQ) is one area where humans still pip machines to the post and, fortunately for the profession, EQ is, and is likely to remain, one of the prerequisites for performing the role well.
Commercial and ethical decisions still rest with humans rather than computers, as does the management of relationships and boardroom dynamics, and the advisory and problem-solving role that the company secretary enjoys in the boardroom is unlikely to be entrusted to a robot just yet.
If increased automation is to be the way forward, businesses will need to look beyond their current processes and start thinking about how automation can help them or their rivals.
Neither aspect can be ignored. Automation can be used to manage people more effectively, as the rapid expansion of Uber has proved. However, it will almost certainly bring with it more cyber security challenges and the transition to a data-driven world will raise human rights issues as well.
Developments in technology and their impact on businesses and their clients, as well as the regulation and risks, the uses and abuses of big data and the competitive advantage it can bring, are all areas where company secretaries will be able to provide value.
If businesses need to understand what they might achieve with automation within the next 20 years, it is up to company secretaries to ensure it makes it onto the board’s agenda.