Technological development has always had a huge influence on the world of work. People like me who began our careers in the 1980s have seen the way that we work – as individuals and as organisations – change beyond all recognition.
The pace of change has accelerated significantly during that period. With advances in AI and the like, that is going to continue to be the case.
What will that mean for company secretaries? Is it a threat or an opportunity, or both at the same time?
Technology – a Threat or an Opportunity for Company Secretaries?
Last year, ICSA: The Governance Institute – the professional body for company secretaries – published a research report called ‘Next Generation Governance’. The research summarised the views of younger professionals (those aged 35 and under) on some of the issues likely to impact the profession and their organisations in the future.
Overall they were fairly positive about the impact of technology. Only five per cent of those surveyed were concerned that their job might disappear as a result of technological change.
Perhaps they are being a little optimistic. But it is probably a reflection of their workload and the nature of the job.
In many organisations, the company secretary’s role has expanded and their workload increased. Recent research by Grant Thornton found that 80% of company secretaries said their role had increased since they started in the job.
In part this has been driven by an increase in regulatory compliance. This is something that company secretaries in all sectors and in organisations of all sizes complain about, the only difference being how vehemently they do so.
Tasks like maintaining insider lists can be done more quickly, and more accurately, using technology than they can be manually.
Company Secretaries Reduce the Time Needed for Administrative Tasks by Adopting Technology
It is also one of the main reasons why they welcome technological change. Over 60% of the younger professionals who took part in the ICSA research believe it will reduce the time they spend on administrative tasks, including a lot of compliance activity. Tasks like maintaining insider lists can be done more quickly, and more accurately, using technology than they can be manually.
By adopting technology to reduce the time needed for administrative tasks, secretariats can in theory at least devote more time to their other, equally important, responsibilities. Many of these can be bracketed under the heading of board support, although that does not do justice either to the range of responsibilities or the amount of skill and expertise needed to carry them out effectively.
One of the most important functions of the company secretary is to be a trusted advisor to the board. In some respects, this role is relatively immune to technological change. It requires attributes like judgement, empathy and a sense of propriety that cannot easily be delegated to an algorithm.
In fact, technology potentially has a major impact here as well. It may not remove or replace this part of the company secretary’s role, but it certainly affects the way it is carried out.
Only five per cent of those surveyed by the ICSA were concerned that their job might disappear as a result of technological change.
Collecting and Analyzing Data Is Gaining Importance
For example, one important issue is the availability and use of data. Technology enables organisations to generate and capture an enormous amount of information – about their performance, their operations, their employees and customers and much more. But once you have all that data, what do you do with it?
Having too much information is better than having too little, but it brings its own challenges. There is a greater danger of being weighed down or distracted by data that is irrelevant or immaterial, which can get in the way of good decision-making. Ensuring data security, and the ethical use of the information you hold, also becomes even more important than it is already.
These challenges are not impossible to deal with by any means, but they will create work for the company secretaries. A significant number of respondents to the ICSA survey said they expected to spend more time either analysing data or on ethical oversight of technology.
In some cases technology itself can help to overcome the obstacles it creates – for analysing data or ensuring controls and protocols are followed. But, as in all aspects of the company secretary’s role, the exercise of judgement will be crucial.
Technological change may allow company secretaries to spend less time processing, but it will also require them to spend more time thinking.