Friday, February 17, 2012

Digital Collaboration for Boards -- How to Use, Lose and Abuse The Internet

The Internet has crept into our lives since 1994, when Web Addresses -- Uniform Resource Locators -- were developed, and now, we all have at least one.

In the 1990s, the early days of Computer Literacy and product-centric Authorized Training Centers, learners sought out ways to learn and master the technology. (Master the mouse by playing Solitaire, was a common tip.)

Today, apparently, communication has been converted from in-person meetings to All Electronic Communication. The technology is full of advantages, disadvantages, pitfalls and black holes of abuse.

When we combine Internet URLs, how electronic tools are employed, and modern communication technologies, we can find our selves involved with Always-On-All-Electronic-Communication.

What does All Electronic Communication mean for board work?

NB Disclaimer: Please review this article and implement its recommendations at your own risk. There are legal pitfalls into which you do not want to fall. All digital communication is recoverable, searchable and can become evidence in a judicial proceeding involving the business of the board. If required by law, you must produce it.

What is the Basis for Digital Collaboration?

Board members each own different and separate hardware technologies for digital communication which can include the classic personal computer, of at least two different flavours, Apple© iPads© and its competitors, Apple© iPhones© and its competitors, and all other manner of digital devices. (When connected online, each device has its own URL.) 

Software technologies are even more prolific, given that each hardware device employs more than one software application -- 'app' -- one to operate the hardware and others to perform tasks that help people save time, money and possibly brain cycles.

There is no standard, and usually standards are required for collaboration. Why are there no standards? Because every vendor -- hardware or software -- sells 'exclusive features' that are inherently incompatible with their competitors' features. 

However, there are ways to narrow incompatibilities, as developers of Internet browsers -- an application that affords interactive access to the Internet -- will attest. There are only a few Internet browsers, such as Internet Explorer© , from Microsoft©, Chrome© from Google©, and Safari© from Apple©. Other browsers run on more personal devices, such as Opera Mini Web Browser© from Opera Software ASA©.

Graciously, most Web sites are built to appear the same way in the most popular browsers, regardless of the underlying digital tool a person has chosen to use to access the site.

How to Use Digital Collaboration

First, the board must agree that there will be times when digital collaboration -- even digital exchanges -- must take place. 

If all board members meet up regularly in person, digital exchanges and/or collaboration may not be required. If this is true in your community, you need read no further.

Best practices dictate that the board agree -- with every new board turnover -- on guidelines, frequency, and purpose for employing digital collaboration. Just because we all use e-mail, it doesn't mean automatically that board work can or should be accomplished therewith.

     Start with Basics
An e-mail account with a few guidelines can get you all started.
  • Set up an e-mail account to be used only for board work. Segregating board e-mail accounts from your personal account means that when your e-mails, text messages and other digital communication messages are subpoenaed, no one else will be able to review your personal news or job-related business.
  • Agree on a response window. Monitoring your board e-mail should take place perhaps daily or every 48 hours. Instantaneous responses are unreasonable for this level of collaboration.
  • Agree on what to discuss in digital communication. You probably don't want to leave a digital footprint about matters that belong in executive session, or personal details about anyone, these issues being better handled by telephone or in person.
  • Announce it to the membership in a board meeting. Owners need to understand how digital communication affects the business in which all owners are invested. It's fair that the above elements be included in the board motion that confirms the use of digital communication both among board members and within the community as a whole*.
* Verify with your association attorney that you have followed the appropriate steps to legally collaborate using digital technologies in your board work. This reliance may be on your corporate status, board resolutions to do so, and/or previous board motions.
  • Establish a separate community digital communication option. Best practices dictate that digital communication from all owners/ residents/ people involved in the community be standardized, so that the board pro-actively accommodates community-centric communication.
  • Without endorsement, is an interesting option. A private Facebook page leveraged off an owner's personal page with only approved visitors is another option. The key is approving visitors before they can access the community's site. 
  • Maintain professionalism. Limit board messages to the facts. You can leave the emotion, adjectives and opinions off the message, since they add no value.
  • Add a Useful Subject Line. This makes messages and threads easier to locate.
  • Use One Message for One Topic. When you have an 'oh, by the way' on another topic, create a separate e-mail string.
  • Write in complete sentences. Over time, complete sentences 'stand up' better to scrutiny, and can eliminate misunderstanding as to your intention. 
  • Implement an Undo Feature, review and edit messages, and think before you click Send. Corporate and professional standards dictate that your expression in digital communication may reflect on your judgement and ability to conduct business.
  • Include all board members in messages. Avoid starting a clique or subset of decision makers in your actions. As well, include all board members on messages sent to vendors or advisors, so that everyone can maintain currency with an issue. 
  • Send carbon copies. When including all board members or relevant vendors/ advisors, include their e-mail addresses in the CC box. Collaborative board members rarely act alone.
  • Hide e-mail addresses when appropriate. When sending e-mail to the entire community, you can include board members' e-mail addresses in the CC box, but include all members' e-mail addresses in the BCC box, so that personal e-mail addresses of members are not compromised by your making  them visible.
  • Add an automatic signature. You can include details such as [your name], [your role], [your association name], [other permanent details, including your phone number, association manager contact details, and so forth].

    Collaborating on Working Documents
When it comes time to generate board meeting minutes, budgets, presentations for board meetings and so forth, you can work together online using collaborative tools to produce these documents together. 

NB: There are several options, including Microsoft© Office© products, and Apache© Open Office that collaborators can use, and my personal preference is Google© Docs©. Why? Google Docs is free, intuitive and easy to use, even for novice collaborators, because the functions and commands are simple and straightforward. Plus, did I mention: Google Docs is free.

It's easiest when all board members have G-mail accounts when you want to work with Google Docs. An easy option is to include board member's initials followed by two words from the community's formal name. An example might be BHLNightmareAcres at gmail dot com.

  • Tips and Tricks -- one board member is the Owner of a publication, and the Owner can Share it with others. When choosing to Share documents, the Owner can establish Privileges for editing. (My capitalized words appear in the user interface on Google Docs.)
  • Real Time Collaborative Options -- board members can collaborate on a shared document at the same time, and all edits, revisions and comments are displayed for everyone.
  • Publishing Options -- once finalized, you can download the document, spreadsheet or presentation to a universally-accessible .PDF format, or to other more software-specific file formats.
  • Caveats -- this collaborative option is not as robust as some of the fee-based tools, so features you need may not be available. But for most purposes, this free tool is robust enough to document board work.
  • Test Runs -- collect for an hour at someone's unit with a protected Wi-Fi 'spot', and work with all board members to develop individual board-specific e-mail addresses and test collaboration on several types of documents while you're all in one place. (A public Wi-Fi hot spot is not recommended.) Verify that everyone can operate the digital board communication tasks at the same level.
NB: Some personal devices, i.e., non-computers may not display attachments or provide ways to work with attachments.

How to Lose Digital Collaboration

Best business practices dictate that whenever an official document is prepared by the board and becomes part of the permanent business record, a back-up copy be generated and kept in an off-site location. This may be the association's physical, hard-copy archive boxes, an electronic copy saved to a permanent electronic storage area that belongs to the association, and so forth. 

The association's management company may be able to assist in backing up digital files and documents.

NB: There are occasions when Google Docs becomes 'unavailable' for some reason, which can thwart any effort to meet a deadline when it happens. People who use digital tools must always be prepared with 'plan B' in the event of the loss of the tool.

Best practices dictate that people who employ the Internet in their work pay for the highest grade of anti-virus software that they can afford. Computer viruses can invade a computer or other digital tool, and capture passwords, hack accounts, documents and so forth.

Protect your computer and digital tools, so that your board work is not compromised by hackers.

How to Abuse Digital Collaboration

One sure way to abuse digital collaboration in your board work is to leave an emotional footprint on any topic. Of course, you can express your opinion, but doing to emotionally, with emotionally charged words may compromise you, your reputation and dilute your ability to lead so that others will follow or trust in your work product.

Another abuse is to use your board e-mail address for other work, including personal work, professional work and so forth. Use your board work digital tools only for board work.

Treat all owners equally in your digital work: don't leave an owner off an e-mail meant for all owners or withhold details/ data from an owner when you communicate electronically. 

Maintain transparency in your digital work: verbalize research results and collaborative dialog in person at board meetings, so that there are no 'secrets' or potential for accusations about 'secret meetings' based on your digital collaboration.