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Office 365 is a powerful solution to meet many business needs, so I’d like to show you how we have used it for a purpose familiar to every organisation. That is to schedule and organise various board, committee and panel meetings on a regular basis as part of their executive leadership responsibilities.
Meetings are often scheduled by the chair of the meeting or by a nominated organiser. Typically this involves the preparation of agendas, minutes and a bunch of supporting documents (all of which should be distributed to and read by members or attendees beforehand).
In many cases it’s also highly desirable that members or attendees annotate and/or make their own notes on points within the agenda and mark-up any supporting documents as required in order to be better prepared for a meeting.
What are the issues?
Traditionally the process of organising meetings requires the chair or meeting organiser to prepare large volumes of information in advance and then disseminate that information, typically by printing it out and sending it as a wad of paper documents or by distribution via email as a set of attachments.
One of the biggest issues with this approach is the difficulty of updating all the copies of any previously-distributed documents and trying to ensure that all the relevant members or attendees are kept informed of changes (to either agendas, documents or meeting details).
What about Microsoft tools?
Microsoft provides a range of tools to assist with the scheduling and planning of meetings. Microsoft Outlook and SharePoint are the most obvious applications, however even with these offerings there can still be a large amount of duplication of effort and content, plus a lack of coherence and guidance.
Additionally, organisations are also looking for more sophisticated capabilities including:
• Being able to maintain all the meeting information in a single place
• Providing a map location as well as meeting details
• Inviting external users (e.g. non-members)
• Indicating who is presenting each agenda item
• Sharing individual agenda items with specific external invitees
• Applying governance and GDPR compliance policies to meeting content
• Archiving meeting content for easy retrieval later
• Removing the need to learn many different applications just to attend a meeting
• Providing access to meetings from anywhere using any device
What about board meetings software?
Several companies have responded to these requirements by providing a range of ‘off the shelf’ software packages and applications dedicated to Board Meetings.
There are several key manufacturers and packages available. Most offerings generally provide a range of distinctive features, capabilities and pricing plans. However in many cases, the core requirements for meetings are the same and, whilst many of these offerings provide very powerful and intuitive features, it can be difficult to justify the associated licensing and ongoing support costs.
Additionally, many offerings require customers to sign-up for multi-year subscription contracts and support. As a result the original investment can become harder to justify over time, particularly where there are many unused features or where the offering fails to meet regulatory or compliance requirements (such as GDPR).
Is there a better way?
One customer I am working with invested in an off-the-shelf package and was using the application relatively successfully for a couple of years. However, the same customer has embarked on a large-scale business transformation programme with the strategic adoption of Office 365 as their information management and governance platform. Additionally they acquired another company with similar meeting requirements, making licencing costs somewhat prohibitive.
I was tasked with looking at how the customer’s investment in Office 365 could be leveraged to provide an alternative to their off-the-shelf package. And importantly, whether the key requirements for board, committee and panel meetings could be met using mainly out of the box Office 365 functionality.
The Silversand’s Office 365 “Board Portal” solution
Our solution is primarily based on using Office 365 Groups and SharePoint Online. This is augmented with Azure Automation to provide a complete end-to-end provisioning solution, known as “Board Portal”.
The solution uses a combination of Office 365 features and capabilities including:
• Office 365 Groups
• Microsoft Flow
• SharePoint Online Communication Sites and Team Sites
• Hub Sites
• Site Pages
• Document Libraries & Lists
The solution is based around a central ‘hub’ site providing an aggregated dashboard. Each board, committee and panel having their own meetings ‘site’ in which all meetings for that board, committee or panel are provisioned and managed. This hub provides an intuitive way for members to navigate to any relevant meeting sites and displays upcoming meetings. Whilst meeting organisers can easily upload and manage their meetings as required:
Meeting organisers simply create a new meeting invite (event) in a meetings site Office 365 Group calendar. They use the familiar Microsoft Outlook Online interface, adding the name of the meeting, selecting the time and adding the location. When the calendar event is saved, a meeting page is created in the corresponding Meetings Site (SharePoint Online Team Site) and all members are notified in their own calendars of a new meeting.
An email is also sent to the meeting organiser advising that the meeting page has been provisioned, along with a link to the meeting page, enabling the meeting organiser to update the calendar invitation (event) accordingly with any further details.
The meeting page provides a full range of features and capabilities for meeting organisers to prepare and update the meeting agenda and documents including the following:
• Add/Update meeting details
• Change meeting location (using Bing maps)
• Create a meeting agenda
• Add/update meeting agenda items
• Share agenda items and/or agenda documents securely with external (guest) attendees
• Add/update meeting related documents
• Link meeting documents to meeting agenda items
• Add an optional meeting voting form
• Apply specific governance policies to agenda items and/or agenda documents post-meeting
Members can browse to any meeting page using either desktop, mobile or tablet devices and can view the agenda and individual items. Prior to meetings they can view or download documents, copy documents to their OneDrive for Business library. Here they can annotate or add notes as necessary using native OneDrive for Business annotation tools.
During the meeting, members can elect to make copies of agenda documents and save them in their OneDrive for Business libraries and discuss agenda points as necessary.
If the meeting organiser has set up an optional voting form (using Microsoft Forms), this will be displayed on the meeting page. Members can complete the voting form using the simple web interface as necessary.
All votes/responses can be collated anonymously by the meeting organiser and reviewed post-meeting.
Governance and archiving of meetings
All meetings are subject to a set of governance policies (defined centrally within the Office 365 Security and Compliance Portal) that apply appropriate retention and deletion policies to agenda items and agenda documents.
Additionally, meeting organisers can elect to apply more granular policies with this solution. Using a set of predefined labels for sensitive or vital information that may need to be kept for longer or even deleted sooner than the global meeting sites policies dictate, this provides a complete set of compliance options.
All past meetings can also be viewed on a separate page in each meetings site. If required entire meetings (including their agenda items and agenda documents) can be archived longer term as records using native SharePoint Online and Office 365 capabilities.
Costs and support
The solution has no additional licensing or support cost overhead as the organisation is already licensed for their Office 365 subscription and receives support for the entire platform through a Silversands Support Contract.
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