Board level decision-making with SharePoint

Every organisation has decisions to make at many levels. At the highest level, daily decisions are made with great and lasting effects. Seen the high impact of these decisions, the strategy and context need to be kept in mind during the whole decision process. In order to make these, often tough, decisions, a lot of knowledge and experience is required, to move towards the right path. Managing this decision process is not so straightforward. In this blogpost, we’ll have a look at different ways organisations can tackle this process and leverage SharePoint with usability as the foremost criterion.

1. Let's grab some paper

This blogpost will discuss a customer case where we implemented a solution in SharePoint to support the board level decision-making. Every decision to be taken needs to be filed with the board’s administrative staff through a dedicated mailbox. The board’s administrative staff is responsible for the correct administration of each decision. Employees from the different organisational units can send requests for decision forms (Word template) to that mailbox, including all necessary attachments that are relevant for the decision to be taken.

Before, almost everything was done on paper. Once the request for decision was received in the mailbox, both the “request for decision” form as well as the attachments were printed and put in a physical folder, that looked great, believe it or not. All files were also saved to a secured shared network drive. Next, some more preparatory work was performed like assigning a number to it and correcting errors on the decision request form. This was done using an Access database which auto-incremented decision number and contained more metadata but was never exposed to the original requester. When this was taken care of, the decision was put on the agenda for the board meeting. Through a tailored external application, board members could review all content digitally, which were just copies of the preparatory material. This had to be copied manually by the board’s administrative staff. Next, the board meeting occurred where discussion could take place regarding several decisions to be taken, whereby each director argumented the decisions submitted by their staff. Once the decision was approved, both the decision request form and all attachments needed to be wet-ink signed. This could take a while, as each decision needed to be signed by the CEO and his secretary, both often on the road. Finally, the signed decision and attachments were scanned for safekeeping on the shared network drive, and the wet-ink files were delivered on paper to the requesting employee.

Any questions from employees needed to be handled by the board’s administrative staff. “How far is that decision going that I sent you last week?” “Do you remember that decision from 2 years ago about that thing that happened to that guy? Do you remember the decision’s outcome?” Of course, they don’t remember anything from 2 years ago, but all of this clerical work was part of the job.

You can imagine many improvements to this process. So, let’s start innovating!

2. Digital processing & publication

Enter SharePoint. We’ve set up a document set for every decision to be taken. This document set contains all metadata from the Access database, making that database obsolete and making the metadata right next to its context. Let’s show an example of the list of draft decisions (in Dutch):

The typical metadata you would expect is available here: a unique number, a description, which business process it belongs to, date of submission, agenda and approval, the requesting business unit, involved employees and director and a security classification. All of these fields are filterable, so it is much easier to help yourself and find the decision you are looking for without having to harass the board’s administrative staff.

2.1. Changes to the process

As this is just the first step towards information excellence, the requests for a decision still arrive in the mailbox. But from that point forward, all files are stored in the SharePoint document set, eliminating the need for the shared network drive. Preparation (adding metadata, correcting errors) also immediately occurs within SharePoint. The forms are still printed, as a wet-ink signature remains required for now. Once approved and signed, the board’s administrative staff can release the decision document set for publication. It is centrally located on SharePoint and easy to find but is kept read-only for all employees for the record keeping purposes. The original paper is no longer handed to the requester but is kept on record. The requester gets an email informing him/her about the released decision. The requester no longer gets the paper documents unless legally required for contracts. The paper documents are sent to the physical archive directly.

To facilitate administration for the board’s administrative staff, the SharePoint document set has been extended lightly to include buttons for tracking the process as shown below:

Four actions are available in this status (from left to right):

  • Release decision: sets security permissions and sends out emails (just in SharePoint CSOM, no workflow used here);
  • Postpone decision: move the decision to an upcoming board meeting. This only sends out an email so that all parties are informed;
  • Decline decision: rejects the decision and informs all stakeholders;
  • View history: shows all communication that happened for this decision (exact email messages), an example is shown below.

2.2. Security

Ensuring all of this is secure, is also important within this context. Decisions that haven’t been taken yet should not linger around the organisation. Every document set that is added, is immediately secured to guarantee this. There’s a SharePoint Designer workflow for that, which stops inheriting permissions and removes all groups that shouldn’t access it yet. Once the decision has been made and the wet-ink signature has been scanned and added to the document set, the decision document set can be “released” to all employees. At that time, security is either restored to allow Read access by everyone, or to open up the document set to a limited group, based on the Classification metadata field of the decision document set.

3. The future is bright

The process described so far is in place at the customer and had great reception by all layers of the organisation, both directors and employees, but mainly by the board’s administrative staff themselves. “It’s fun to work with and it makes our lives easier.” Believe me when I say I never designed it to be fun, that was not in the requirements document.

What will make it fun, is to be able to improve this process even further and eliminate any paper flow in the future. Read on in the sections below!

3.1. Digital signatures

Much of the hassle in the current process is having to print out documents, getting them wet-ink signed and scanning them for record keeping purposes. The only reason there is any paper involved is to be able to sign it on paper. Introducing digital signatures will improve this process in several aspects:

  • It will improve efficiency because printing, scanning and getting people to sign takes time;
  • It will improve traceability as digital signatures are safer than someone scribbling on a piece of paper;
  • It will improve portability as it doesn’t matter where the CEO is at the time of signing.

3.2. Introducing

Working with emails can be messy in a SharePoint context. You simply can’t drag and drop emails and attachments from a mailbox to SharePoint. Thanks to Microsoft’s great partner ecosystem, there’s a solution available for that. has created an Outlook add-in that allows you to drag emails to and from SharePoint. adds a sidebar that shows the SharePoint sites that you’ve added and allows you to navigate the site and library structure. If the library where you drop the file requires metadata to be filled in, it will prompt for it. Here’s an example:

Note how I’m dragging the attachment to a SharePoint document set. is so friendly to show me the document set metadata (only 2 extra columns shown) so that I can easily find the decision this document belongs to. I can even create a new document inside to avoid having to go to SharePoint for the initial creation. will kindly ask you to provide required metadata:

In a broader sense, it also tries to make sure that emails you send out contain links rather than attachments, which we can only encourage!

3.3. Self-service

Currently, there’s still a lot of work involved with the email management. The mailbox still needs to be monitored manually and emails still need to be dragged and dropped to SharePoint. If employees could create the document sets themselves, they could upload all files directly to the document set. Once they are ready, they can click the “Go!” button and send it to the board’s administrative staff to start processing, validating and putting it on the agenda for the board. This would eliminate the use of the mailbox, get employees even more involved and showing them the benefits of SharePoint and document sets.

3.4. Discussion

This is probably the most controversial of possible changes. What if the directors didn’t even have to discuss in-person? What if they could annotate the documents, and run through them in a Skype for Business conference only when requested by one of the directors? Now that would really change how and when people work. It does inflict time zone issues for traveling directors for the Skype meeting, but would greatly improve the experience for self-paced annotating and discussing.

4. Summary

To summarise what we’ve seen in this blogpost, I’ve carved the following schema:

Interested in automating your own decision-making processes? Get in touch!

Sebastiaan Mindreau