Unless you’re on a board of directors or in a C-suite, you probably never thought about it, but the communication and collaboration needs of individuals in that rarefied air are different from those of the folks in the trenches. Similarly, you likely never thought about there being a company that caters to that clientele, for that purpose. That’s where Joe Ruck comes in.
Ruck is CEO of Boardvantage, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based provider of a communication platform for boards and leadership teams. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ruck, and I opened the conversation by asking him a chicken-or-the-egg question: Was Boardvantage created to provide something that boards and C-level executives were clamoring for, or was it an idea for something they felt they could convince boards and C-level executives that they needed? He said the origin of the company was probably the latter, but it has now evolved into the former:
What I mean by that is originally, the idea was rooted in the days of Sarbanes-Oxley and the governance that was required. Clearly during the days of Enron, this was first and foremost in people’s minds, so it just made a great deal of sense. The chicken-or-egg analogy is perfectly apt, because you never quite know whether it’s the customer who comes up with the idea, or a founder who has the insight, or a combination, when two people get together over coffee. So it was one of these blurry things. But right away, a handful of customers showed up. The real traction really didn’t start until the iPad came out, because that allowed technology into the boardroom, which really wasn’t welcome prior to that device being introduced. As much as corporate America had always welcomed laptops with open arms starting in the early 90s, the boardroom had really stuck with paper processes. When the iPad came out, that all of a sudden changed overnight. Up to 2010, 2011, the business really had been moving at a slow-motion pace, but then it took off like a rocket because there was a lot of pent-up demand. Within a span of six or eight quarters, we went from a few hundred to 1,000-1,500 customers, and up from there.
Ruck went on to explain the differences between the communication and collaboration needs of boards and C-level executives, and those of any other group in an organization, with a more robust level of security being the obvious one:
Security is an absolute must-have, and when you look particularly at our customer base, which is so heavily populated by Fortune 500 customers, it’s an essential requirement. Most software that’s on the market today doesn’t meet the criteria these customers have for security. On the one hand, you have the layperson’s idea of security, which is keeping intruders out, and that is essential. But there’s a flip side to that coin, which is keeping the information in—that is, preventing leaks. That, particularly when you think about the world of boards, where discoverability is a huge concern, that’s sometimes even more important. You’d be surprised how many boards are as fearful of their own IT staffs as they are of outsiders.
Ruck said there’s something else that’s more subtle, but perhaps even more important, which has to do with the way high-level executives and boards work, and how that’s different from the way the rank and file work:
When you think of [standard] collaboration, perhaps in the context of a spreadsheet or a PowerPoint presentation, there tends to be a free-form quality to that file-sharing, in which the file is edited [by the various participants]. That free-form quality does not exist at all at the C-level or on the board. There, everything is highly structured, to the point where whatever collaboration may take place doesn’t take place in the form of editing the native copy—it’s really done through a layer of annotations that goes on top. That’s just an illustration of how sacrosanct the underlying native copy is considered. When you take that a little further, what you also find is that the fundamental form or purpose of collaboration, when it’s the rank-and-file workers, it’s about peers working toward some kind of joint result. But that’s not the case with boards and C-level executives. There, it really is all about decision-making. So we really focus on a set of processes that falls in line with that model, and makes the communication between these executives more productive. It’s a distinction between general-purpose, and purpose-built.
As for where the general-purpose and purpose-built products will ultimately meet, Ruck said that’s a line his company is forever probing:
We’re starting to get more and more interest from deeper layers in the organization, particularly when it comes to secure distribution of documents for internal use. There is so much concern, and legitimately so, about information being sent around in email that ultimately finds its way into the wrong hands. People are now looking at ways to secure it, so that can’t happen. So even though we never really planned for it, and we never really thought it was an opportunity for us, that’s something that’s now starting to come to the fore. Once people start getting a taste of what we do, we’re finding there’s some real interest in expanding beyond the principal use case to some other use cases, as well. So the question of where these very dominant general-purpose tools, and the more specialized purpose-built tools, will meet is one that will start to play out over the next couple of years.
Finally, I asked Ruck if he could have one do-over as CEO of Boardvantage, what it would be. His response:
We actually spent quite a bit of time about three years ago porting to the Android and Surface, and we were well ahead of our time, and that was an unproductive use of our time. Now, we’re redoing the whole thing, and we’re doing everything in HTML 5 so that it carries from platform to platform. That was an expensive exercise, and because the demand just wasn’t there, we didn’t really get a lot out of it. That’s something I regret. I wish we’d had better foresight during those days.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.