Remote enterprise meetings have been around for a while now, but the business world still went abuzz when Hewlett Packard (HP) announced on Feb. 4 that its annual shareholder meeting (held on March 18) would be a purely online event. HP is the largest company so far to host a virtual annual shareholder meeting, so people are rightfully wondering if this move will set a trend among other companies.
One would think this news would be met with excitement because of what it can mean for meeting technology, but the reaction in general to HP’s decision has been negative. There’s concern over HP’s supposed ulterior motive, which is to keep its CEO, Meg Whitman, far away from investors demanding transparency.
This leads to some pressing questions on the back of many people’s minds at the moment: If HP can get away with it, will other CEOs also use remote meetings to prevent possible confrontations with investors? Will remote meetings become a means to shirk responsibilities for business leaders? Shouldn’t technology open more avenues for communication, and not limit it?
If your organization is thinking of transitioning to an online annual shareholder meeting for reasons such as cost savings, streamlined processes, productivity, and efficiency, you may find this development rather discouraging. The last thing you want when you choose to hold an online annual shareholder meeting is for people to think your organization’s leaders will be hiding from investors. But before you dismiss remote meetings right away, consider the situation HP is in.
HP in the Hot Seat
Prior to its annual shareholder meeting, HP has already been in the center of issues that need to be addressed, such as its close ties to Israel, failed settlement deals with investors over the botched Autonomy Corp. acquisition, and separation into two companies named HP Inc. for personal computers and printers division and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) for corporate computing and IT services.
Given how vital these issues are, it’s only natural for investors to want an open forum where they could freely ask Whitman all the hard questions and scrutinize her answers under tremendous pressure. But that was taken away from them when HP limited the participants’ reach by asking them to submit questions online before the meeting.
And this is where the problem lies. It’s not the meeting technology per se that people find concerning, but the method with which it is implemented.
Better Execution Needed
HP spokesperson Sarah Pompei said that “This move will allow for increased stockholder attendance and participation as well as increased communications with our stockholders via pre-meeting forums, surveys, and other materials. At the same time, it will enable cost savings for both HP and our stockholders.” But had HP really wanted to achieve its objectives without any intention of shortchanging its investors, it could have held a face-to-face meeting for investors who could physically make it to the venue, and then hold a simultaneous webcast for those who were unable to do so. Questions could still be sent online before the meeting to give Whitman time to prepare her answers, but this shouldn’t remove the need for a face-to-face meeting, especially when investors were clamoring for it.
The timing for HP’s decision to go with an online meeting also wasn’t right. Meeting technology is designed to enhance and supplement face-to-face meetings, not replace them completely. There will always be instances when discussions are better made in person, and for HP, this annual shareholder meeting happened to be one of them.
Botched Deals, War Crimes, and Company Splits
Although HP finally won the settlement deal on March 15 after two failed tries last year, take note that this took place only three days from the day of the annual shareholder meeting, which means that HP had decided to go for an online annual shareholder meeting even with this issue still unresolved.
That’s just one issue. Accusations against HP for aiding Israeli war crimes are going strong, with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign by British British pro-Palestine campaigners having just called upon HP to terminate its “complicity” in the form of supplying “the technology behind Israel’s war crimes and apartheid against the Palestinians.” To date, the company has yet to address these allegations, which go against its public commitment to corporate social responsibility.
As for the split, it’s just the beginning and understandably, investors are feeling uncertain about where this is all heading. Although Whitman did say that “Separating HP into two companies is absolutely the right next step to build on our reputation as Silicon Valley’s founder,” she also acknowledged the fact that the separation would produce some changes particularly for its partners. The annual shareholder meeting would have been a good time for investors to discuss with Whitman what these anticipated changes could mean to operations, but they weren’t given the opportunity.
Learning from the HP Backlash
HP pushed through with the virtual annual shareholder meeting amidst the backlash. With such a big company paving the way in spite of the odds, you can expect others to follow suit. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing if this happens. Meeting technology is a tool, and organizations decide how to use it. For HP, the decision wasn’t a good one given the circumstances it’s in. It could be a coincidence, could be not, but whatever HP’s real intentions were for going online, investors had reason to feel that the company was putting limitations on their communication lines.
Other organizations could learn a thing or two from HP. The annual shareholder meeting happens only once a year, so this is the one chance investors have to communicate directly with the CEO about major matters. The use of meeting technology should not impinge on that right; if anything, it should support that right and give investors in remote locations the opportunity to interact with the CEO.
Meeting technology isn’t the bad guy here — it’s the execution that makes the difference. So for any kind of meeting, it’s important to listen to what participants want. With proper implementation of meeting technology, you can use digital solutions to cater to their needs and to make the online experience a productive one.