Throughout this series, several pieces of the technology puzzle have been examined individually, focusing on specific solutions to specific problems. Integrating solutions has been a thread throughout these posts. Regardless of the specific issue being addressed with technology, a solution’s ability to integrate with processes and with other systems is critical.
This post is about putting the pieces together. Below are the pieces covered so far:
- Hardware – a guide to purchasing and evaluating equipment
- Email – a guide to establishing, protecting and archiving email
- CRM – a guide to storing data and building a scalable business
- Document Storage – a guide to storing documents and compliance considerations
- Cybersecurity – a guide to protecting data
Obviously, there are other technology tools involved in running a business.
Keeping an inventory of technology assets is a great way to understand the number of systems in use as well as their interactions. With a list in place, the breadth of systems supporting the business becomes apparent. Overlap with multiple systems having similar features may emerge. Carefully review the list for any redundancy. Also, begin to understand how each systems talks to others.
Depending on the practice’s focus, some or all of these may exist in the software inventory:
|CRM||Document Storage||Portfolio Management|
|Client Portal||Client Reporting||VoIP|
|Financial Planning||Electronic Signature||Custodian Platform|
|Forms Library||Trade Supervision||Research Software|
The CRM post from this series recommends making the client database the hub of the practices technology, centralizing the data and integrating with other tools. Clean data in the CRM now pre-populates forms, feeds compliance systems, updates information on the website, etc. There are benefits from integrations going INTO the CRM as well, such as email from Outlook, updated account values from the custodian, screen pops from the VoIP system, etc.
It is often useful to layout the systems on a diagram to begin to map their interactions. The diagram becomes a useful artifact for someone trying to understand the environment. It can also indicate if the design is overly complicated.
Companies that provide the ability to gather data (account data, for example) from various sources (multiple custodians, for example) are called aggregators. The data from each source is in various formats and contains different data points. Mapping data from one system to another is a big part of what aggregators do. The data is put into a common format during a daily validation process before being made available.
Using an aggregator to consolidate and standardize data allows processes to connect to one provider for all client, account, and transaction data. If only use a single custodian, aggregation may not be necessary. However, seeing a complete view of clients’ assets can require access to a mix of data from custodians, record keepers, REITs and mutual funds, all in one view. Since the data is “standardized” or made to look the same regardless of the provider’s format, it is possible that not all fields needed are available through the aggregator – most are but confirm with the specific vendor.
Exchanging data between companies in a secure manner has always been challenging. Our industry does not yet have standardized data transfer formats for all types of data. If a provider can in fact provide data (and surprisingly many can’t, especially on the retirement plan advisor side of the business), they may have a few common formats to choose from when exporting data. The system that consumes that data (portfolio management system, CRM, etc.) needs to know what each field represents so it can be “mapped.”
In essence, that mapping is the integration. Depending on how “deep” the integration is, the translation between the two systems may also include automating the requesting or posting of the data, data storage, triggering additional workflow rules, etc. With a shallow integration, the data provider periodically emails a comma separated value (CSV) file to be manually loaded into some other system. With a deep integration, one system (e.g. Salesforce) can request an action (e.g. send prepopulated account opening documents to client) from another system and handle the results (e.g. store fully executed copy as a PDF in document storage).
Application Programming Interfaces (APIs)
Cloud-based solutions introduced the great benefit of granting us access to our data and their services from anywhere at anytime. They have done this in part by concentrating on what they do best and accessing services of other specialists to perform sub-tasks. For instance, Uber didn’t build their own mapping program – they use a Google Maps API and let it do what it does best: display data on maps. They simply add additional data (driver name, price, etc.), apply addition business logic and display the results.
These integrations are happening behind the scenes and making fantastic apps available. Connecting the apps we use every day, however, is still a challenge. In its basic form, there is usually an option to export data via a report and then import the data into another system. Automating this process via a programmable interface (API) allows a computer to connect to the data provider computer, request the report and map the data into the proper fields on the receiving system. Once programmed, it can run as often as is needed given some limitations. All this is great if the data provider has an API interface. If not, manual workarounds can be built using scripting languages and extract-transform-load (ETL) tools like Informatica and Jitterbit.
Companies that have grown up in the Cloud, so to speak, are set up for success when it comes to open integration. Stitching together cloud-based solutions is fairly easy these days and most companies provide pre-built integrations for multiple platforms as part of their basic license fee.
Single Sign-On (SSO) capabilities are often available from Cloud-based solutions as well. SSO allows users to log into one system and then automatically be logged into others based on the credentials from the first successful log in. When there are multiple usernames and passwords that need to be entered multiple times throughout the day, SSO can have a big efficiency impact and, obviously, provides a better user experience.
A word about security because it is always important in technology discussions. Generally, API integrations can be more secure than manual processes. As bad as it is to do, we all know someone who keeps sticky notes with their passwords posted on their monitor. With automated solutions that use API connections, the credentials are maintained in an encrypted file.
In addition, most Cloud-based solutions will use the https protocol (with the ‘s’ meaning ‘secure’) which encrypts data before sending, preventing so-called ‘man-in-the-middle attacks’ where electronic communications are intercepted.
Do plenty of due diligence when evaluation any software or service provider to ensure the data, once stored on their site, is secure. See the Cybersecurity post for more information.
Throughout this series, a broad sense of the key components of a technology-savvy practice have emerged. An emphasis has been placed on the efficiencies that can be achieved with the proper architecture and processes in place. But there are other benefits.
Increased efficiency typically helps justify the investment in technology. Implementing SSO will increase efficiency by reducing time spent managing and entering passwords. Electronic signature technology allows documents to be signed half way around the world within minutes of receiving it and the executed documents stored in the books and records system automatically. The efficiency gains are easy to perceive in that scenario. Weigh those gains, however, against the additional time that will be required to administer the systems.
While we tend to focus on this month’s numbers or last quarter’s figures, our systems are most likely holding years of data at the ready, waiting to be sliced and diced. Another benefit of an inventory is understanding how much data exists and where. “Big Data” can be an make that data an asset by making it possible provide amazing insight. Troves of communication records, transactions, client information, operational information, and various unstructured data like client notes can be loaded to a data warehouse where the fun begins as questions are asked and answers returned.
Imagine supplementing the data with other public sources like Facebook, Google, etc. Vendors have begun to incorporate the use of big data and artificial intelligence (which runs on big data) into their platforms. An example is Salesforce’s Einstein which can help discover insights hidden in data through artificial intelligence.
Looking back at the “Going Independent: Tech Series” posts, a lot of ground has been covered with much more to discuss in future Tech Series. While this series was aimed at those financial advisors thinking of making the switch to an independent practice and providing them with a base amount of knowledge in areas that will be most impactful in their success, the information is useful to any business. The challenges of the financial services environment are also opportunities.
The solutions discussed throughout these posts have not been “cutting edge” or even worse, “bleeding edge.” We all have access to an amazing array of well-tested options to support our businesses with Cloud-based products that have been around now for nearly 20 years. Benefiting from that experience and not being distracted by the latest shiny object are big parts of making the most of today’s technology and growing the business.
Implementing technology introduces conveniences but also threats. Regulators understand the importance of secure data and are requiring additional due diligence. The way we communicate with clients is rapidly changing and most require a basic level of technical proficiency in an advisor. Cloud PM is your technology advocate. We can help you evaluate specific threats, use technology in a compliant manner and integrate systems in a way that will wow clients. Contact us for more information.