I have been to the future and back, and I can report that it is cool, wearable and full of Wi-Fi-enabled screens of all sizes.
On Friday, I traveled to Fidelity Institutional's Office of the Future, in Smithfield, R.I., which will officially open to advisers this spring, and got a sneak peek of how the latest technology can facilitate the adviser-client relationship. I also ventured into the firm's Boston headquarters for a tour of Fidelity Labs.
Here's what I learned: Computer hardware is disappearing from view as data moves into the cloud. Software now functions increasingly as a web-based service. Business can be conducted anywhere, anytime, as long as people have access to personal computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones — and even smartwatches and other wearable technology.
When I say that the future is cool, I'm comparing it with the 1960s, when Fidelity and other companies designed their first mainframe computers — enormous systems that occupied the entire floor of an office building and required large air-conditioning units to prevent the mainframes from overheating. Today, thanks to the wonders of the microchip, the data those mainframes managed can fit into an average-size desktop computer — and many smartphones now have more memory than PCs did as recently as 10 years ago.
“We expect people will be much more mobile and lightweight,” said Ed O'Brien, senior vice president of Fidelity Institutional's platform technology and an Office of the Future developer. He predicts that advisers' workdays increasingly will involve video, cloud computing, social media, big data, gamification and something he calls “evolving interfaces.”
Advisers will work in paperless mobile zones, conducting video chats with clients who are sitting on the couch at home and working collaboratively with the adviser, screen by screen, on a financial plan. Cloud-based virtual desktops from companies such as External IT will give advisers access to all the business tools they need, in a work flow that moves data from products such as Adobe Acrobat to Microsoft Office and Quickbooks.
And loads of futuristic gadgetry is already in place, ready to be used right now by early-adopting advisers.
Fidelity Labs released a free watch app for the Pebble smartwatch, which lets Android smartphone users connect Pebble to the Fidelity Android app and then use its wearable device to view a stock watch list with market information and alerts.
Celluon Inc.'s Magic Cube is a laser-projected virtual keyboard that can be beamed onto any flat surface and used in conjunction with smartphones or tablets — great for advisers on the go.
Bluetooth-enabled digital pens from providers such as Logitech International SA and Livescribe Inc. let advisers simultaneously jot down notes and capture them electronically for easy storage in online files.
Registered investment advisers who keep their assets in custody with Fidelity Institutional Wealth Services may wonder what the point of all this technology could possibly be for advisory practices. After all, advisers are busy people with a lot of work to do. Who has time to play around with gadgets?
But according to Fidelity's most recent RIA benchmarking study, released in February, high-performing firms all have this in common: a focus on smart-technology adoption. Smart tech adopters reported 1.5 times the growth and 1.3 times the profitability of other firms studied.
To be sure, these high-performing firms are focused on effectively harnessing technology rather than chasing the latest innovations for innovation's sake. While 47% of high-performing RIAs listed investment in technology as a strategic priority versus only 34% of other firms, the high performers also were more likely than other firms to say that disruption to their business is their biggest challenge when integrating systems.
This helps explain why Fidelity Labs studies exactly how advisers, administrative assistants, compliance officers and other wealth management professionals use technology.
For example, on my tour, Sean Belka, director of the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology, showed me a video of how the center studies users' eye movements with infrared cameras to track patterns of reflection relative to the pupil, thus assessing what attracts their attention on web pages.
“The user isn't here for entertainment,” Mr. Belka told me as I watched a video of a woman performing an asset allocation task on Fidelity's Wealth Central platform. “She's here to get her job done.”