Adviser tech: Big data, gameification are next

Apr 27, 2014 @ 12:01 am

By Joyce Hanson

Everett James (E.J.) Sutherland, Commonwealth Financial Network's chief information officer, is no stranger to the world of technology, but he's a relative newcomer to the broker-dealer universe.

After beginning his information technology career with the Army in the late 1980s, Mr. Sutherland joined General Electric's aerospace group and then moved on to positions in a variety of sectors, including telecommunications, health care, insurance and technology.

He joined Commonwealth in 2011, and in 2013 was named senior vice president for IT.

More recognition followed when Computerworld named Mr. Sutherland to its 2014 “Premier 100 IT Leaders” list, citing him among a group of tech leaders from various industries who “have reset their career paths many times over on their way to the top.”

Commonwealth, which consistently ranks at the top or among the top independent broker-dealers in the J.D. Power & Associates adviser satisfaction survey, supports nearly 1,500 advisers. And the firm's technology platform is an oft-cited reason for that satisfaction.

InvestmentNews: Commonwealth has a reputation for being at the forefront of IBD technology. Why?

Mr. Sutherland: Our Client360 platform is a unified application. Advisers can come to me with a phone and a laptop, and I can give them almost everything else they need to do their business. With the integrated platform, they have access to all of the horsepower that is Commonwealth. They have their adviser desktop tools from both the client household and practice points of view, and they have direct access to document imaging and retrieval, wealth management tools and robust reporting capabilities. They can do that all from one world.

InvestmentNews: By “one world,” are you talking about a dashboard?

Mr. Sutherland: It's interesting that you mention a dashboard. Right now, 360 has three areas: one is Client360, which is the client-focused viewing; the other is Practice360, which is the adviser's overall business; and then there's the Investor360 portal for clients to use. We're getting ready in the next month or two to release the Client360 dashboard, which has 15-plus “widgets,” and an adviser can customize the view of that dashboard. It can include everything from balances to performance reporting history, allocations, top holdings, contacts and wealth guide information, and the adviser can configure it any way he wants.

InvestmentNews: Who at Commonwealth is developing the user experience?

Mr. Sutherland: One of the main contributors is Kol Birke, along with Darren [Tedesco, managing principal of technology]. Kol has a unique skill set with a deep background in financial behavior psychology. He's good at adapting things to a specific audience and eliciting a response or change in behavior that an adviser may desire from his client. That's why we're starting to look at how to apply gameification.

InvestmentNews: What's the application of gameification for advisers?

Mr. Sutherland: There's a real opportunity for advisers to use it with their clients. It's an exciting area right now in the technology industry, and it had its birth in video games. I always try to keep in mind, too, that although the industry is slow to change, the demographic of our advisers and their clients is slowly starting to change as the baby boomers age and the Millennials come up. In the Millennial generation, they're much more comfortable with hands-on technology and gaming.

InvestmentNews: What other technology trends are new on the horizon for the IBD industry overall?

Mr. Sutherland: We're looking at the tremendous potential of big data. That would mean taking advantage of a vast amount of both structured and unstructured data, and starting to do a lot more predictive analytics with the goal of providing actionable information.

How can we take predictive, active technology and apply it to the adviser's workday? We've dipped our toe into it in terms of integrating customer relationship management systems. So an adviser's assistant can come in on Monday morning and, say, with a click of a dropdown menu, print out all of the customer reports the adviser needs for meetings for the next five days, and it will go out and search the CRM and find all the customer meetings and print out the reports for the week.

InvestmentNews: It sounds like you spend a lot of time thinking about the adviser.

Mr. Sutherland: Absolutely. We really do. We keep the advisers happy, and they do well for us. And we think about the clients, too. Advisers are very serious about helping manage the client's life, and making a difference in people's lives. They do that best when they have time to meet them and coach them, more so than when they're sitting behind a computer screen. With the onset of mobile, too, they can carry their offices with them.

InvestmentNews: You oversee Commonwealth's technology de-partment, which has more than 150 staff members.

Mr. Sutherland: Yeah, we've grown quite a bit. Over the last two and a half years, we've probably gone from roughly 115 up to where we've just crossed the 200 border.

InvestmentNews: That's a lot of people to manage.

Mr. Sutherland: It really is. It becomes a matter of managing growth. As the organization gets larger and becomes more complex, you have to accept the fact that you need more specific expertise in areas. There's just a lot more management and moving parts. I think that Commonwealth recognized a long time ago that yes, they are an independent broker-dealer, but yes, they also have a technology company within that broker-dealer.


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