From the May 2004 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

It's All in the Approach

To tame technology, says Kip Gregory, you don't have to be particularly smart. Just take, then keep, a systematic approach

Kip Gregory's latest book--Winning Clients in a Wired World--is also his first, but after 20 years of teaching others how to make technology work, particularly in a sales, marketing, and business management context, he's no stranger to the subject. Learning to make technology work in your practice, he preaches, doesn't entail mastering specific applications. Rather, it's about taking a systematic approach to incorporating any new technology into your business, based on how your business operates in the real world. The book includes guides to mastering new technology and ways to more efficiently use the software you already use, including the Microsoft Office suite, which Gregory suggests you can use to start and maintain a "knowledge journal" to make you more efficient. He also provides not only a list of helpful Web sites for more information but has built a companion site--www.winningclientsinawiredworld.com--and will send quarterly e-mail updates to readers.

What prompted you to write this book? I've never come across a book like this, or searched for one, because frankly, I don't think one exists. I don't mean that from an egotistical standpoint, it's just that I don't think anyone's tried to tackle this issue of business and technology from the businessperson's point of view, taking it beyond the software manual, "software for dummies" approach, in trying to put the puzzle pieces together in a way that makes sense for the reader.

Because of the subject matter, did you have to revise much from when you started--for example, when you realized that URLs had changed or gone dead? With a topic like this, it's a chronic challenge. You have to pick points in time where you take a break to do just that. Even in the final stages of production, I was checking each of the links to make sure they were still active.

Technology is a dynamic field; this book represents a snapshot as of early 2004, in some respects, but at the same time, a reader can look at it and see some evergreen principles at work. Because that's the important underlying thread--you've got to be able to tie this stuff together. You have to be able to tie how you do things to what you do, and even more importantly, to why you do it, if you want to incorporate not just technology, but the notion of systemization in your work. Otherwise, you're just hopscotching around from product du jour to product du jour.

Long range, the idea is to create a place [the Web site] where people can gather in a community setting. So if you want to know what other people are doing, this would be one more resource for keeping abreast of what's happening.

The forms that are in the back of the book will be available for sale electronically--so if somebody wants a template for any of these worksheets, or wants a souped-up version of the knowledge journal that I encourage people to use (I use it, myself, frankly, all the time), you can get it online.

You begin the book by writing about all the wasted time at so many companies replicating work already done by someone else in the organization, or finding information that already exists somewhere else.What is it about advisors? Why do some get it and others don't? Think of a little Mom and Pop software developer that creates something that people love, then gets inundated with requests [for additional features]. Their desire is to please, so over time you see these [applications] get so bloated with features. In the process, people lose the forest for the trees, and all they see is that they've got 500 choices to make, and they say "I can't compute that."

Are advisors unique? Most advisors, whether they are independent or working for a larger firm, are small businesspeople. They are not thinking in terms of systemization. The best do ask themselves, "What do I need to do to create structure in my business?" and they then run that business systematically and delegate. But with respect to technology, I find advisors are absolutely no different than any other small businessperson, any other businessperson period. I would wager a guess that if you parachuted into General Electric or IBM or any place that has a large knowledge worker component, you would find people challenged by these issues, because they are issues of technology, and human learning, and adult learning.

So how do I as a businessperson take all this stuff I'm surrounded by--this black box on my desktop, and what's now available to me at the click of a button through a browser window anywhere around the world--and make it work for me? How do I create a system where I can build processes that ultimately others can manage for me, or that I can outsource, or that I can find that have already been built, and buy into those so I don't need to worry about it?

It was the Japanese that talked about the trivial many and the vital and critical few things that you need to do to move your business forward. So I've got MS Office, which means I've got e-mail and word processing and spreadsheeting, and presentation software, and maybe database software. I have to get from where I am, I have to get from $50 million in assets to $100 million, or I have to get from $0 to $10 million by the end of the year. How do I do that? What are the resources that I ought to be drawing on? That simple question is what I am attempting to answer with the book.

Advisors are attempting to take a holistic view of clients' goals and needs, and then build something that helps those clients meet those needs. It's good that they are conservative, but many of them seem to miss the boat with technology. Is that just part of their personality or is there something else going on? It may be partly their personality, but I honestly think it's that, generally speaking, all of us who work for a living or spend most of our lives working have a dizzying array of choices. I think that the mainstream mind, if you think of the technology adapter spectrum, the person that I call the pragmatist right in the middle who says, if its practical, fine, otherwise don't bother me with it. They know somewhere in the back of their mind that technology could help them, but they don't have a clue where to start. And who can blame them? If you open Microsoft Word, you're presented right off the bat with 100-odd top-level choices on that main menu. It translates into a world in which the majority of people don't know what they don't know when it comes to technology. It's like bumping your way around in a dark room looking for a light switch. Unless you literally stumble on it, how do you break through that? First, somebody who is more aware needs to tell you what's possible, and they need to be able to communicate with you in terms that you understand. The reason it doesn't happen is that you have people talking about things from a feature standpoint as developers because they're engineers and they think in those structural terms. They don't have the same set of aptitudes as these businesspeople who are advisors. Generally, advisors are relationship builders--they like to get out and deal with people. They are not going to spend a weekend in their offices trying to dissect the latest program.

They have the technology to just to get them to the point where they're talking to the prospect. Exactly, and in the minimally useful way. To them, technology is an appliance, not a hobby. So first you have to get them over an awareness threshold. Then they say, "How do I take advantage of what's out there?" At that point you move into the second stage, which is skill building, or telling people what they need to do. If I want to communicate regularly with my clients, I have to figure out a way, because I know I can only make so many phone calls in a day, [so I figure out how to] make electronic communication work for me.

There are some advisors taking advantage of technology. One who comes immediately to mind is Lou Stanasolovich [of Legend Financial Advisors] in Pittsburgh. Lou, I think he would say this himself, is no technofreak. But he recognizes its potential and has surrounded himself with people who have a burning desire, or set of aptitudes, to get it done. He knows what resources to tap into to translate his vision to reality.

The first goal of the book is to help people get over that threshold? It's to create awareness, build skills, and then position that knowledge successfully. It's at that third level that the fun starts, that's when you get to the Lou Stanasolovich sort of result. You've also got to have patience, which is probably one of the reasons so many fail. Advisors and others who are in customer interface roles are not the most patient people. Instead, they say, what are the steps we need to take and in what order? How do we prioritize those, and who is going to be responsible for each one? If you lay out a template for them with the steps in the process, they're a whole lot more likely to do it.

The most important part of the book is the second chapter, which is also the least technology-heavy. It tells you how to plan, how to problem solve, and how to implement in a systematic way.

Your approach to taming technology is to systematize it, break it down to steps. Probably most successful businesses start with an idea, the leaders are charismatic or have a different way of doing things, but if you don't systematize that approach, it's not going to last. And if you don't, if you're an advisor, and you're looking to check out, what do you sell? Who's going to buy what you've built? You go back to this whole notion of working in versus on the business.

Some early adopters are going to pick up the book and pull out a couple of tidbits. But what I hope happens is that the man or woman who is running a business, and who is aware that they need to do things differently but may not understand exactly how to do it, will be open to the notion that this can help them. Technology can be an enabler. It isn't something to be avoided, it's something to be intelligently embraced.

If there's one thing to act on, it is the notion of taking a systematic, problem-solving approach to our business. Everything else is what enables you to do that. Finally, you have this thing called the Internet, a gateway right in front of you that plugs you into the world's accumulated knowledge, digitized, sitting at your fingertips.

Winning Clients in a Wired World (Wiley, 2004), by Kip Gregory, is available through the Investment Advisor bookstore, at www.investmentadvisor.com.

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