Happy New Year! The start of a new year usually brings a new set of plans, ideas, goals and objectives to achieve in both your business and personal life. For advisors, it is important that your overall 2011 business planning also includes how you use technology at your firm. Perhaps you are currently very happy with your technology. Or maybe 2011 is a year when you plan to make big technology changes. Or perhaps you are somewhere in the middle. In any of these cases, do your firm a big favor and map out your technology strategy for the upcoming year. This month’s column will help give you some ideas of how to approach this task and start the year off well.

Over the many years that I have visited advisors’ offices, it has always been clear to me when a firm has included technology as part of its overall business planning. These firms often had a specific list of technology goals and objectives that were well-thought out and correlated with the other business objectives of the firm. For example, if one of the business goals was to expand and open a second office location in the third quarter of the year, then there was a defined list of technology tasks associated with this objective. Or another firm might have had a less complicated business goal, where the founder just wanted to be able to work from her second home on Fridays during the summer. Here again technology clearly played a critical role in achieving this goal, allowing the advisor to use a virtual private network and cloud-based software resources to access the firm’s systems and databases. Whatever your own business goals may be, the important and best practice is to ensure that your technology needs are included as you develop your overall plans. A full technology assessment may take a bit of time and research, but if it is not included in the planning, well, this is when I would hear advisors say that they would have never purchased this or that technology product if they knew it operated as slow as molasses while sitting in the deck chair at the beach house. Or they had no idea how costly their IT support needs were going to be when they opened a second office. Ensuring that there is clear alignment between your business goals and your technology resources is therefore a perfect place to start your new year’s strategizing.

Now, before you get a wish list from your staff with their 2011 technology needs, it is very important to start with an itemization of what you already own. I know it may seem easy to simply purchase something new to meet a business goal or objective. However, the reality is most advisors (and their staff) don’t leverage the technology that already exists at their fingertips. As an example, if a common complaint is that a certain technology product runs too slow, your first step should be to evaluate the computer being utilized. Upgrading the memory on the machine or in a worst case purchasing a new computer might better address the problem versus trying to identify a replacement technology product. If you do find that your 2011 technology plan will include purchasing a new product, then it is critical that you understand how it will complement and integrate with the current systems used by your firm. Make sure that you do not introduce any “Lone Rangers” in your technology solutions in 2011 (and in later years for that matter). The availability and advancements of technology products designed for advisors should offer you the ability to find a solution that you can build upon and integrate with your existing technology processes and products. Therefore, your plan should not only include the details of how the new product will be utilized, but also how it will specifically integrate with your existing technology—essentially increasing the potential return of the new technology investment.

Including your current technology vendors and your staff is also very important as you develop your technology plan. Your current technology vendors might have a significant release scheduled in the near future and you want to be sure that your firm is prepared to incorporate any new features that are available. Installing new releases might appear as a non-event, but take a close look at any new features and enhancements that you can use. Be sure to allocate sufficient time to training for your staff if you plan to introduce a new technology solution. Overall adoption is always critical and it starts with a well defined training program that instructs your staff on how to best use the new product. And with any goal or objective, make sure that you define and measure your progress to completion. For example, if you plan on introducing a new imaging system in 2011, set a goal of scanning all new client documents starting on a specific date. Then perhaps a second goal would relate to scanning all legacy (old) documents by another date later in the year. Success with each check-in point builds momentum and ultimately increases your odds of achieving your overall goals. These check-in points also remind your staff that the goal is still important and is worthy of their continued time and attention.

[Read about how timing is important in implementing a new technology plan.]

Another important best practice to remember when drafting your technology strategy for the year is to avoid the temptation of trying to accomplish too much. With technology, as with most things in life, we can sometimes easily underestimate the amount of time, expense and energy required to accomplish each goal or objective. Technology may make business processes faster and easier, but planning, implementing and fully training always takes time and patience. Therefore, be realistic about the time and expense needed to achieve each technology goal. If you have an extensive laundry list of unrelated technology tasks, that is very likely to be a good indication that your list of goals needs some refinement and paring down. Also, be sure to avoid the “dominos scenario” where one task can delay your progress with your other technology goals and objectives—one task fails and everything else comes down with it. Unfortunately, I have heard too many stories from advisors of situations where one challenging technology objective gets in the way of accomplishing their other technology-related goals. Understanding what is required and necessary for each technology objective will help you be prepared to adjust your attention and resources as you deal with the inevitable unforeseen problems.

Consistent with your 2011 business planning process, your approach to creating an annual technology plan should be very similar. In fact, many advisory firms will have one document that covers all the objectives and goals for their firm. This document is then shared firm wide and is frequently an agenda item for their regular staff meetings. Furthermore, it is very important to report the on-going results of the firm’s efforts. The progress and results achieved versus your technology goals in particular may sometimes be difficult for staff members to observe, and therefore you may need to trumpet the results and the accomplishments already realized. Finally, be mindful of what you might add to your technology plan throughout the year. Of course there will be new technology solutions and ideas that become available later in the year. The challenge is to understand which of these ideas warrant inclusion into your existing technology plan and which ones should be deferred to next year. It is important to be flexible, but also be critical, and evaluate carefully so that you take on only what is worthy to be added. Overall, developing a technology plan that is aligned with your business goals will be worth your attention as you start 2011.    

Dan Skiles is the executive vice president of Shareholders Service Group in San Diego. He can be reached at dskiles@ssginstitutional.com.