I’ve written before about my “Aha!” moment years ago, listening to Paul Saffo of Stanford University’s Institute for the Future tell an audience of magazine editors that “it takes people about 100 years to figure out the highest and best uses for major technology advances.” (Think the printing press, the internal combustion engine, electricity and, now, the Internet.) I bring this up again as a follow-up to my Dec. 21 blog on New Year’s Resolutions, in which I resolved to improve my relationship with the technology in my life. 

Bruce Johnston of DJB Associates in Tuttle, Oklahoma, was kind enough to add a comment of encouragement, noting that “the purpose of improving this relationship is to improve one’s productivity and we have certainly witnessed a host of new productivity tools entering advisor’s lives.  The challenge of course is how do advisors evaluate and implement these new productivity tools quickly and effectively.” 

As usual, Bruce hits the keyboard on the command key (that is, the nail on the head), although I’m not sure “quickly” and “effectively” should be used in the same sentence here. As Dr. Saffo pointed out some 20 years ago, it takes a while to sort out the best usesof  major innovations such as digital technology and social media. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that home shopping, online porn, tweets about grocery shopping, and YouTubes on how Hitler reacts to the Broncos beating the Steelers aren’t important. I’m merely suggesting that maybe, just maybe, there are better uses for “mankind’s greatest invention” and that it may take bit longer to figure out what thy are. 

I’m also wondering if this might be especially true when it comes to technology in advisory practices. Seems to me that adopting new technologies “effectively” is the opposite of investing in the stock market—where “first in, first out” is often a profitable strategy. Independent advisors don’t have a lot of resources (either financial, or more important, time and effort) to be wasted on trial-and-error technology strategies to see what sticks to the wall. Is posting on FaceBook the key to marketing in the new Millennia? Is Tweeting? How about streaming video? For my money, the reviews aren’t in yet. 

Perhaps more troubling is the effect that major innovations have on the lives of people who use them. Bruce Johnston is quite right that, like the printing press and electricity, the Internet has tremendous potential to increase our productivity; both in terms of communications and access to information. I certainly couldn’t do what I do from Santa Fe if I had to use snail mail (although whether I’ve actually increased my productivity greatly depends upon whom you ask). 

But technology also changes us, often in ways that weren’t, and probably couldn’t have been, foreseen. The printing press first put Bibles, and then books of all kinds, in the hands of the masses: creating religious and social upheavals that in many ways haven’t played out yet. Electricity enabled us to live anywhere, and work and play round the clock. And cars and trucks both created suburbs and grew cities on the Interstates rather than the waterways.

 Maybe we should be asking ourselves: How is digital technology changing financial advice? Certainly, by enabling access to information, data and computing power, technology has almost single-handedly created the independent advisory industry. But it’s also expanded the workday: for folks who trade securities, we now have 24-hour markets. I’m just guessing, here, but that’s gotta take a toll on one’s home life, not to mention rack time. 

It’s also taking a toll on regulation: As we recently saw with FINRA caving on its efforts to review social media (see Marlene Satter’s Jan. 5 AdvisorOne article). It seems that once the realities of collecting and reviewing every text message by every rep were explained to FINRA, they saw the light—and let the expedience of technology override their oversight duty. 

What’s next? As far as I can tell, social media will give every client 24×7 access to their financial advisor: to ask questions, express concerns, get info and explore their golf buddy’s latest hot tip. Talk about potential for sleep deprivation. Is that really where advisors want to go? And even if they could make it all work, what would such a practice be like? 

In many ways, we are beginning to get the technology thing right: remotely checking emails on your cell phone, buying iTunes for 99 cents a song, and getting buyer feedback on any product are all huge improvements over the old ways of doing things. Social media in advisory firms is still in its infancy: with the help of techno gurus like Bruce Johnston, we’ll need to sort it out, hopefully, more effectively than quickly.