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A new survey of 15 of the world’s biggest asset management firms finds that 80% are making  digital transformation a priority.

Alpha FMC, a London-based asset management consultancy, reported that 61% of these firms were “getting organized,” but 23% admitted that their digital maturity was fragmented, causing them to lag behind their competitors.

Survey respondents, whose firms collectively manage $9.8 trillion, included chief digital officers, digital directors, chief marketing officers and technology leaders.

According to Alpha, the research strongly indicates that the industry is undergoing a shift away from a product-centric view to a focus on the client. In doing so, spending is moving away from areas such as regtech toward investing in customer experience and the overarching design of the business. This is helping to “future-proof” firms for broader industry changes.

Eighty-five percent of respondents said improved client engagement was a key benefit from digital transformation. This finding is highly correlated with driving increased revenue and assets under management, Alpha said.

It noted that asset management firms see an improved client experience as key to winning new mandates, engaging distribution partners and retaining customers. Firms are looking to achieve economies of scale and in doing so need to adopt digital approaches and work collaboratively with sales teams to manage a wide range of client types.

A recent report reinforces the idea that wealth managers must develop strategies to engage with clients who increasingly are digital natives.

Alpha found that how much firms spend and the amount of resources they allocate to digitization differ significantly across the industry and are correlated to each firm’s stage of digital maturity.

Some firms are focused on developing their strategy and business design, while others have moved into delivery mode. For many asset managers, getting organized means having a brand new digital strategy and beginning to allocate budget and resources to foundation-level capabilities and technology.

According to the research, asset managers are spending an average of $21 million on digital each year, but there was a wide spread up to $70 million and above.

Last month, Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase’s chief executive, announced that the bank would increase its technology spending by 15% this year to $10.8 billion, with much of this going to enhancement of its mobile and web-based services.

The Alpha survey showed that asset managers still face significant challenges to implementing their digital program. Sixty-nine percent of respondents said legacy technology was a primary obstacle, 62% pointed to a need for widespread change in company culture and mindset and 46% cited a lack of resources or relevant skillsets.

Many firms complained that lack of investment was holding back digital innovation in their business.

Survey respondents also raised questions about where digital should sit within their business, as digital’s profile and the importance placed on it as a discipline mean that it needs to move out from under the marketing and technology banner.

“The asset management industry is at a key juncture, facing a mix of technological, regulatory and client behavioral shifts,” Kevin O’Shaughnessy, head of digital at Alpha FMC, said in a statement. “How to remain ahead of the curve is now a board-level agenda item for many firms.

“However, the industry is still experiencing growing pains in its digital journey. Our research shows firms are currently focused on defining the role of digital, setting up the functions and investing in core digital enablers such as content management, social, analytics and data capability.”

Although fintech is still a topic of interest, few wealth managers are actively involved, either through acquisition or substantive partnerships, according to Alpha. However, most firms are looking to fintech to pave the way with new technologies and provide inspiration so that they can adopt technologies quickly once they become more mainstream.

No asset manager in the survey expressed a need to become a digital innovator. In fact, 69% said they had not invested in fintech platforms and did not plan to do so.

Only 15% said they were focused on identifying and integrating fintech solutions, ranging from robo-advice and artificial intelligence to educational platforms.

Alpha’s research suggested that over the next three to five years, asset managers would turn their attention away from more traditional digital platforms, such as data management, cloud services and social media, and focus instead on more innovative technologies, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain.

Only 8% of firms reported that they had a blockchain development plan in progress, compared with 31% that had a robo-advice platform.

O’Shaughnessy said many asset managers were not yet fully involved in fintech because of the risk and upfront cost of investing in companies and proprietary software.

“Most are also overwhelmed by the plethora of startups and fintech firms and find it hard to decipher who to talk to,” he said. “Being able to identify the problem that a fintech solution might solve and target the firms to engage with would be a good start to helping asset managers tap into the talent and entrepreneurial solutions available.”

— Check out Revamped Foundation Pushes Open-Source Collaboration in Finance on ThinkAdvisor.