In a recent survey of financial advisors, Aite Group analysts found increasing interest in the business applications of smartphones and tablets both among advisors and the wealth management companies they work for.
"There is right now a great level of interest in it. They realize that mobile is not just a flash in the pan kind of thing. It's not going to go away," said Alois Pirker, the author of the new report and research director at the Aite Group. "Firms have been cautious at first because they cannot respond to every trend that's going on, particularly when it's coming from the consumer side."
The Aite Group conducted a similar survey in the third quarter of 2008, around the time that Apple first opened its App Store, inviting developers to build software applications to run on the iPhone, and, eventually, its iPad tablet. The three years since have been a time of quicksilver change in the mobile industry, with the emergence of Google's Android as a powerful counterweight to Apple in the smartphone and tablet markets, along with new, Web-oriented entries from BlackBerry and Microsoft.
But adoption of the new devices and applications in the wealth management sector has been slow, and even demand among financial advisors remains uneven.
In the Aite Group's survey, 23% of respondents said that access to business applications through mobile devices is of little or no value to their trade. But that segment, likely a diminishing minority, represents both a defining demographic trait of the financial advisor profession as well as the inevitable pocket of opposition to any new and disruptive technology.
"You have to remember that the advisor force is in terms of average age pretty advanced," Pirker said. "Clearly there's a residual amount of people who just don't want to have anything to do with it."
But many wealth management practices are now putting the development of a mobile strategy on the fast track, acknowledging that it is increasingly unrealistic to bar employees from using the same technologies that are coming to define their lives as consumers at work. Even more importantly, many firms are coming to see the business value of equipping their workforce with smartphones, tablets and access to the growing constellation of apps.
Most elementally, supported mobile devices can give financial advisors in the field access to the same business applications and resources they enjoy in the office. When a client calls an advisor at the office, for instance, a CRM system commonly kicks in, calling up the client's portfolio and putting advisement prompts at the advisor's fingertips. Why not, then, expand those same advantages (or in some cases obligations, in light of certain fiduciary responsibilities) to advisors working outside the office?
"When the advisor's out in the field, he or she is on their own," Pirker said.
"Those tools have a huge upside," he added. "Firms need to see that there's an opportunity to get more value out of the conversation with clients."
The front end of the technology curve has another advantage for wealth management firms. In a highly competitive labor market, sophisticated technology can serve as a powerful recruiting and retention tool. In the Aite Group's survey, 65% of respondents said that technology was either important or very important in their process of selecting an employer.
Perhaps predictably, the firms with the biggest online businesses -- Schwab, eTrade, TD Ameritrade and Fidelity Investments -- are among the leaders in outfitting their advisors with mobile devices and access to apps. In some cases, that process has essentially been one of taking the consumer-facing apps that investors have roundly embraced and porting them over to the advisors.
But technologies that were designed principally for the consumer market do not always translate neatly into the business space, and wealth management firms -- along with most every other industry -- are now working through a litany of concerns before they are willing to welcome the new devices behind the firewall. Often that conversation starts with security, but that's not the end of it.
"Security definitely has been a major concern," Pirker said. "Firms still blame that for their inactivity. I don't think that's the full story."
A central question turns on whether advisors will be permitted to access business applications through their own personal devices, entailing a sign-off from the IT shop, or whether a firm should take the plunge and issue smartphones or tablets to the advisors who spend the most time in the field. But there, adoption may be hindered by the breakneck speed of innovation and product development in the mobile arena. After all, when technology is deemed obsolete after a scant couple years on the market, the temptation to stick with the laptop with the longer refresh cycle is strong.