Cloud computing. Mobile devices. Social media. They're arguably the three hottest topics in technology today.
In mutual funds, the talk tends to center around how to use one or all of the above to reach and serve customers better.
At Fidelity Investments, that's only part of the equation. Inside the company, the integration of the three technologies leads to one thing:
Ideas that come from anywhere in the organization can be developed by teams throughout Fidelity and then turned into products or services that better serve its 20 million customers.
The essence, after all, of social media is the sharing of ideas and the sharing of content, said Sean Belka, senior vice president and director of the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology. The center acts as the "tip of the spear" for Fidelity, looking out three years or so to figure out what new forms of technology-such as social media-will be relevant to how the fund giant operates.
"There's tremendous application for that internally around idea management, around productivity of distributed teams around enabling disparate work groups to work almost as if they were co-located," Belka said, while he "collaborated" with this publication and colleagues, while stuck at home in a snowstorm.
To Belka, who had at his side or in his hand an iPhone, an iPad, a ThinkPad and a MacBook Air thin computer, it's the mating of cloud computing and mobile devices with social media that really can have an impact on the creativity of Fidelity's workforce.
"Our goal is to have our workforce be highly innovative, highly focused on creating great customer experience and great products, and I think social media, mobile devices and video enabled by the cloud help them to do that even if they're distributed and even if they're across time zones," Belka said.
The cloud is at the core, for its ability to provide computing capability and storage capacity wherever a worker might be. Documents can be shared with anyone anywhere at any time. And a worker enabled with mobile applications can be encouraged to offload work to computing capacity in the cloud.
On an individual basis, Belka said, "a secure desktop that is basically in the cloud is a cloud application that enables a mobile worker to work securely and yet productively and have access to all that he or she needs."
But the real power is what might, now, be called social networking. Two years back, one Fidelity team was getting ready to introduce a tool on the Web that Fidelity calls its Mutual Fund Evaluator. The team's initial product was a collection of fairly static pages using basic Hyper Text Markup Language tags. But that changed, when the group was able to link up online with a different Fidelity team that works on next-generation Web applications. Without online means to collaborate, "they might have been two groups that would not have connected," Belka said.
A much more dynamic tool. In the original version, if a visitor asked to see all value funds with 10-year horizons, the result would be delivered in a series of screens listing all funds that fit the criteria. Then, the user would have to flip through those pages, before getting the chance to ask for a new set.
As a result of the collaboration, a user of the Evaluator could just specify five-year horizons and "aggressive growth" funds and have the screen instantly repopulate, at any point.
The application of social media can be almost sublimely subtle. One of Fidelity's biggest means for fostering interaction between its professionals is its online staff directory. Its phone book.
The directory doesn't just show a person's name. It shows a map of exactly where the person is located and, like any good mapping service, can give directions to that locale from any other locale.
The person's name is not just spelled out. It's spoken. By the user. So a listener can get it right, before making a faux pas, face to face.
The directory shows not just what the person is interested in, but what the person is expert in. It starts to establish a "social graph" for each associate, in Belka's term.
"If everyone was in a single location, all that stuff would be known, over time," Belka said. "But if you have a more distributed workforce, it's helpful to use these social media-like tools to facilitate the same kind of collegiality and kind of relationship that you might have gotten, if everyone just lived next to each other."
The use of the directory then naturally leads into the use of another type of social medium that Fidelity calls Spaces.
There are personal and collaborative Spaces. In a personal Space, a person might provide links and commentary about a topic about which he or she is expert, to facilitate general knowledge sharing.
Teams can establish common work Spaces, where they can use wikis, video sharing, blogs and other tools to develop products or services or achieve internal goals.
Longer term, video-and the cloud, by extension-will change the nature of the social networking so that it is almost lifelike, Belka believes. Video is very "computer and storage intensive"-a perfect application to put in the cloud, where resources are expansive.
With costs of high-quality monitors dropping and capabilities rising, "you can imagine a world a few years out where you have people across the globe in multiple rooms with relatively large-scale 3D monitors where it almost seems like everyone is in the same room," Belka said. "I don't think that's 'Star Wars' anymore. I think we're on a path where that's going to be both practical and economically viable."
That makes video a social medium, for collaboration associate-to-associate, team-to-team and executive-to-organization.
And, all together, to generate ideas from anywhere, for anyone.
"The whole element of internal and external social media is a huge opportunity for people to listen harder and more ubiquitously and pervasively to customers and to associates," Belka said.