More Bear Than Bull

By  Tim Scannell — February 01, 2008

Whoever said change is good never spent any time in the financial services industry.
In the world of high finance, where policies and procedures are firmly entrenched and highly regulated, changing too quickly can create more problems than solutions -- especially when it comes to introducing new technology. That said, financial services recognize the value of mobilizing certain key functions for their workforce, particularly enabling instant access to information that can help people do their jobs better.
The expectations go far beyond allowing road warriors the ability to access email. Among the enterprise mobility functions being embraced in the financial world are:
  • managing customer relationships.
  • enabling employees to stay in constant contact with each other, with traders and with clients.
  • allowing employees to access centralized corporate databases and business applications from the field.
Unlike many other industries, which often completely revamp their internal processes when they introduce mobile solutions, financial services companies generally have no interest in changing their processes. The onus is on the mobile solution to fit into an existing and tightly controlled system. The idea "is for people to have a tool in their hands when they need it," says Hazem Gamal, an I.T. VP with the Oppenheimer Funds, a $235 billion global management company with more than 6 million clients. "We're not looking to enforce or completely change the way people run their territories."
Keeping things on an even keel and with a minimum of disruption is paramount when the territories include businesses with revenues ranging from $250 million to more than $1 billion. The Oppenheimer wholesalers who service these businesses in the field routinely use handheld computers and BlackBerry devices to access customer relationship management (CRM) information from centralized corporate databases.
The goal in using these devices is to provide quick access to information that may help employees do their jobs a little better, notes Gamal, who was among the speakers at a seminar on financial mobility sponsored by Pyxis Mobile in fall 2007. "You don't really...spend less time working because of these devices," adds Gamal, but "they can provide the essential elements for [you] to run [your] businesses."
Oppenheimer deployed BlackBerry devices -- which tap into the company's Seibel CRM systems -- to about 1,250 of its top wholesalers in August 2007. By late fall of 2007, about 95% of them were using the devices.
The biggest surprise so far? Young investment stallions are not the biggest users of mobile technology due to the way they manage clients and territories, says Gamal. Competition is fierce, and these rookies are focused on building client relationships that they'll carry with them throughout their careers. Therefore, while they embrace email, they are just as apt to talk on the phone and have face-to-face meetings. They're also often asked to do the CRM work for older, more established colleagues as they work their way up the ranks. Once they build a client base, they can add advanced mobile solutions.
Joe Piotrowski, VP and development manager at MFS Investments Management in Boston also does not look at handheld mobile devices as agents of change. Nor does he see them simply as e-mail redirectors. Rather, he views them as "risk mitigators." The greatest risk any financial manager can face is not getting a client's order logged with the trading desk on time. Some clients are voracious traders -- especially with volatile stocks -- so using a mobile device to instantly connect with the trading desk and keep an audited trail is critical. "[Mobile solutions] allow our investment staff to stay in constant communications with the trading desk and other personnel," he says.
It may take a long time for a financial services enterprise to make the strategic decision to mobilize a portion of its business. But once the decision is made, mobile access can be enabled fairly swiftly. This is because the applications, for the most part, are highly targeted and modularized, but they're not particularly complicated.
For example, when Merrill Lynch Investment Managers tapped its partner organization, Blackrock, to find a way to zap market data and basic financial information to field staff, a BlackBerry solution was developed and deployed in about four weeks, says David Freeman, I.T. VP for the New York-based global investment company. It took that long, he notes, "because we were dealing with mostly disparate databases."
The move to mobile nirvana is not always smooth, however. Problems include:
  • getting the right information on a mobile device.
  • navigating through often complex server-based applications.
  • creating an effective and productive user experience.
Indeed, the user interface (UI) is by far one of the biggest hurdles, says Adrian Iosifescu, VP of I.T. for the Blackstone Group, a corporate private equity company with operations as far flung as Mumbai and Hong Kong. "The biggest challenge is how to make the UI easy to use, since users are not willing to put up with lots of delays and complexity," notes Iosifescu.
"What they want to see is something that is instantaneous." This can be tricky when the goal is to access sometimes complex financial documents.
Synchronization is another challenge, adds Kevin Butscher, an I.T. executive with American Funds. The company's sales team needs quick and reliable access to the central Seibel database to effectively do their jobs and service big-ticket institutional investors.
A survey of financial services companies conducted in September 2007 by Pyxis Mobile provides further proof of how conservative this industry is. Enterprise executives in other industries covered by Mobile Enterprise are bemoaning the fact that employees of all ranks -- from CEO to field rep -- have been asking when they can use iPhones for business applications. Yet, the vast majority of financial services companies surveyed by Pyxis (83%) said that fewer than 5% of their employees have inquired about support for the iPhone. In addition, none of the respondents indicated that more than 10% of their staff had made such a request.
Where the iPhone has had an impact is in terms of its friendly UI. The screen display, the way it handles Web pages on the fly, and its gyro capability to flip a viewing screen are all advances that are likely to be adopted in new devices from more traditional enterprise providers, notes Todd Christy, Pyxis Mobile's CTO. In that regard, the iPhone "is an interesting device that is changing the dynamics of the enterprise market," he says. Devices such as the iPhone and the decidedly un-businesslike Nintendo Wii gaming system, "might pave the way to gesture-assisted mapping and scrolling," adds Christy, who calls such innovations "mobility on the fringe."
In the end, though, the measure of a mobile device's muscle is how easily an enterprise can quantify its benefits, says Harry Moseley, CIO, the Blackstone Group. This is difficult, he says, because there are a lot of "soft quantifications," such as balancing personal projects and keeping track of what you do and don't do. "The real benefit comes when mobile applications [automatically] channel information to those who need to be informed, rather than [those who] want to be informed."
MFS Investment Management's Piotrowski looks at the cost of the device itself as well as the charges related to the I.T. services used to support the small system. He does not use a model that measures the cost of doing without the system, since that involves intangibles and variables such as missed opportunities and interactions with customers. MFS could develop a model that would pinpoint missed communications back to the trading desk such as a late buy or sell order but even that would be difficult to consistently track and manage, notes Piotrowski. //


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