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Walking The Tech Tightrope

Advisors need to balance leveraging the latest technology to best serve clients while simultaneously offering refuge from our fast-paced, interconnected world.

Amid the flurry of esteemed financial industry professionals presenting on a bevy of technical topics, one of the most interesting speakers at the 2017 IMCA Ace Conference in San Diego was not involved in the financial industry at all.

Dr. Sherry Turkle of MIT tracks and studies social media and how it changes not only how we do things, but who we are as people. Many of the insights about human relationships and technology that she’s gleaned from her work, though not overtly about working with clients, can nonetheless be put to good use by attentive advisors.

Though not a luddite by any means (MIT probably tipped you off to that fact), Turkle believes that the proliferation of technology and communication options, while it has connected us to a wider swath of people than ever in a macro sense, actually may be negatively impacting our abilities to relate to each other on a smaller, micro level.

“Empathy, imperfection, vulnerability and solitude are human values that you need to actively watch out for in a technological age,” she explains. “Technology can make you forget how important empathy is. It can make you forget the importance of imperfections and showing other people your flaws so that you can connect. It can also make us forget the importance of solitude to people who do important work with other people, because it can make us feel as if we can always be together alone or alone together. We can always somehow be in this new kind of crowd, and we can forget the importance of having time to collect our thoughts.”

Technology’s increasing marginalization of these values, according to Turkle is giving rise to a new sense of self across generations, what she calls: “I share, therefore I am.” Effectively, she thinks that more and more people think that they don’t have a real thought or feeling unless they somehow state it. “It’s as though the thought, feeling or emotion isn’t really constituted until you’ve somehow shared it with a massive audience,” she notes.

Turkle believes that this phenomenon is a problem because the ability to hide behind a screen and “text rather than talk” shields many from exposing their own imperfections and vulnerabilities to others. If everything a person thinks or feels must be edited, then vetted and approved by others, then they may have difficulty developing a true sense of self and figuring out what they really care about.

In the advisory world, we’re also seeing technology march inexorably forward. Be it robos, cyborg advisors or whatever other name we want to come up with for using technology to help give financial advice, advisors must adapt and adopt, or die. However, for every aspect of his practice an advisor automates to ease and improve the client experience, he should consider what’s lost in exchange.

A different speaker at the conference, Professor Nathaniel Harness of Texas A&M University, expressed a somewhat similar sentiment in his presentation on millennial clients. In his mind, one of the advantages a human advisor can offer that a robo can’t is the very solitude that Turkle discusses. Sitting down and talking with an advisor can offer clients a brief respite from the barrage of information and connection that they experience on a day-to-day basis. By offering such an oasis, and letting clients “slow things down” for an hour or so, advisors can help clients take the time to figure out what they really want and strengthen a relationship that is increasingly unique simply in it’s face-to-face nature.

Ultimately, technology is not only here to stay, but is an overall positive factor in the financial advisory world. Neither of the speakers mentioned is trying to say differently. However in our rush to adopt the newest and best tech, it’s important to consider the human role an advisor plays and how to both maintain that element and leverage it to better serve clients.

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