After just a year and a half as Carson Group’s first and only chief technology officer, Nimesh Patel left this summer to join Corient, a move Carson Group described as “a mutual separation.”
Rather than replacing Patel in the role, Carson Group has opted to put in place a four-person “technology council” to navigate the development of its technology platform amid rapid changes in the broader tech landscape.
“We don’t feel like we have to replace him with a single CTO because we think of tech as almost a progression,” said Managing Partner and Chief Strategy Officer Burt White. "Data as an all-encompassing enabler, research and development as talking with our advisors about what they need, and engineering as building the product designs developed by R&D."
Sitting on the council is Leanne Ball, director of data architecture—called “a rising star” by White—as well as Anthony Duran, director of product and design, and Nick Wenner, the lead software engineer. The group is led by Chief of Staff Brian Green, who answers to Carson President Teri Shepherd.
“When you have one person in charge of all of those things, that person usually has a bias,” said White. “So, we’ve decided to think of it more horizontally and bring these leaders together to self-govern.”
The goal is to give all three areas equal weight in the decision-making process, he said.
It's an unusual structure befitting Carson Group's often unconventional, yet generally successful, approach to management. Even so, the tech-by-committee philosophy has raised a few eyebrows.
“They have some phenomenal technologists in that organization, but without a person qualified to bring all that together, I have never once seen a technology council like this actually work,” commented Doug Fritz, founder and CEO of F2 Strategy.
“Just the very nature of it—decision by committee, strategy by committee, leadership by committee. I do not at all see it being successful,” he told WealthManagment.com.
“Data needs to be one of Carson's top focuses,” he added. “Not just the things that please the Street and make people look cool because they've got the acronym AI on top of it. It needs to be the foundational stuff they really focus on.”
Beyond Carson's unique approach to technology development inside the firm, the broader implications of AI on the business of financial advice and wealth management were a front-and-center focus of the firm's 38th annual Excell conference, held earlier this month in Nashville.
On stage and in conversation, White pointed to Martec’s Law—which states that technology advances exponentially while the human ability to consume it increases logarithmically—as an explanation for the faster displacement of jobs, and indeed entire companies, as entirely new skill sets are required.
“It’s already happening,” he said. “But jobs are going to shift so dramatically over the next few years because of AI, ChatGPT, all the stuff we know about automation.”
White cited an Oxford study that caused a stir a decade ago with predictions nearly half of all jobs would be displaced due to automation, including "58%" of human financial advisors. He said the study's authors were wrong and underestimated the originality and empathy required of advisors—qualities of human-to-human connection which cannot be replicated by AI.
(The report's authors seem to agree with White—the research was updated this month, following the Excell conference, with more muted predictions that generative AI will "disrupt" the labor force but has greater potential to enable more humans to accomplish more. They concluded that technology has yet to reach a point where personal interactions can be replaced.)
“The magic isn’t in the machines,” said White. “The magic is in what the machines allow humans to do. And, what the industry is creating, and what we want to create here at Carson, is cyborg advisors. We want them to be all the best parts of being human—the heart, the creativity, the hugs, and holding someone's hand through something. ... But, also, all the greatest parts of being enabled by a machine—data-driven, next best actions, mobile, personalization at scale.
“When you can mix those two things together, that’s the future of our industry,” he said. “It’s not a robo, and it’s not an advisor that rejects technology. Both of those (approaches) will be rejected.”
White said Carson is currently implementing AI in two ways. Centrally, the firm is partnering with Fidelity Labs’ Catchlight to accelerate its new lead generation program with AI-powered and data-driven prospect analysis and personalization algorithms. A natural language processing tool is also being developed in-house to allow individual advisors to create personalized messaging and content for client accounts at various levels of complexity.
“We’re still in early testing,” said White. “But these are early elements of us being able to think through how we utilize natural language, next best action, data, personalization, scale.”
White's theme of an AI-enabled cyborg-advisor resonated with other technology leaders in the wealth management industry.
“People 100 years from now are going to have concerns and questions,” said Fritz. “They're going to want to work with an emotional, personal person to help them through those things. That’s the cornerstone to what advisors do.”
“At the end of the day, money is personal,” agreed Oleg Tishkevich, founder and CEO of Invent. In a separate conversation, Tishkevich also raised questions about the viability of of Carson's technology approach but said he agrees that there will always be a place for human advisors and that he expects their roles to evolve as technology advances.
“Computations are great, and they can tell you the probability of certain decisions’ results, but they can’t help you make that decision," he said. "It may not be rational, but it needs to be personal. I think AI is getting better at detecting feelings and helping more on the human side of the conversation, but you almost really need to have somebody to blame if you made a mistake and it needs to be a person, not a machine.”
While Tishkevich believes human attachment to outdated systems is inhibiting the advancement of useful technologies, he expects progress will eventually nudge advisors into a role more akin to therapists.
“Advisors are essentially going to be money shrinks,” he said. “And I think the move will be toward the same types of compensation ... a fee for service, whether it's time-based or retainer-based. This is where the industry will be going because the tech piece will ultimately solve it all.”
“Once we make the technology simpler and easier, there's going to be more people able to get into the profession that are younger and more adapted,” he said. “We can grow the profession. We’re never going to stop having money issues and it’s not an easy topic to talk about. So, until we’re living in a communist society where money doesn’t matter, there’s going to be a need for human financial advisors.”