Increased business demands in recent years have meant that advisers have needed to work harder and longer often just to stand still. Add to this the average two hours a day spent commuting and it is easy to see why better alternatives are being pursued. Technology has long promised a smarter way of working but is it still an idealistic vision?
Research conducted by IDC revealed that more than 40 per cent of mobile professionals spend more than 30 minutes each working day doing nothing but sitting and waiting. Further research by Computacenter calculated that an employer with staff on a salary package over £80,000 (presumably similar to most RIs) could save over £1,200 per employee each month just by allowing them to do an hour's mobile working a day.
In simple cost terms, the arguments to explore mobile working are very strong but how easy is it to migrate to the mobile world?
In an ideal situation, all advisers and their staff would be able to use portable computers providing access to the same data and services, irrespective of whether they are in or out of the office. It would then be possible to work effectively wherever it is most convenient – in the home, on the train or with a client.
For a sole trader it is easy to put everything on a laptop and enjoy truly mobile computing. For most, however, the working environment is one where shared data and access to the programs that manage that data are essential. The bigger the company and number of users, the greater the problem. So what is the solution?
One answer might be to buy specialist software from the likes of US specialist Citrix Systems. Very simply, adviser firms using a Citrix environment can have their applications and data stored and run centrally but accessed remotely. Traditionally, remote access has required dedicated lines between the locations, with each line costing several thousand pounds. The wide availability of broadband has changed all that. Even a home user can now install broadband for as little as £25 a month and achieve performance comparable with any office network.
While this major cost barrier may have been overcome, it must be recognised that the infrastructure necessary to support remote working is more complex and costly than the traditional office network.
As most adviser firms do not want to become IT experts or invest in the infrastructure required, many have elected to outsource supply and maintenance of the central servers, software and communications infrastructure to a specialist application service provider. This type of service can cost as little as £75 per user each month and provides user access to central data, email and software packages from any PC that has internet access.
For truly mobile computing, access to central data and services can also be made available via a mobile telephone. However, performance is similar to the old dial-up internet systems and much too slow.
So, mobile computing is now readily available and affordable to most advisers. But one major stumbling block still remains – advisers typically are uncomfortable with laptop technology and particularly reluctant to use it in front of a client. Most common reasons given include lack of typing skills and the laptop screen becoming a physical barrier between client and adviser. The new breed of tablet PCs begins to address these issues.
About the size of an A4 pad of paper, the tablets allow the user to write on the screen instead of typing. The writing is interpreted by the computer program and converted into text.
For the most technophobic advisers out there, the solution is literally at hand in the form of wireless pens, which are little bigger than a whiteboard marker and write on paper just like any ballpoint pen. Their unique feature is that they can store 100 pages of text by detecting the movement and pressure on the pen's nib. The text can subsequently be transmitted back to a PC using a mobile telephone or by connecting via a desktop docking station. They are an excellent way of recording meeting notes and details entered on to forms such as fact-finds and applications.
Clearly, technology will continue to move forward. The difference now is that technology is being utilised to reflect and support the way people actually work. Within five years, the smart adviser will be making greater use of technology, especially in support of the sales process. They will be able to access centrally stored and managed data via the internet from anywhere in the country. They will have a selection of tools on their computers to support compliant sales and produce high-quality documentation with one electronic audit trail.
For many advisers, this is increasingly becoming reality but, for those not yet there, a quick look at the cost savings should be enough to inspire even the biggest sceptics.