Has the Earth moved for you ...and digital?

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2 November 2016
London, United Kingdom

On making strategic choices in times of exponential change … and epicycles

The impact of Digital is causing exponential disruption, challenge and change to the way asset managers operate. It isn’t the first time people have experienced the like, and it won’t be the last. In a previous century, John Donne preached of how "The new philosophy calls all in doubt ... t'is all in pieces, all coherence gone " from his pulpit in the old St Paul’s cathedral - in turn, to be engulfed in flames and replaced by Wren’s masterpiece.

What is a constant, a North Star, to use as your bearing during such a storm ? Key strategic choices still need to be made. Not the least of which is: what digital strategy will align to the aims and ambitions of your own client communication and engagement strategy - today, tomorrow and long into the future.

So, what can act as an immutable factor to test vendor solutions against during such a time in both the industry as a whole and client communication in particular ?

Simply this: the logical coherence of a vendor’s solution to the new complexity of multichannel communication and digital demands.

When all else seems in flux, logic is a constant. Logical coherence can be tested as either right or wrong against the real world, as new information and changing demands become available to test it against.

In Donne’s time the “new philosophy” was a transformation in worldview. The Earth moved from the centre of a calm and perfect universe towards a view of astronomy we accept now. It is worth looking at how one worldview supplanted another and, in particular, at the example of Johannes Kepler.

Kepler won the argument about the planets moving in eclipses because of his greater logical coherence in explaining the new observations made of our planetary system. The alternative, maintained by "the powers that be", was through the use of epicycles. This was a convoluted explanation to maintain the accepted truth of circular orbits, involving lots of subsidiary circular movements (epicycles) to get the new observations to match their theory.

Obscure as epicycles may seem, it is a great example of not relying on logical coherence, but simply bolting on a bit of convolution to, sort of, allow an entrenched worldview to make sense.

In our world, of client and market communications, we can see established solutions which add "epicycles" to support the new digital world. They may seem to solve the problem, but not at the core of their logical architecture.

So what is the fundamental test of such a solution’s logical coherence?

The answer is not specific to digital, it is just the fundamental of all effective communication: the extent to which the solution can provide the right information when, where and how it is asked for.

And, add into this, that the right information also involves the complexity of being a global business complying with the regulatory environments of a wide range of country-specific regulations.

In a way, Digital is like Galileo’s telescope. It reveals a greater universe to test established models against. So, Digital is simply a good stress test to put the logical coherence of a vendor solution against. It stresses the fulfilment of this fundamental definition of communication in the volume, frequency and variety of information requests.

To realise the potential of digital, a distribution channel should be each individual investor, and each request for information, AND, attuned to each and every time each channel asks for it. And, this is good. It is a means to communicate far more coherently and completely than ever before.

So, to use a phrase Kepler liked, let us “anatomise” this fundamental of effective communication: to provide the right information when, where and how it is asked for.

In practical terms, what does this mean for data based communication, such as portfolio reporting and fund product distribution? And, when you also need to comply with all regulatory requirements?

Firstly, it means delineating the difference between data and information. This means recognising that data is a raw material of information, data only becomes information when a context is applied to it.

In simple terms:

Data is the what of information

Context is the when, where, and how of information

So, the data remains invariable but each request for it is dynamically tuned to the highly volatile context of the when, where and how of each particular request. For example, the same data used in a static image of a table in a document needs to be used in the different context of an interactive chart on a 3rd party investor portal. This same request from the German market, or the American retail market, needs to have the appropriate regulatory context of disclaimers and disclosures applied to it.

Data needs to be invariable, context needs to be channel specific.

So, a vendor solution which allows for the systemic combination of data and context, at the component level, on-demand and at very high volume, demonstrates a logical coherence at the core of its design. A vendor solution which does not, demonstrates “epicycles”.

The problem is that conventional solutions apply context to the container of data, the document template, as an example. Not to the discrete components of data which are combined for that one, of many possible, uses.

The Earth-centric astronomical models were logically coherent at first, they did explain astronomical observations. But then we developed better instrumentation and we were able to observe in greater detail, and that's when things started to break down. The established models required logically painful contortions and convolutions to fit the new reality.

So with Digital, it demands a greater granularity and the dynamic reusability of your data for multiple contexts. It expects each response to a request for data to have a specific context applied. If your vendor solution is not an engine to allow this, then it is outdated and will drag your digital ambitions down with it.