Lessons learnt from 20 years of Digital WAM .... and 27 elephants

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18 October 2016
London, United Kingdom

Here at integrate we are celebrating 20 years of providing digital solutions to the wealth and asset management industry, or of our involvement in Digital WAM, as it is now termed. For many people working in the asset management industry, the idea of using digital channels to market funds and to communicate with clients is relatively new, something that has appeared in the past five years perhaps. So it may be surprising to hear that we have been developing digital solutions for 20 years. Well, the term Digital WAM may be new but ‘digital’ has been present in the asset management industry for two decades.

In the 1990s, we introduced the first online portfolio valuation service for Killik & Co. For Barclays we provided web chat, collaborative form filling and other online collaboration facilities, and multi-channel publishing of wealth management research and investment advice.

Which brings me neatly onto the elephants in the title.......

My first job was with World Book Encyclopaedia, as a lowly production assistant. From that time, I vividly remember the incandescent rage of an editor shouting "THIRTY TWO!!!! Thirty two elephants!', down the phone at an expert contributor. The illustrious soul at the other end of the line had made the cardinal sin in reference book publishing. The 32 elephants came from a well known error in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which claimed that Hannibal crossed the Alps with 5 more elephants than he actually did.

The editor was incandescent, ensuring the authority of the content he produced was his sacred duty. And this is also the key lesson to be learnt from 20 years of building digital solutions for asset managers.

To explain. We have been involved in a large number of digital projects over the years across numerous industry verticals, and we have learnt many lessons from this experience. If I had to pick the most important lesson that we have learnt it would be this: ensure that you have a core source of authority of the content served via digital channels AND the means to maintain its authority.

Getting data sustainably right is a well established principle in asset management, but applying the same rigour to content is very much less so.

Isn't content just another word for data? No, it is absolutely not. To believe so results from an incomplete understanding of how information is distributed. Content is data + context.

In simple terms:

Data is the what of information

Context is the when, where, and how of information

The combination of these is the essential characteristic of content.

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

To elaborate further, consider the documents produced by asset managers for their funds. The same investment commentary included in an English version of a factsheet needs to be presented in different languages if the document is to be distributed to investors in countries where English is not the spoken language. The underlying data (i.e. the commentary) remains the same, it is only the context (i.e. the language) that is channel specific.

At integrate we know that digital channels did not give rise to the concept of content, but we recognise that the adoption of digital channels in asset management is adding a layer of complexity in the distribution of information about funds. For example, how do asset managers ensure that all content for all funds complies with all regulatory requirements when it is distributed as individual information components (e.g. a dynamic chart of performance history) via fund platforms, including 3rd-party platforms?

This is the difference between data and knowledge. Between data and information. Data is the foundation which knowledge is built from, it is vital to be passionate about getting it right, but it is only the start of knowledge, it is only the ‘what’ of information. It is the iron ore, but it it is not the Empire State Building. And to provide effective support for the digital distribution of information you need to continue beyond the data element. You need to extend the rigour of getting data right to a new discipline of getting content consistently right, whatever the applied context.

So, how to map context onto data in a sustainable way? This has been integrate’s focus for the past 20 years. It is that experience that has enabled us to develop a platform that can meet the challenges facing asset management organisations as they extend their operating models to support digital channels alongside traditional channels.

The answer? Provide a systemic means to tailor individual data components for each contextual demand; a systemic means of transforming data according to when, where and how it is needed.

What disturbs me is to hear that some newspapers are introducing online news content that is completely separate from the content that is included in their papers. Similarly, it would be logically flawed if asset management organisations were to see the distribution of fund information through digital channels as a separate activity to distributing through traditional factsheets. It is the same data, simply a different context.

I gently suggest, less loudly than that World Book editor, "Do you not see the risk here?" To see ‘digital’ as requiring a separate operating model is to introduce the risk of distributing two content streams, in other words the risk of making data, as well as context, channel-specific. It is analogous to treating the symptoms of an illness rather than the causes. Our 20 years of experience of digital channels have proved to us that the right approach is to get your source of authority right and to get it sustainable, and then digital is just another channel through which your data flows. Beneath every beautiful fountain is a heck of a lot of mundane plumbing. Get that plumbing done properly and the rest is automatic.

And back to the elephants: would five more have mattered much? Well, yes, they would. After Cannae, all that stood between Rome and defeat were its walls, but Hannibal had no siege equipment. Five more powerful elephants could have changed history. Getting the number of elephants right is important in understanding why Hannibal was unable to defeat Rome. Ensuring the invariance of data across multiple channels, while ensuring that context is channel-specific, is the only way to ensure that you are communicating to your market authoritatively, efficiently, consistently, accurately and, therefore, successfully.

And a final word about World Book. When I founded integrate we sent them a proposal to take their typesetter files and turn them into a database to be used as a source of authority of syndicated content for the emerging web. I was told, "No. People will always turn to a bookshelf for the definitive source of information." In Goethe’s phase, nothing is original, the problem lies in thinking of it afresh.