A year ago, I asked which company could become the Amazon of financial advice? I speculated about who among the industry’s powerhouses had the savvy and agility to become the leader in creating an easy and elegant customer experience combined with better financial outcomes for investors.   

Judging from the number of readers (large) and discussions that ensued (many), it struck a chord.

I could have named the obvious firms: Fidelity, Schwab and Vanguard. After all, they’re so far ahead in assets and growth that others—with the exception of Morgan Stanley—can barely smell their trail.

But I didn’t.

Instead, I named Morgan Stanley, Franklin Templeton, Empower and Edward Jones based on the evidence of each investing in technology, consumer insight, and pulling all the pieces together to deliver what investors want—comprehensive guidance to maximize their financial health.

Looking back, these firms—and others—continue to assemble the tech stacks and advisor training and development that will evolve into the human+digital platforms of the future. But to earn the “Amazon” moniker, all firms have one big problem: interoperability.

Interoperability Means Breaking With The Past  
When systems are interoperable, they work with other systems to exchange and use information broadly without restrictions imposed by data sources, coding languages, system age and origin and other constraints. Application programming interfaces (APIs) are the technical keys to unlocking interoperability.

I define interoperability in financial services as the ability to integrate and coordinate all—not some—all of the functions of a comprehensive advice platform. Morgan Stanley is the furthest along, charging ahead with plans for a fully coordinated ecosystem encompassing both workplace and wealth management—capable of using the full keychain of ways to improve outcomes at the household level:
• Get the cost/value equation right
• Manage risk
• Conquer tax drag
• Maximize retirement income, including Social Security

Firms must cast aside their hidebound practices of building proprietary technology to achieve interoperability. It takes too long, costs too much money, things change too quickly, and it too often misses the target for what investors value—and will pay to get.

Companies To Watch
As host of the WealthTech on Deck podcast, I talk to those who observe and analyze trends and patterns in B2B and B2C behavior in financial services. I also visit with C-suite leaders and the architects of platforms that sit at the confluence of digital and human advice.

Several guests this year stood out for their clarity, boldness and speed. They are assembling technology that:
• Is built to integrate and coordinate with other technology, proprietary and third party, so that firms can customize their clients’ experience.

• Increases advisors’ availability and responsiveness to clients by automating tasks, like data management and reporting, that used to take hours every day.

• Elevates the workplace savings-and-investment experience to generate more clients for other services, such as wealth and asset management.

Vestwell is a cloud-based, modern recordkeeping platform for workplace savings programs for small employers. It has stood up a number of tax-advantaged accounts and plans: 401(k) and 403(b), individual retirement accounts (IRAs), ABLE accounts for families with a disabled member, and 529 college savings plans.

It’s also prepared itself for future growth from pooled employer plans encouraged with employer incentives in the SECURE acts.

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