If you think about how a conference is constructed, the conference chair's relationship with the conference theme and the community determine the quality of the speakers it presents and the value of the conference to you, the attendee. 

Technology Tools for Today® is about one thing: technology. It's the brainchild of technologically savvy independent advisors (like yourself) who spend most of their working hours following events in the field of technology, reporting on them in Virtual Office News (www.virtualofficenews.com) and then structuring them into an annual conference. Why go to all this trouble? Because your technology platform is probably the most important piece of your practice management initiative. So why not get your advice from advisors, just like you, who spend all their time looking for ways that the latest technology can make you and your clients more successful?

In that spirit, Joel Bruckenstein and I (publisher and editor of Virtual Office News, respectively) have lined up a terrific set of speakers and timely topics for the upcoming Fourth Annual Technology Tools for Today conference. To give you a taste, the following is a synopsis of our general sessions.

Getting The Most Out Of Your Technology, Or, Now You've Installed It, How Do You Get Your Staff To Use It?
In the first general session of the conference, Greg Friedman, owner of Friedman & Associates (www.friedmanassociates.com), a Novato, Calif., planning firm, and CRM Software (www.junxure.com), maker of Junxure CRM software, give us a critical lesson in buy-in.

Most advisors growing their firms and adding staff have discovered that disseminating new software systems to employees-that is, the technical aspect of getting the systems installed and making them available to everyone in the office-is just half the battle. "Let's say I'm an advisor in some stage of development," begins Friedman. "I need to select systems for my technology platform, but there are so many of them, and while there's lots of information available to help compare them, we're all busy. Both time and money are at a premium. Sometimes, it's easier to bury your head and just keep working than to build that critical tech platform.

And maybe that's because most advisors go about it the wrong way. "Stop looking out, and start by looking in," he counsels. "First, figure out what you're trying to accomplish ... what you want your business to be. Are you growing? Is it a 'lifestyle' firm? Is everything outsourced? Do the necessary self-analysis about what you're trying to do before looking at technology. Don't make the common mistake wherein firms get sold technology and then try to make it work without consideration to the best systems for their particular business plan."

Once you've honestly thought through what it is you want to do with your business and your life, says Friedman, then do a GAP analysis: What technology do you have now and what's missing? Then you can identify those areas that need improvement and you can begin finding and evaluating systems. How do you search the marketplace for those systems? Friedman will tell you during his talk.

All of this boils down to having a technology plan. But in order to carry one out, one has to be introspective at first, and then do her due diligence, next. "And, finally," says Friedman, "you must be willing to commit money and resources to purchase your new systems and to get your people to commit to regular training classes in addition to their regular job."

Concludes Friedman, "The cost is significant, but so is the payoff."

Technology And Human Capital

The concept of human capital has been central to the planning of Lee Financial (www.leefin.com) in Dallas, for decades, and its greatest spokesperson has been the firm's founder, Richie Lee.

"Technology is the biggest game changer that exists out there," he acknowledges. "When it occurs ... if you don't recognize and adapt to it, then you're going to suffer the consequences." Like a lot of big firms, Lee Financial grew to a large size while simultaneously struggling to establish the right technology platform to complement its vision of client service.

"One problem for many advisors is not having people in your organization who are attuned to technological developments. If that's the case, it's going to be more difficult for you to keep up," Lee says. And that observation is focused on the past. As for the future, he adds, "We've just begun the second wave of the evolution of the financial advisory business. The first wave started in the early '70s and consummated over the last few years with the demonstration that not only is giving financial advice a practicable discipline, but it's become a big business." Lee explains that the most recent turning point has come from the wirehouses' failure to discharge their duties effectively, which has caused an increase in the number of independent financial advisors. "This is important because it encourages those developing technological infrastructure for the independent model. The new technology and energy of the upcoming generation will be the foundation of the future advisory business."

Specifically, says Lee, the way the next generation handles four issues will determine their success:
The enormous overload of information
How well they adapt their businesses to changes in technology necessary for productivity and cost reduction
How well they listen to the changing determinants of what clients perceive as valuable
And, how well they match up technology to their talents-by having the right people in the right place with the right technology.

Think also, says Lee, about the period of time we're in and the interplay of technological development with stock market performance and the planning industry's growth. "In the period from 1966 to 1982, returns in markets were something like 43% overall, whereas from 1981 to 2000, they were 480%. You can finance a lot of things with that kind of growth. However, it's likely we're going back into a period today similar to 1966/1982 wherein it will be even more crucial to reduce costs and deal with the need to leverage one's talent in order to stay in business. Yet, with a relatively flat industry, are there going to be people who will risk capital to develop software for that flat market?"

Lee will discuss his own firm's technology platform and human capital, both in 1975 and today, go over their evolution and how they moved Lee Financial to the next level as well as "the pain we went through in dealing with this evolution."

Life Mapping
You've heard of life planning and, if you attended last year's Technology Tools for Today conference or already use it in your practice, you've also heard of mind mapping. But wouldn't it be fascinating to combine the two, as have Janet Tyler Johnson of JATAJ Wealth Management, LLC (www.jataj.com) in Blanchardville, Wis., and Gary Davis Jr., owner of Beneficial Concepts Group (www.beneficialconceptsgroup.com) of Stockton, N.J.

In this session, you will hear from Davis first, who will talk about creating good work flow processes for your business. "I'm an operations guy, and this will be a how-to talk. Once attendees understand the information I present, we'll look at how they can use mind mapping to capture and use these ideas." Work flow process, about which Davis is passionate, includes creating value by documenting your work flow, using process technology efficiently, and tying job descriptions back into work flow. "To me, these three things are process, and 90%-95% of the problems advisors have in running their businesses come from lack of process."

Says Davis, CRMs can capture workflow process, but precautions must be taken in using them. "Advisors must think in advance about how to get their work flow out of a system that may have crashed, or how to transition to another system if the current one has outlived its purpose."

Johnson will follow Davis with a discussion of how one creates a vision for his business and his life. "Then we'll have the audience mind map their own visions," says Johnson. "If money and time weren't issues, what would you want your life and business to look like? We're going to have you create a vision for your life, and then have your business fit into it," she adds. It's a process of getting advisors to think about why they are advisors, what in their work they're passionate about, and what is their motivation. "The question is ... why are you doing what you're doing and are you still excited about it? Or have you lost your own vision of why you got in this business to begin with?"

The deliverable? "Our audience will have a vision statement done-or a good start at one," says Johnson. "The idea is for them to at least start the process. Mind mapping can be used for anything; we'll use it for 'visioning,'" she says.

Can You Top This? The Bleeding Edge In Financial Planning Software Financial planning software continues to improve.

To some, that's depressing news because they've barely mastered the systems they already use. But it's inevitable, as new generations of clients with changing needs enter the picture. At the same time, getting advisors to use more fully what they already have is of great importance, too.

Dr. Linda Strachan, senior vice president of product marketing for EISI (www.eisi.com), the maker of Naviplan and Financial Profiles planning systems, says her company will concentrate more for now on adoption instead of expansion. "We already have a substantial user base, so we're enhancing our products rather than coming out with really new stuff. We want to make the software easier to use."

Of course, EISI added many new features to its software last year. For example, she says, "Enterprise firms generate thousands of financial plans and many don't want to or need to do a complete plan update every year. Rather, they want to be able to give their client a 'progress report,' so we've made this possible." Naviplan's Progress Report shows clients where they were when they first came in, 2) where they are now, and 3) where we projected they'd be. The advisor can then discuss discrepancies with his client.

Retirement income distribution planning is still a hot topic, and Strachan will talk about EISI's developments on that front. "The mechanism is the same, but we introduced some new capabilities in May 2008 for setting up new accounts, examining redemption strategies, and better ways of looking at cash flow."

Integration continues to be important, as well, to EISI. "Our enterprise clients tend to have their own proprietary integration points-maybe a customized CRM-and information from their CRM, and maybe Albridge and Naviplan, are consolidated within a 'black box' that our software must integrate with. This we see as one key to user adoption."

EISI will suspend its two separate versions of Naviplan in 2009, says Strachan, merging Naviplan Standard and Naviplan Extended into one platform available either on the user's desktop or on the Internet.

Over at MoneyGuidePro (www.moneyguidepro.com)-or, technically, PIETech Inc.-in Powhattan, Va., Bob Curtis, CEO will discuss the idea that planning software needs to become smarter in what it can do for you. "The software we now use is very powerful," says Curtis, "but it's limited and it's dumb. We need to add more intelligence to our software. Advisors still have to work too hard to use it."

PIETech recently performed a major overhaul of MoneyGuidePro, the result of which is its new "G2" version. "We wanted to achieve a breakthrough in functionality with major new capabilities that would all work together well, which we couldn't do applying the Band-Aids of the past," says Curtis.

MoneyGuidePro concentrated on five areas of enhancement: 1) It has added ranges of goals, or the ability to specify "smart client preferences,"; 2) Its What-If capabilities have undergone a total redesign, and the various stress tests and Monte Carlo simulations that run separately within MGP have been consolidated into a What-If worksheet; 3) PIE has added Supersolve, the automated ability to help the client and advisor decide what to tweak among competing goals to make the plan work; 4) G2 includes a new, separate presentation module that converts MGP's findings into an interactive PowerPoint for the client; and 5) The long-time MGP emphasis on identifying all client goals and separating them between "essential" and "lifestyle expenses/goals" is now handled by Goal Wizard, a tutorial that teaches the advisor how to build a set of goals. "This last addition can be shared with the client and they can do their own goal-building right on their computer at home, allowing the advisor to offload a time-consuming part of the planning process."

Curtis is confident that G2 will be the foundation his company needs to keep MoneyGuidePro relevant for planners who want to plan smart while controlling their workload.

Although I've concentrated on just our general sessions in this article, we will have 10 preconference sessions and 20 breakout sessions on every technology topic that should be of interest to advisor attendees seeking ways to keep their practices efficient, competitive and relevant.