Sign o’ the tines

There are examples throughout history of society rejecting innovation of items which are commonplace today. Back in 1004 a Greek princess caused scandal and was embarrassingly accused of ‘excessive delicacy’ when she opted to use a fork while eating. When a plague hit shortly after and she met her untimely demise many stated this was a just punishment.

There were multiple unsuccessful attempts to introduce the fork over the next six centuries, and it wasn't until 1669 when the fork finally found mainstream appeal through a combination of fashion and function. The fashion occurred first in 1633 when Charles I became a supporter of their use, with the final boost coming in 1669 when new laws designed to stop, or at least limit the death count over dinner came into force, these laws stipulated that knives needed a rounded tip rather than a sharp tip, diners struggling to skewer their meat with these blunt tipped knives and as a result the forks relative utility increased.

Whilst parasols were popular items for sun shading the rain repelling umbrella was slow to catch on. In the warmer parts of Europe where the parasol was common, carrying an umbrella was considered embarrassing, it was seen as a statement that you were too poor to own your own carriage. It wasn't until the umbrella made an appearance in Britain, and our famously mixed weather became the necessary catalyst to boost its relative utility, you might be able to afford a carriage but you couldn't always guarantee its proximity when the rain came.

Incumbents of the wealth management industry will need to evolve by similar orders of magnitude as the music industry has over the last 40 yrs

These are just two examples that highlight the simple equation that dictates whether innovations will be successfully adopted. When relative utility is greater than the embarrassment factor, you’ll get successful adoption. The Sinclair C5 is a prime example of an invention with an almost insurmountable embarrassment factor and relatively low utility.

Fast forward to 2019, the adoption of digital technology was occurring but not at the pace many expected. New technology was often considered a tool to attract the next generation rather than one to service the HNW’s, it might even have been considered embarrassing to suggest a meeting via video to one's best clients.

The catalyst came in the form of Covid. It's estimated that 10 years worth of digital adoption has occurred in the last 18-24 months because the relative utility of client facing digital solutions has skyrocketed, the embarrassment of suggesting a video meeting has disappeared with the embarrassment now being reserved for those without this capability.

The fork has not evolved much since its adoption, a few tines here and there, and similarly the umbrella hasn't been revolutionised beyond going huge for golf or foldaway for around town so should we stop here and assume we have moved as far as we need to with client facing digitisation.

The Walkman launched in 1979 and initially it was a bit of a flop. It started to catch on slowly but negative sentiment increased in line with its popularity and then suddenly it broke free amongst the rebellious excitement of the 1980’s and is now one of the most iconic inventions of all time. The original Walkman evolved with the death of the tape, first into mini-discs and then CDs, only finally being superseded by iPods which then ended up in the hands of everyone via the smartphone. It wasn't just the music player itself that changed, the entire music industry, and the firms who build the players have changed completely. Similarly the buyers have changed, people of all ages, of all music tastes download, stream, play their choice of music on their personal devices wherever they are.

In wealth management digitisation has been rapidly adopted and its benefits clearly felt, the evolution will continue but it won't be limited to client facing digitisation. Incumbents of the wealth management industry will need to evolve by similar orders of magnitude as the music industry has over the last 40 yrs. During this time the music industry has navigated through enormous pricing pressure, embraced technology to reduce costs and enhance distribution and is thriving in an environment of ‘music freedom’ which includes intergenerational sharing of music.

It may be a tool that everyone uses two or three times a day, but let's not aim to be a fork, let's be a Walkman and see how far we can evolve.