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Advisor Insights

Digital Organization Best Practices for Advisors

Ben Brown lays out a plan for developing your ideal information architecture road map.

Maximizing efficiency and time with clients are typically top priorities for advisors, and we frequently turn to technology solutions in order to help us become both more productive and available for meaningful work. Yet the most fundamental aspect of optimizing our daily work lives is also perhaps the most overlooked: staying organized.

While it may sound simple, keeping your work organized has become a challenge in an increasingly digital workplace, with hundreds or thousands of business and client files to keep track of, not to mention the data associated with each technology tool or software platform you’re using. According to research conducted by McKinsey: “…Employees spend 1.8 hours every day--9.3 hours per week, on average--searching and gathering information. Put another way, businesses hire 5 employees but only 4 show up to work; the fifth is off searching for answers, but not contributing any value.”

This problem is only exacerbated in larger advisory businesses, as increased team size and a larger client base lead to even more complexity. Thankfully, though, it is possible to keep your business organized, and it starts with information architecture, or IA.

What Is Information Architecture?
Most commonly associated with systems design and the organization of websites, information architecture is broadly defined as the practice of deciding how to arrange the parts of something to be understandable. According to the Information Architecture Institute, “A good IA helps people to understand their surroundings and find what they’re looking for--in the real world as well as online.”

Think of it as a model of your business’s information that, when considered thoughtfully, can greatly increase productivity and sustainable organization when applied to your document, data, and software management processes. Taking a macro view of your entire business’s information can seem like a significant undertaking, but is easily managed when broken into individual steps or projects.

Start With an Inventory
Like any project involving complex information, the first step is to take stock of the data you and/or your team members currently maintain or interact with in the course of business. As advisors, the bulk of this data (at least in terms of actual size) is most likely to be represented by documents, including client files, compliance records, corporate and internal operations files, investment and planning resources, and many others. Files, however, are just one type of business data, so don’t forget to include information maintained in your software tools (such as a customer relationship management solution), and even institutional knowledge (such as unwritten processes and procedures) as well. This is a high-level exercise, so there is no need to inventory every specific file or data point. Rather, you want a clear picture of the information and data types you currently have (for example, client files) and where they are located (for example, cloud storage solution).

While your inventory can be created using a simple spreadsheet, a better way to organize it is by using mind-mapping software (such as Coggle, MindMeister, MindManager, XMind, and others). Doing so will provide an intuitive visual representation of where everything is currently located and makes it much easier to think through an optimization strategy. Even if you were to stop here in the process, you now at least have a tool (or map) for someone to quickly determine where a piece of information is when searching.

Create Your Road Map
With your information inventory prepared, you’re ready to think through how things should be structured moving forward. Try to approach this task from the perspective of someone completely new to your business or even the financial-services industry. If looking for a specific file or data point, where would they most likely begin their search? If using mind-mapping software, you can make a copy of your existing information inventory map, then drag and drop information types to new locations and create subcategories of certain information types to specify how they should be structured.

Potential questions to answer during this process might include:

  • How should client and other documents be organized?
-- If using folders, how should client folders and subfolders be standardized?
-- If using metadata as part of an intranet, what properties or “tags” should be created?
  • Does any current information belong in a different format, location, or tool?
-- For example, could a business-wide client status report currently maintained in a spreadsheet instead be built within your CRM solution?
  • Do you have a centralized and easily accessible location for storing business procedures?
  • -- If a new team member started today, would they be able to determine how to perform a task on their own using these procedures?

Be sure to solicit feedback during this step and make it a collaborative process, particularly in larger organizations where several individuals’ work is likely to be affected.

Choose the Right Tools
Equally important in optimizing your information organization are the specific tools used to store, manage, and access data. Not only will decisions on which specific tools to use be influenced by your information architecture road map, but the tools themselves will also help drive decision-making on how information should be structured. Mission-critical tools for advisors are likely to include CRM software, a document-management solution, and a password manager, to name just a few. This is a good opportunity to evaluate whether any changes are needed to your current tech stack, or if current tools are simply in need of some cleaning up.

A document-management solution without a plan or standards in place is highly likely to cause headaches in the future and lead to more time wasted hunting for files. For some advisors, a cloud storage plan with a carefully planned and strictly enforced folder structure may be sufficient. Those looking for more control, features, and the ability to store additional information beyond documents should consider upgrading to a complete intranet: an internal website to help organize your business information. An intranet can be a powerful tool to help you manage and organize documents (using folders, metadata, or both) as well as other key business information, such as processes and procedures maintained in a wiki library. The most widely used solution is Microsoft SharePoint, and though it can be both extremely powerful and complex, the out-of-the-box features of SharePoint Online are fairly (and increasingly) accessible to tech-savvy users.

Implement, Educate, and Enforce
Once you’ve finalized your ideal information architecture road map and re-evaluated your tools, it’s time to do the heavy lifting of migrating and organizing your business data. As part of this process, it’s important to create written procedures related to the ongoing management of business documents and data, and make sure other team members are fully up to speed on them. Share your new information architecture road map with all employees so that they know where to look for information moving forward. Host a training session (or multiple sessions) to explain any changes, and how documents and data are expected to be organized. It’s also worth conducting regular reviews of your information systems to ensure everything is in its place, determine if any data or documents are no longer needed and can be archived, and to call out any practices that are out of line with your document- and data-management policies.