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Consulting industry still relies on personal touch, but execs keep eye on AI

Willis Towers Watson’s Steve Carlson

Technology does not appear to be as big a disruptor for legacy investment consultants. At least, not yet.

"We have not seen (robo-advisers or artificial intelligence) impact the business in a meaningful way at this juncture," said Steve Carlson, head of investment, Americas, at Willis Towers Watson PLC, in Chicago.

Despite all the headlines about AI and robo-advisers, consultants said they're not concerned because most of their institutional clients want detailed, customized solutions — not automated advice.

"There's a certain value to judgment and process that you just can't program into a software (application) at this point," explained Andrew Junkin, president of Wilshire Consulting, Broomfield, Colo.

Mr. Junkin added that most of Wilshire's clients, which are large pension plans, are seeking customized, value-added services. That's not something he's seen AI or robo-advisers be able to provide.

"If you look at the defined contribution market, that's a place where technology can really have a big impact," he noted.

Russell K. Ivinjack, a senior partner at Aon Hewitt Investment Consulting Inc., Chicago, also said he's not seen AI or robo-advising eat into his firm's institutional investment consulting business.

"Anything that we produce from an intellectual capital standpoint, clients want to access themselves online. So, that's where things are moving," he said.

James Callahan, head of Callan LLC's fund sponsor consulting group, San Francisco, said: "Technology facilitates communication, data gathering, processing information, but I don't think we've seen any meaningful trend toward it replacing anything that we do.

Mr. Callahan explained that when Callan works with clients, its consultants are interacting with staff and board members, as well as investment committees.

"The functions that we provide are still people-to-people functions," the Callan consultant said. "It's hard to foresee how that would change, but we'll see how that evolves."