Innovation

Evolving with digitalisation: a photographer and an asset manager exchange perspectives

The digital revolution began in the 50s, and by the 90s it had firmly taken hold, forcing our work culture and habits to dramatically change. How has this impact the way we work?

Photographer Jean-Marie Liot, recent winner of the Mirabaud Yacht Racing Image competition, which recognises the most beautiful sailing photo of the year, compares his perspective with Nicolas Sordet, asset manager at Mirabaud & Cie SA.

At a time when mobile phones, beepers and CD players had been first introduced, Nicolas Sordet remembers the present he received for his 12th birthday: a pocket calculator. This was the first time he witnessed how new technology is capable of executing complex operations at the speed of light that before would have taken up to minutes. Since then – a time not so long ago in fact – a door has opened which has allowed room for the wildest utopias to feed into our imaginations, evolving into an unsettling ghost that will one day see humankind replaced by machines.

Reinventing one's profession

Digitalisation has become an integral part of everyday life, but it has also invaded our work environment. These changes have not occurred overnight and Jean-Marie Liot, a photographer who specialises in nautical imagery, explains that digital photography for example, took hold slowly, not becoming widespread until it could provide the desired image quality. He adds that "initially, nobody took it very seriously. The resolution of the first photos taken with digital cameras in the mid-90s was not yet very good. Sending photos via the Internet was particularly tedious. Looking back on the past 15 years, however, I realise what an incredible leap we have taken."

With film becoming ever more obsolete, photographers had little choice but to adapt to new technology, leaving shots taken before the digitalisation era seem all but outdated. "People don't watch slideshows any more. In comparison with the perfectly even, high-definition images produced by digital cameras, they seem blurred. When you think about it, it is not our work itself that has changed, but the way we deal with what we are producing."

A blessing or a curse

To both Nicolas Sordet and Jean-Marie Liot, this observation is nonetheless a positive one. The dawn of digitalisation has considerably simplified and accelerated the processes involved in their work. But, as is the case for any revolution, change always comes with its fair share of downsides.

Speed is one of the greatest advantages of new technology, but it is also one of its most inconvenient aspects, as Jean-Marie Liot emphasises: "Nowadays, clients want their photos almost before they have even been taken. People think it takes a few seconds to send an image via the Internet. But when you compare working hours to those logged 20 years ago, you soon realise that things take longer these days, particularly during the post-processing stage."

Nicolas Sordet goes as far as to say: "Accessibility and speed do not necessarily amount to good quality. These days, for instance, access to information has improved immeasurably. However, competition among news websites, particularly those featuring market information, forces everyone into a race to broadcast that information first, possibly without cross-checking their sources. This is dangerous for asset managers, because false information can lead us to make bad investment decisions or send a stock crashing. This is why it is so important to think critically at all times."

Both contributors agree that digitalisation has made their lives simpler. Sending e-mails, accessing archives, issuing stock-market orders and digital client accounting – instantaneous results have become the norm. "It is when technology doesn't work that we realise just how engrained this need for immediate results is," Nicolas Sordet concludes. For example, would we still find our way through a city without the help of the GPS on our smartphones?

“ There will always be a person behind the machine – even if it is just to pull the plug, if need be.”

Nicolas Sordet, asset manager at Mirabaud & Cie SA

Taking time to think

Despite this, Nicolas Sordet looks back at times when orders were placed only in the morning and opinions were formed by consulting the specialist press. "Today, our work demands more rapid reactions, but it is all the more interesting for it," he points out.

However, he insists that taking the time to think is as necessary as ever; we need time to evaluate the consequences of our actions, particularly in asset management. "We have to be even more vigilant than was the case in the past. Transactions are executed so quickly that you can no longer go back and correct any mistakes."

Even if correcting errors in photography is somewhat simpler, taking the time to think is just as important to Jean-Marie Liot. “Before digital technology came in, we could only take 36 shots per film, so we had to think carefully, and choose and feel the right moment to take a picture without wasting film. There was no room for error back then. I have held onto this approach," the photographer tells us. He adds: "I'm not interested in clicking incessantly and snapping thousands of clichés in just a few minutes. That is not the way to get a good shot, and the time it takes to sift through the images adds to the workload."

In the field of photography, widespread access to digital technology has also multiplied the competition. Jean-Marie Liot comments with amusement: "A few years ago, everyone started calling themselves photographers and joined the market. Prices plummeted." Thankfully, the trend seems to be calming down, and customers are turning to professional photographers once again.

"People have realised that having the right equipment is not enough to take good pictures. Photography is a profession, and there is a human being behind the camera – someone with skills, experience and certain knowledge".

The personal side...

"The sea is my passion. I know it well, I sail with the sailors I photograph and talk to them for hours. I believe that human contact of this kind is indispensable in taking good photographs," Jean-Marie Liot highlights.

As for Nicolas Sordet, he points out that our communicative behaviour has changed dramatically. To him, this may well be the biggest risk this technology harbours. "In my opinion, losing out on human-to-human interaction can cause the most damage. It depersonalises relationships and leads to misunderstandings. Sometimes, not being able to spend enough time consulting with our clients or our colleagues can lead us to miss opportunities, or simply to content ourselves with communicating with digital equipment rather than actual human beings," he observes.

"Emotions are our greatest driving force. Most of the time, digital interfaces colour or neutralise the expression of these emotions, sometimes disguising them entirely. In my profession, nothing could replace regular face-to-face meetings with clients. They enable us to better understand their expectations, aspirations and reactions. Luckily, the human side – exchange, discretion, consultation and availability – still has pride of place in asset management."

Looking to the future

Although digitalisation has certainly changed the way we do things and how we communicate, Jean-Marie Liot and Nicolas Sordet agree that the incredible acceleration of innovation technology we have witnessed over the past 20 years should relent somewhat. Not to mention the fact that swathes of people are still affected by the digital divide.

For the asset manager, "the profession is unlikely to be much different in the future from what it is today. However, the way in which investments are made is certain to evolve over the coming years." It just so happens that one of these new phenomena is already creeping in: the use of decision-making aids for the allocation of funds. If this becomes commonplace, stock-market returns could be hugely affected. In all likelihood, if all decisions were made systematically by equally smart IT programmes, the markets would ultimately be neutralised.

“What make markets profitable are their inefficiencies. The stock-market value is rarely the value of a business in real terms; it reflects expectations, concerns and risks. It is also hard to imagine entrusting your money to a machine without any human intervention at all." He adds, “another change is on the horizon – and may be in full swing sooner than you think: the disappearance of cash. Transitioning from cash to digital payments when we make purchases will undoubtedly change the way we do things. It is the next revolution around the corner."

The photographer adopts a similar tone: "Of course, technology will continue to improve, sensors will become ever more powerful. But if you want novel, original photos, nothing can replace the human eye behind the lens. Nevertheless, to stay on top of our game, we will have to constantly adapt to developments, both as regards our equipment and our software. My outlook is not pessimistic. There will always be demand for professionals and, above all, there will always be demand for the person behind the machine."  

Nicolas Sordet reaffirms this, "I agree, there will always be a person behind the machine – even if it is just to pull the plug, if need be." 

2016 MIRABAUD YACHT RACING IMAGE: AWARD-WINNING IMAGE

Taken on 15 April 2016, Jean-Maire Liot's shot immortalises Morgan Lagravière's IMOCA Safran during training for the Vendée Globe. Off the marks at top speed, this new-generation sail boat tackles the waves without losing pace. Knowing that the skipper is steering the boat from a cockpit entirely submerged in a breaking wave makes this image all the more captivating.

Jean-Marie Liot claimed his title in the 7th edition of the Mirabaud Yacht Racing Image competition from among 149 participants from 25 countries.