What principles does a cutting-edge company have to learn, relearn, and forget as it migrates to the Web? That's a question that faces SEI Investments Co., a wildly successful financial-services company based outside Philadelphia. In the early 1970s, SEI launched one of the first outsourced accounting services for bank-trust departments — which ran over a network of phone lines. Today, SEI is a juggernaut, with more than 1,500 employees and a market capitalization of nearly $4 billion. Over the past 18 months, it has developed a set of Internet-based products designed to "Web-enable" its clients — trust departments, mutual-fund companies, investment advisers, and retirement-services providers.
"It's natural for us to embrace the Net," says Judith Tschirgi, 46, who, as senior VP of Internet development, leads the creation of SEI's Internet-related products and services. "But the Internet has its own set of technology challenges and strategic hurdles."
One difficulty was the development of products for a new type of end user: the investment nonprofessional. The wealthy investors that SEI's bank-trust clients served were taking a hands-on approach to their investments. Baby boomers were eager to use the Web to help themselves achieve what Tschirgi calls "financial wellness." So SEI launched StrataWeb, software that lets bank-trust departments create sites where customers can check their portfolios online.
SEI has also rediscovered the idea that when you're marketing new technologies, you're also selling change — both inside and outside the organization. Its new portal for corporate financial executives, TreasuryPoint.com, features a revolutionary tool called "the Optimizer," which uses artificial intelligence to help treasurers make sophisticated decisions about managing the cash needs of their companies. The technology is powerful — but convincing treasurers to embrace it may be an uphill battle. "Most treasurers still do their cash-flow projections on paper," explains Tschirgi. "So we can't just go out and make a sales pitch. We have to be change agents."
The company is known for its fast-moving, informal culture, and it has approached the Net with those same principles. It created an independent Web team that receives strategic guidance and vision from an executive committee as well as from business-unit managers — but does not report to any single group. Tschirgi explains the rationale: "Because the team wasn't tied to a specific business unit, there were no boundaries to sharing. Members of the group really embraced the notion that they needed to work for all the business units, without lines of reporting getting in the way. I didn't have to dictate standards. They grew up very naturally."
Cathy Olofson (email@example.com) is a regular contributor to Fast Company. Contact Judith Tschirgi by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A version of this article appeared in the December 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.