SMEs Don’t Have To Become The ‘Have Nots’ In A Business World Led By Artificial Intelligence

We are well past a phase where a mention of Artificial Intelligence used to take our thoughts to the realms of science fiction. A look at the investment flowing into AI will let us know that serious money is backing the dawn of the AI era. The investors, however, are a limited set right now. Large investors are global tech companies – the likes of Google, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Uber and Facebook. Smaller investors are limited to Venture Capital funds. The large section of players is currently trying to figure out from a distance, what their play should be.

As a small and medium enterprise (SME), whose core business is not technology, it may be difficult to get started. However, it may be even more naïve to assume that this wave does not relate to us and may not impact our business at all or may be only marginally. There needs to be a significant jump in the extent to which businesses employ AI solutions if they are to remain competitive within the current economic landscape.

Small businesses do not have the luxury of huge organised data sets available to them. This is going to be a crucial differentiating factor going forward for firms who emerge as leaders in the Analytics and Modelling world. Firms like Google, Facebook are able to garner more insights and make more sophisticated self-learning models because they are the richest in the world in terms of captive data sets. Similarly, a bank or a retail chain which has made investments in setting up infrastructure to capture store and organise its customer data stands to gain a competitive edge. Their data scientists can now move beyond predictive modelling on sample data sets and build complex AI models on the entire data sets.

This, however, does not mean that huge upfront investment in data and IT systems is a pre-requisite for benefiting from the range of AI algorithms now available due to improvement in computing power. Smaller enterprises can devise stepwise plans to target one area at a time depending on their requirements. Routine tasks in accounting, customer service and HR can be automated as low hanging fruit.

However, It is important to create a priority list for specific applications for AI technology basis specific business goals. A supermarket or a retail chain, for instance, may be more interested in predictive analytics technology to reduce staffing inefficiencies. A food delivery establishment – like a chain of restaurants or hyperlocal delivery aggregators – may start with streaming traffic data analysis or autonomous delivery vehicles (depending on which country you are in). Chatbots (Natural Language Processing) is perhaps a low hanging segment which can be an ideal entry point for most of the customer-facing industries to wet their feet in AI technologies. Chatbots have evolved way beyond a customer support tool towards a revenue augmentation tool and are extensively being adopted on the websites of different kind of players (retail, banking, hospitality even healthcare delivery).

To benefit from the advances in AI, small businesses should adopt a modernised approach to IT. This would involve a digression from legacy on-premises solutions and toward cloud-powered resources which are more amenable to scale.

Another key initiative to be adopted would be actively tracking the developments in the AI space in India and globally. Enhancing the networking and knowledge sharing with customers, other small business owners, suppliers, distributors will help in being better prepared to adopt swiftly to any potential disruptions and/or capitalise on any breakthrough concept. Even if an SME isn’t ready to deploy emerging AI tools at present, it’s worthwhile to keep a close eye on the developments in the field.

It would also be a good idea to keep an eye on the startup world in India. As per IBM, India has increasingly become a favourite tech hub across the globe with more than 200 startups solely in AI and ML, with more sprouting every day. India could have the largest developer base in the world by 2020. At present, there are more than three million programmers in India who would be developing 10% of all the apps by 2017 end. Indian startups are already busy attacking a multitude of use cases across industries with newer algorithms, and an SMB could find on suited to their business if they keep a track on their activities.

However, it is also important to maintain a perspective and not get too carried away. A key aspect of what makes small businesses click is personalisation and human interaction. It is a competitive advantage, which is not easy to replace through technology. A balance will need to be maintained while automating and adapting technological tools. A huge upfront investment in a half-cooked technology could be a recipe for disaster.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning related tools have the potential to accelerate the growth trajectory of any business. The market is moving beyond infancy. We can be reasonably sure that in a few years, businesses – small and large – using AI tools will be the norm rather than the exception.

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