Adopting Artificial Intelligence in the SME

12/1/2018

Much has been made of AI’s capabilities in business in recent years, such as making processes more efficient and cutting costs. For organizations of all sizes, knowing where to start with artificial intelligence (AI) adoption can be bewildering. For smaller organizations, implementing AI solutions can seem particularly complex or out of reach.

There is however great potential for SMEs when it comes to introducing AI. This tends to be because they are either smaller or newer (or both) than established companies, which often have legacy systems in place and may not be able to easily unify the data required for AI systems to work effectively. Small and medium organisations (particularly organizations which have ‘grown up’ in the digital era) often find it easier to gather and integrate data, allowing them to adopt AI solutions more quickly. Even older SMEs that are not startups and who may be ‘paper-based’ can still think about AI adoption- the key is simply to find a way to get company data into a digital platform.

AI is exciting technology that will affect all businesses. Business owners and leaders are understanding that becoming digital is no longer optional. True digital transformation is a journey however, and for businesses that want to move into the future and be ready for inevitable adaptation and evolution, it’s much more than a case of sticking on a few technology patches. Business transformation takes discipline, vision and fortitude.

For companies just starting out in AI adoption, the most important thing is for management to be on board, because adopting AI into any part of the business will require change. Without the buy-in from the top, there will be too many hurdles to overcome when it comes to financial investment and inevitable cultural shifts. Business leaders might worry that not being fully ‘tech literate’ is a hindrance to making decisions about AI adoption, but all executives truly need is an appetite for change, an open mind and a willingness to communicate with staff.

At its core, AI is using data analysis, models and algorithms to make better business decisions. For AI to be effective and for business leaders to see the improved efficiency, productivity and insights they are looking for, it needs access to good data. Management needs to define the metrics it cares about (for example, more accurate customer outreach? More timely purchasing to reduce overstock and waste?) and commit to making decisions from the data as much as possible. Knowing what you want to achieve will make implementation more effective- and you can start with just one process or area of your business. A commitment to data-driven decision making will ensure you’re collecting the right data; that engineering systems are in place to handle, manipulate and store data; that you value technical and analytical talent; and that you’re shifting the company towards a data-driven and innovative culture.

Company culture has a huge role to play when it comes to bringing AI into the organization. People will naturally be hesitant about shifting from making decisions based on experience and human judgment to data-driven decision making. AI has become somewhat sensationalized, making people nervous that they’ll lose their jobs to machines. For this to happen soon is relatively unlikely, and instead, AI should be introduced more like a wonderful new team member with the capability to make things more efficient and effective for everyone.

The specific resources that each organization needs to effectively adopt AI technology will depend on what is already in place. Larger organizations might have access to a team of data scientists because these companies will already have platforms in place for them to work from. Data science talent is in high demand and is expensive, which means that small and medium-sized businesses are most likely to bring AI into the company through the help of a vendor.

Proper research is critical to identify the best AI solutions. It’s vital for management to have full visibility into what’s happening at the organization every day and to not make any assumptions. Aversion to AI adoption happens when executives who are eager to see results implement AI too quickly and do not fully understand what a solution can and cannot do, and are then disappointed with the outcome, making them less likely to return to it- to the detriment of the business.

To ensure the selection of the best solutions, the leadership team must go out into the company and have open conversations about the challenges staff are facing. With this insight, management can work with teams and individuals to evaluate the best products and platforms. Some solutions might require customization to best perform, so CEOs must be patient while systems are adapted to best serve the organization.

The capabilities of AI are vast, and it can support business operations in many ways. Established SMEs may not be looking to grow the same way a younger company might, but growth is just one KPI for AI. Most organizations are looking for ways to do things more efficiently, and AI can make tasks scalable. For example, it can take on work that would typically require a team of several people, allowing the organization to stay lean. It can also relieve people of grunt work- such as repetitive administrative tasks- and give them more time to focus on projects that requires human intelligence and creative problem solving.

SMEs in Asia looking to adopt AI have many resources available to them. For example, Taiwan has been recognized as a top destination for AI thanks to a large number of computer science and information systems management graduates each year; publicly accessible data sets to encourage testing and experimentation; and a growing startup ecosystem supporting new AI companies. Similarly, Singapore is seeing developments in AI thanks to significant government support. This means that the region is not lacking for resources and education in AI, and there are many enterprise AI providers to assist organizations with improving business processes. At Appier, we find our customers in Asia are enthusiastic about adopting AI and working with us for maximum output. With many emerging markets in the region, SMEs have the opportunity to be at the forefront of AI adoption and stand out from competitors.

This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of SME Magazine. 

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