By SMB Group’s Kelly Teal, Contributing Analyst, and Laurie McCabe, Co-founder
If you’ve watched “Mrs. Davis” or joked that the world feels a little Skynet-esque, you aren’t alone in wondering about the real-life implications and repercussions of artificial intelligence. The sudden surge of AI tools in 2023 has generated (pun intended) a lot of buzz — and a lot of questions.
For small and medium businesses (SMBs), in particular, uncertainty compounds as leaders consider implications for security, intellectual property, and workers. At the same time, the various and growing AI resources invite significant business possibilities. The challenge is for SMBs to learn about AI’s capabilities, set policies for interacting with it, and govern its use with care.
That’s all easier said than done, but now is the time to start. Our new eBook, Impact of AI on SMBs – Part One: SMBs Embrace the Future, sponsored by Dell Technologies and Sage, takes a comprehensive look at this topic, including SMBs’ interest in and exploration of AI; perceived benefits and drawbacks; how they currently use and plan to use AI; the current and future impact of AI; how vendors can establish trust in their AI offerings; and more.
This blog examines just a few of the findings from the study, including SMBs’ interest levels in AI, exploration of generative AI, how SMBs perceive AI benefits and drawbacks, and areas that SMBs should consider when using AI tools and technologies.
SMBs are Keenly Interested In AI
There’s no doubt that SMB and mid-market decision-makers are interested in the potential impact of AI on their businesses.
74% say they are very or somewhat interested in AI and keeping up with AI trends. Curiosity rises as employee size grows, implying that respondents understand the potential that AI has to help them streamline mundane tasks, free humans to focus on higher-value work and provide better access to information for decision-making.
Not surprisingly, respondents in companies that tend to be more technology-centric express more interest in AI than their peers in other sectors. SMB Group found that more than three-quarters (76%) of respondents in IT services firms land in this category, followed by 65% of financial services respondents, and 60% of manufacturing outfits. Industries showing the least interest in AI are personal services (35%), education (43%), and wholesale/distribution (43%).
SMB Group also found that respondents are more likely than not to be exploring generative AI — likely due to the fact that it’s easy for anyone to experiment with the technology to create and personalize content, synthesize information, analyze data, and more.
55% of respondents say they are already exploring generative AI on their own, and 20% plan to do so soon. Again, personal exploration correlates with employee size, with respondents in larger companies more engaged than those in smaller ones. But even at the low end, more than a third (36%) of businesses with fewer than 19 employees are looking into generative AI.
Once more, respondents in some industries are more apt to be exploring this than others. Those in IT services, healthcare, and retail are the most likely to explore generative AI, at 80%, 64%, and 60%, respectively. Three markets — education, professional services, and wholesale/distribution — stand out as least likely to do so, at 40%, 42%, and 43%. However, these percentages still represent significant interest, and as the benefits of AI become clearer, we expect interest levels to rise.
SMBs Think AI Offers More Benefits Than Drawbacks
For the most part, respondents collectively think that AI offers businesses more benefits than drawbacks. Overall, respondents in larger businesses are more likely to see AI as more beneficial than those in smaller ones. Respondents rank better and faster decision-making and better data analysis as the top two AI benefits, and freeing employees up for higher value work as number three, with just minor variations based on employee size and industry.
On the flip side, respondents cite concerns about data security, privacy, and unintended negative consequences as the top 3 drawbacks of AI, with only negligible deviations by employee size and industry.
Businesses of all sizes can use AI to reap big benefits, such as improving productivity, analysis, creativity, and innovation.
Small and medium business decision-makers and employees to thoughtfully consider the ways in which they think AI will help them grow, plan, and capitalize on their employees’ strengths.
Some key steps to consider include:
- Define objectives and identify use cases where AI can provide tangible benefits. Whether it’s automating repetitive tasks, enhancing customer experiences, or optimizing supply chains, determining this upfront will help you to prioritize areas that will yield the best value for your business.
- Talk to the technology vendors that you already work with to understand what AI tools and technologies are in the applications you already use. Chances are, many of them have already added functionality that you can take advantage of.
- Figure out what you need to budget to use AI capabilities. Some vendors are offering additional AI functionality at no extra cost, some charge extra for them, and some blend these two approaches.
- Make sure you understand how vendors protect and safeguard your company data. Vendors should offer clear, transparent information about where data comes from, how it’s used, the assumptions they use to create data, and how they prevent your data from being shared.
- Educate yourself and your employees about how to use AI effectively and safely. While most people don’t need to become AI experts. However, those using AI need at least basic literacy training to understand AI concepts, terminology, use cases, and safeguards.
With planning and education, AI can be a powerful tool to help resource-constrained SMBs do more with less. AI can help relieve people of drudgery and repetitive tasks, freeing them to do more of the higher-value work that requires creative, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills — resulting in better business outcomes.
© SMB Group, 2023