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Should a small business invest in AI and machine learning software?

Both AI and ML are touted to give businesses the edge they need, improve efficiencies, make sales and marketing better and even help in critical HR functions.

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Updated: May 25, 2019, 11.08 AM IST
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There is no doubt that technology can only make things better, easier, faster and more efficient.
By Rishi Mehra

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are the buzzwords in today’s technology and business landscape. Both AI and ML are touted to give businesses the edge they need, improve efficiencies, make sales and marketing better and even help in critical HR functions. However, the general thought is that both these technologies are meant for larger companies and it makes little sense for smaller ones to embrace it.

That may not be entirely true as technologies like AI & ML become ubiquitous. In fact, in some cases one may not even know the presence of such technologies in our everyday life. As the cost of technology comes down, it becomes more affordable to invest in such technologies and small businesses can reap the benefits of using these technologies.
According to Gartner, “Artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly making its way into the workplace, with virtual personal assistants (VPAs) and other forms of chatbots now augmenting human performance in many organizations.” Gartner, Inc. predicts that, by 2021, 70 percent of organizations will assist their employees’ productivity by integrating AI in the workplace.

The research firm adds that the number of enterprises implementing AI grew 270 percent in the past four years and tripled in the past year. “Four years ago, AI implementation was rare, only 10 percent of survey respondents reported that their enterprises had deployed AI or would do so shortly. For 2019, that number has leapt to 37 percent — a 270 percent increase in four years,” said Chris Howard, distinguished research vice president at Gartner in a recent statement. “If you are a CIO and your organization doesn’t use AI, chances are high that your competitors do and this should be a concern.” For small businesses, therefore, getting AI and ML integrated has become absolutely important.

To get a better sense of the kind of things AI and ML can do for small businesses; let us consider the following use cases:

Reaching out – When it comes to communicating with customer, employees or other stakeholders, AI and ML can play a vital role. An example of this would be Chatbots, which are mostly related to those conversation boxes that want to help you with your queries. On a website they can serve as an effective means to communicate with customers and address their queries or grievances. Chatbots need no human intervention and is functional 24 hours a day. A chatbot can answer the most basic queries to more elaborate ones that can tune the answers in accordance with the question. Chatbots are also used in HR, where employees are encouraged to register their feedback in an anonymous manner. These bots use a variety of AI and ML techniques to perform their tasks and can also be programmed to give out actionable reports based on their interactions.

CRM/ERP – If you already run already Customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) tools, you would know its utility, but traditional software comes with limitations. This is especially true for the fast paced digital world. An AI-based ERP and CRM solution can be a great statistical tool for small business. Given the humongous and differentiated types of information churned out by a business daily, it may be difficult for a person to draw correlation from the data and come up with something meaningful. An ERP/CRM solution equipped with AI could do that in a matter of minutes and give business valuable insights and help decision making. For example, AI can collect customer data from different touch points and combine it with CRM to come up with meaningful information.
HR – AI and ML have the potential to take up routine and mundane work, which means employees can concentrate on more productive work. This is important because routine work such as accounting and payroll administration can now be done quite effortless. Also, given the crunch of skilled manpower facing every small business, automation of some vital aspects of work can help tide over the shortfall. This also has the potential to make the business more efficient since a lot more can be done with fewer employees.

Finance – Finance is one area where AI and ML is catching up fast. We are now seeing entire businesses that are based on using AI and ML to get certain things done, for example, credit risk of a borrower. For small businesses it can be prudent to start with automating some of the activities. According to McKinsey and Company about a third of the opportunity in finance can be captured using basic task-automation technologies such as robotic process automation (RPA).

“Working atop existing IT systems, RPA is a class of general-purpose software often referred to as “software robotics”—not to be confused with physical robots. RPA and complementary technologies, like business-process management and optical character-recognition tools, have been applied successfully across a number of activities in finance,” says McKinsey.

McKinsey

The above may fall short of using AI and ML, but would be a good start for small businesses to undertake. A small business that starts with these functions can then look at getting other parts of finance under automated processes.
In the end using AI and ML is a business decision that company will have to make after evaluating the cost and benefits. There is no doubt that technology can only make things better, easier, faster and more efficient. Businesses will also have to take into account the opportunities that it opens up– what it means for consumers and what will it do to competitors. If a small business does decide to go ahead, it is important to shortlist the solutions that one would want to implement. Lastly, the business needs to have a clear roadmap on how to go about it so that disruptions are minimized.

(The writer is the CEO, Wishfin.com)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)

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