Running a small business is rewarding but challenging. In fact, respondents in one survey cited it as bigger source of stress than children. And yet, with 4.8 million people working in 2.1 million small businesses in Australia, they also make up the largest employment sector. Improving life for small business ripples throughout the whole community. And one emerging saviour might seem an unlikely candidate for some: Artificial Intelligence (AI).
While some worry AI means job loses – or even the Hollywood version of technology run amuck – the reality is that we are more likely to work in partnership with the technology, and AI will be increasingly available to ease some of the struggles of small business.
In the Future of Work report – published by independent research group Institute for the Future, and commissioned by Dell Technologies – collaborative AI, in which people and AI team up, will change the way we work by 2030.
And, as we’ve seen with things such as AI chatbots, the cost of entry means that AI is a technology that’s not just for reserved for enterprise. This is good news for small businesses, which often rely on less staff to get through as much work as larger companies, if not more.
Collaboration for Strength
Collaborative AI means humans and AI working to their strengths, a partnership, as opposed to a master and follower arrangement.
Just as humans can and will offload rote or mundane tasks to AI, human strengths can be programmed and integrated into AI. This helps the technology understand its limitations and know when to refer to their human partners for help. In this way, AI and humans come together, working symbiotically.
So how can AI help small business owners? It can drive productivity and clear the decks of tedious or time-consuming admin. By giving a small business owner or their staff precious hours back in the day, it frees up time for higher-level activities to grow your business.
AI in the Small Business
Imagine you run a small coffee shop in Brunswick, Melbourne. You come into work on a Monday and instead of spending the first few hours completing admin work like organising meetings and calls with suppliers and clients, you give the work to an autonomous AI scheduling assistant that schedules everything for you. Now you’ve got more time to make coffee, chat with customers and create valuable goodwill for your business. Let’s get that positive word of mouth going in the community!
And if you’re looking for a new staff member to work the morning shifts, wouldn’t it be great to have help to look for the right person? Screening candidates, looking at resumes and arranging interviews don’t directly contribute to the business’ bottom line and growth. There’s a lot of guesswork in recruiting and many hiring agencies are now using AI to better match candidates to jobs.
AI can also break down the language barrier. Previously, it might have been impossible to speak with a coffee grower in South America about importing their beans due to neither party understanding the other, but AI means you can speak to them in real time and have their language translated using something like Skype Translator.
Decisions, decisions, decisions
Taking this one step further, imagine how much more you’d get done if you didn’t have to manage stock levels? Or run the payroll? Or worry about bookkeeping? The possibility of concentrating solely on the more emotional and physical aspects of small business, the actual work of it, is not far away as the development of Deep Learning and Machine Learning continues.
As more data is added into an AI, it learns and becomes more capable. It gets better at taking on a wider variety of instructions. That isn’t to say that it will take over the running of a business. But it will, with the help of a person, be able to make a valuable contribution to business efficiency.
The Future or Now?
Many of the examples given above are based on programs, apps and technology in use in 2019, which demonstrates that, far from being a future based pipedream, AI is in the here and now. It’s already making a difference to how we work, and even how we interact with businesses.
Far from being a science fiction trope, AI is already assisting us at work. According to The Future of Work report “Emerging tech today is not only creating new possibilities for how people and jobs find each other more seamlessly; they are also enabling new ways of working together. These advancements in technologies will require new skills and capabilities for workers to excel in the 2030 work environment.”
When humans and machines work together in a small business environment, they can actively enhance each other’s strengths. Humans bring leadership, teamwork, and creativity to the partnership, while AI has speed, scalability, and quantitative capabilities. It’s a winning combination that will allow small business owners and staff to focus on the important things like customer experience and delivering a winning product or service.
Ben Jackson, General Manager, Consumer & Small Business, Dell ANZ