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SMEs and AI: How to get the most out of automation

A study by McKinsey Global Institute found that at least one-third of the constituent activities in around 60% of jobs might be automated, implying significant workplace changes and adjustments for all workers. 

A new report from the McKinsey Global Institute Jobs lost, jobs gained: Workforce transitions in an era of automation, analyses the number and types of jobs that may be generated under various scenarios until 2030, as well as the jobs that could be lost to automation.

Which industries are susceptible?

The report noted that the potential impact of automation on employment varies by occupation and sector. Physical activities in predictable environments, such as operating machinery and preparing fast food, are highly automatable.

“Collecting and processing data are two other categories of activities that increasingly can be done better and faster with machines,” the report said. “This could displace large amounts of labour—for instance, in mortgage origination, paralegal work, accounting, and back-office transaction processing.”

However, the report noted that, even if some jobs are automated, employment in those occupations may not decline; instead, workers may be assigned to new tasks. Jobs that require managing people, using expertise, and social connections will be less affected by automation, as machines are currently unable to match human performance. 

Jobs in unpredictable contexts, such as gardeners, plumbers, and child- and elder-care providers, would see less automation by 2030 because they are technically challenging to automate and often command lower compensation, making automation a less appealing commercial proposition.

Leveraging automation for SMEs

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) strive to get the most out of their resources. And, according to Konica Minolta, provider of integrated print hardware and software solutions, when business is booming CEOs rarely see the need to change what looks to be working.

“SMBs typically run lean and are accustomed to doing more with less. Manual processes often abound in SMBs because the perceived return on investment in advanced technologies seems beyond their reach,” the release said. 

“And, if the sales are still coming in, the business’s decision-makers rarely see the need to change what seems to be working.”

Mark Brown, general manager, marketing and innovation, Konica Minolta Australia, said: “Maintaining the status quo with manual processes means growth will be out of reach for these companies. 

“Filling in sales details on an Excel spreadsheet isn’t scalable, and having an accounts person review and pay each invoice takes up valuable time and introduces the potential for errors. 

“For many SMBs, there comes a tipping point where the cost of not automating these processes outweighs the investment required to automate them.” 

Konica Minolta has identified five opportunities for automation in SMBs: 

Document management: 

In every organisation there is a workflow that requires various people to create, edit, review, and approve documents. These documents can be varied, including contracts, annual leave requests, and expense forms. 

In a small business, it might not matter that a document is created, then manually emailed or handed to the next person in line, then the next person, and so on. However, to grow, businesses need to automate this process to minimise the amount of manual handling required for each document. 

Accounts payable:

In a manual accounts payable (AP) process, someone must review an invoice (often on paper), compare the invoice to the purchase order, verify that the invoice is legitimate, and arrange payment. 

When organisations are dealing with a handful of invoices each month, manually processing invoices doesn’t add too much cost or complexity. However, when the number of invoices starts to creep up, so does the amount of time that person must dedicate to processing them. 

At the same time, the risk of errors rises, and the company may find that it’s paying late fees or missing early payment discounts, paying the same invoice twice, or even inadvertently falling for fake invoice scams. 

Marketing: 

Automating marketing efforts can help small businesses augment their marketing team and play in the big leagues against their competitors. Most SMBs can’t afford a large, integrated marketing team; however, marketing is one of the most effective ways to gain new business and grow. 

This is where an automated marketing solution can deliver significant benefits, making the company appear more proactive and engaged than it could otherwise afford to be. 

Warehousing and logistics: 

Automating warehousing and logistics functions can similarly increase a company’s ability to compete while simultaneously lowering costs. 

Applying robots in a facility can save time and contribute to efficiencies, as well as increase worker safety. Warehouse automation can streamline the movement of goods and let SMBs benefit from optimised workflows and pathways. 

Workforce management: 

Drawing up rosters and accounting for the different skill sets and employee conditions for each shift can be a nightmare that only grows as the business expands. 

Automating this process can give rostering managers hours back in their day and reduce the risk of under- or overstaffing on shifts. It can also account for people’s preferences and time-off requests. 

Mark Brown said, “Every business has unique needs and opportunities; however, every SMB can benefit significantly from introducing automation. These benefits can include: increased speed and productivity; fewer errors; less risk of fraud; improved compliance and governance; lower costs; and higher team morale.”  

How can biz manage the transitions?

Businesses will have to revamp their business processes as well as reevaluate their talent strategies and workforce needs. Slower adoption may lessen the extent of labour shifts, but it will reduce these technologies’ contributions to business dynamism and economic growth, according to the McKinsey analysis.

“Businesses will be on the front lines of the workplace as it changes. This will require them to both retool their business processes and re-evaluate their talent strategies and workforce needs,” the McKinsey analysis report said.

“While carefully considering which individuals are needed, which can be redeployed to other jobs, and where new talent may be required.

“Many companies are finding it is in their self-interest—as well as part of their societal responsibility—to train and prepare workers for a new world of work.”

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