When more than half of Canadian small and medium-sized business say they think artificial intelligence is important to their future, it’s pretty safe to suggest that what started as an emerging technology is ready for prime time.
As part of a wide-ranging survey commissioned by Salesforce, for instance, 51 per cent said AI is “extremely, very or at least somewhat” important as they evaluate new technologies for their company. It’s a strategic move on their part, because a quick look at the headlines indicate how often AI is taking work that was simply automated in the past and improving the results.
That said, there are still many small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) in Canada that have yet to appreciate the technology’s potential, and it’s worth exploring why not. In fact, 56 per cent said they feel their firm isn’t ready for AI because it may be too complex (40 per cent) or because they’re not sure of how it can help them.
This is a good time to do a bit of myth-busting about AI for SMBs, because there is a real difference in some cases between perception and reality:
AI may represent a new wave of innovation in technology, but it’s not necessarily a separate thing you need to buy or even fully understand. Just like the latest cars can drive extremely well without their owners knowing how it all works under the hood, AI does not require you to be the IT equivalent of a mechanic.
In fact, AI is more often integrated into products and services that are already widely used in a company, or which are more straightforward. Salesforce Einstein, for instance, has already been integrated into Sales Cloud, Marketing Cloud and other products. That means SMBs can avoid any complexity and simply focus on enjoying the benefits.
Sometimes new technologies seem to bring with them a lot of change. The early days of the Internet forced nearly every company to develop its first web site, for instance. Mobile computing triggered a wave of activity around apps. AI, though, is more subtle and complementary. That’s why, not very long ago, Harvard Business Review urged large firms not to appoint a “chief AI officer.”
All you need to do to weave AI into everyday operations is ask yourself how some assistance with handling tasks -- and learning from them -- would free up your team members’ time, or make it quicker and easier to reach your business goals.
The research actually offered some insights into this. For instance, among those who are planning to use AI, 45 per cent said the technology could help them predict what kind of sales they could win during a given period. Automating email marketing, meanwhile, was on the radar for 39 per cent, and 38 per cent said AI could help make customer service less of a fly-by-the-seat of your pants activity.
Some IT trends seem to become hot topic overnight but then take years before they truly transform how organizations work. Wearables, virtual reality and augmented reality may become key tools for SMBs at some point, for instance, but AI is an area where firms can begin seeing some competitive advantages today.
Again, the survey data shows where some of the early adopters are already making headway. This includes the 21 per cent who say AI is making sure email is only sent out to customers at a time when they are most likely to open a message, read it and click through to act on whatever it says. Another 17 per cent say AI is the magic behind tools that make recommendations to customers about other products and services they might be interested in, based on past purchase history or purchases made by their peers.
Maybe most critically, 15 per cent of Canadian SMBs using AI are discovering insights about the marketing campaigns they do. This could help in areas such as how much they should spend on a particular kind of marketing content, the kind of channels they use to connect with their target audience or even the kind of audience they should be prioritizing as part of their overall marketing strategy.
Canadian SMBs are more experienced in IT than they may realize. Many of them have already set up sophisticated digital presences including a web site and social media accounts, for example. There are more SMBs moving to cloud computing to save costs and provide a more flexible, dynamic way of accessing the applications they need every day.
As groundbreaking as AI is, SMBs are proving through the stats reflected in this research that they are not sitting idly by and waiting for large firms to monopolize its advantages. If we can get past some of the myths around complexity, know-how and the time to see value, more effort can be dedicated to learning from the kind of early adopters shown in the survey data. That means the next time we look at research about AI adoption in Canada, the numbers are probably going to look even stronger.