AI for SMBs
Updated: Jul 19, 2021
Hardly a day goes by without a news article either exclaiming the virtues of Artificial Intelligence or warning of the dire consequences AI presents to society. Is AI “The Promise” or the beginning of the end? As with many technology topics the facts can become easily distorted and the truth depends on the lens through which you are looking at those “facts”. We’ll spare you the philosophical debate and focus on the practicalities.
So what do you need to know as a small business owner? What is AI? Should you care about it? AI is more accessible than you may realize as the technology has become embedded within products and services you already use, but it’s a near impossible endeavor for a company to build AI capabilities directly. Thankfully, you don’t need a Ph.D. to leverage AI today. We’ll leave the nuances and complexity of artificial intelligence and machine learning to the academics and focus on exactly what you need to know.
What is Artificial Intelligence?
Artificial Intelligence is an extremely nebulous term, mainly because it’s a catchall phrase for software that attempts to perform human-level cognitive functions. For instance, telling the difference between a dog and a cat. Simple for humans, and until recently, extremely difficult for a computer. Generally when people talk about AI, particularly in business, they are referring to machine learning (ML) -- a process for gaining insights from crunching A LOT of data which can take the form of speech, actions, images, numbers, etc.
We are interacting with machine learning more and more in our daily lives, in ways we don’t even realize -- talking to Amazon Alexa, Netflix recommendations, even the auto-complete in Google Search! All of which means that yes, machine learning is accessible to everyone.
There are 3 levels of AI proficiency you can aspire to: Super Hero, Wizard and Yoda.
It’s pretty easy to be an AI Super Hero, in fact you probably already are one. Products you use today like Quickbooks use machine learning to categorize expenses and help reduce data entry. Or consider enhancing your web presence with a chatbot. Intercom has created an off-the-shelf product that will automatically resolve customer questions without human intervention -- with a simple connection to your website. While it can be counterintuitive, some of the best customer service experiences can be created without ever talking to a person.
Like every great practitioner of magic, you want to level up your game. AI Wizardry comes from the deployment of AI solutions to optimize core business functions or even create a new product category. For instance, the 150 year old Tennant Company, partnered with Brain Corporation leveraging their AI software and sensor system to produce an industrial floor cleaner that operates autonomously thereby creating an entirely new value prop for their customers.
It’s easy to think that machine learning is magical pixie dust you can sprinkle on your company but the reality is vastly different. Being a Wizard requires a concerted effort on the part of you and your team so don’t expect results overnight. Careful planning, implementation, and iteration will be required to fine-tune your new super powers.
Yoda ML is for large enterprises that have significant R&D budgets to dedicate towards aggregating and cleaning huge data sets, developing proprietary algorithms, and managing model deployment and operations. Even large enterprises with endless resources can fail to achieve Yoda status despite having a full lineup of machine learning engineers and data scientists on staff. Your focus should be on being a great customer of AI, but not a builder of AI.
So no, you’re not an AI company, nor should you be, but standing still is not an option either.
Here’s the deal -- Artificial Intelligence is everywhere and it’s not going away. You don’t need to become an AI company, but it is important (and possible!) for you to think like one. Here’s how:
Data collection and analysis -- you may not be generating terabytes of data to push through machine learning models, but creating a culture around collecting, measuring, and analyzing data can provide critical insights into your business. For instance, your website can provide you valuable data and insight to help you better understand your customers and your operations. You don’t need machine learning to be great at building a data-driven culture.
Be a Super Hero -- Take advantage of the billions of dollars being spent on the development of products and services that have machine learning capabilities baked into them. Life’s a garden, dig it!
Systems thinking -- Admittedly, this may be easier said than done. The digital nature of software gives it some unique advantages -- it’s configurable, dynamic, and once written, it can be copied and distributed at essentially zero incremental cost. Rather than being focused on physical inputs and outputs, rethinking your business as a system leveraging software and data to create new combinations of products and functionalities.
Once you have established this baseline of capability, a world of opportunity will open up especially as Silicon Valley continues to pour resources into making AI tools cheaper and more effective ultimately driving a compelling ROI.