Editor’s Question: What impact is AI making on the workplace, specifically for SMEs?

Editor’s Question: What impact is AI making on the workplace, specifically for SMEs?

With governments across the globe investing in AI, either through its development or by creating safety policies, it will continue affecting workplaces around the world. So how does AI affect SMEs? In the following pages, four experts give their thoughts on how they think AI impacts the workplaces of SMEs, starting below with thoughts from Lloyd Webb, VP Engineering EMEA at SentinelOne.

Limited visibility into potential security breaches and increases in the volume and intricacy of attacks have significantly expanded the risk exposure of businesses, and there is a critical shortage of skilled security professionals to mitigate it.

While small- and medium-sized businesses might not be the main focus for threat actors compared to large enterprises, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are safe from attack. In fact, nearly a third of small businesses recorded breaches or attacks in the past 12 months, indicating that organisations of any size are at risk.

For SMEs, endpoint protection is a critical first line of defence against cyberthreats. Endpoint protection safeguards a business’ network whenever it’s accessed via remote devices like laptops and smartphones by monitoring these endpoint devices and protecting them from threats.

AI-driven solutions like Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) or Extended Detection and Response (XDR) can provide cost-effective security by applying AI algorithms to quickly identify and respond to cybersecurity threats and automating security tasks. This can include real-time monitoring and providing immediate alerts and responses to potential threats.

With AI, enterprises of all sizes can detect and prevent threats with speed and efficiency and secure a broader range of assets better than humans alone. They aren’t limited by how many people are in their security operations centre or the expertise of their team. Instead, they are empowered to see things in real-time, at scale and defend their environment against attacks they don’t yet understand in an infinitely scalable way.

Additionally, large enterprises and small businesses alike are challenged by managing the flood of alerts and uncontextualised event data generated from today’s cybersecurity threats. This is even more true for small businesses that typically don’t have fully-fledged security teams or the in-house capabilities to deal with incident data.

An AI-powered platform allows security analysts to ask questions in plain English, and the algorithm behind the scenes figures out what to do, translates it, summarises the results and applies automatic actions to remediate things. It’s completely transformative and allows every analyst to take the most advantage of the collected data. What would take a team hours or even days can be done in seconds, which is a true force multiplier.

Kate Field, Global Head Health, Safety & Wellbeing, BSI:

The AI revolution is raising questions about how it can be a force for good for businesses of all sizes. With 38% telling BSI their job already uses AI and with the likes of Microsoft embedding AI into their software tools, it follows that most, if not all, SMEs will be using AI to some degree in the near future.

AI offers an opportunity for SMEs to compete with bigger players, if they can access the skills, knowledge and resources to embrace them. Already, AI is driving workplace efficiency. Fifty-four percent of people BSI polled said AI can be used most effectively to take on tasks humans don’t have time for. AI’s ability to digest and distil data at pace is seeing traditionally time-consuming tasks be automated or simplified, from billing to managing customer information. For SMEs, the prize could be the ability to deliver as efficiently as if they had a workforce triple the size.

Similarly, the scale of the supply chain means processing relevant data at speed is arguably beyond human capacity. In 2021 McKinsey calculated that AI-enabled supply chain management had enabled adopters to improve inventory levels by 35% and service levels by 65% – suggesting huge possibilities for everyone from carriers to consignees.

Elsewhere, BSI found that 58% of people now communicate with a service provider online via an automated chatbot, enabling productivity gains whereby AI leaves only the most challenging queries to humans. And AI is helping organisations to navigate the sustainability landscape. According to BCG, those using automated solutions for emissions measurements are 2.2 times more likely to measure emissions comprehensively.

In recruitment, AI is helping organisations enhance diversity. A US study looked at Machine Learning in hiring. The algorithm found directors who were not friends of management, had smaller networks and had different backgrounds. As these tools become widely available, there is a clear opportunity for SMEs to use AI to create inclusive workplaces in which people can thrive.

We’re only at the beginning. In construction, AI is expected to play an important role in improving safety. For all businesses, AI could be a powerful tool against cyberthreats, allowing issues to be identified far quicker or even before they become significant, without taking up employee time.

Fifty-three percent of people say with training, they would trust AI to do parts of their job. AI could give people the space to excel in areas such as critical thinking, empathy and creativity, unlocking innovation in the workplace. By addressing workloads, AI could help shape a new working model, allowing a wider working population to access benefits like a four-day week without a productivity hit.

The dawn of AI in the workplace offers the potential for SMEs to enhance productivity and strengthen work/life balance. Underpinning this with a focus on skills, knowledge and resources will be critical.

Kyle Eaton, Business Bank Accounts Expert, money.co.uk:

Over the past year or so, Artificial intelligence (AI) has impacted the workplace in a range of ways. As the technology continues to develop alongside our understanding of it, opinions on its impact and how we measure the advantages and disadvantages will continue to evolve too. 

Here’s what we do know about the impact AI has had on SMEs, for those who have chosen to implement it in their business:

Improved efficiency

The automation of routine tasks and the ability to streamline certain processes has meant some aspects of the day-to-day can be more efficiently carried out. Freeing up business owners and employees from administrative tasks allows more time for creativity and innovation. 

Job displacement

A knock-on effect of these efficiencies means there’s less of a need for administrative staff – which particularly impacts the younger and older ends of the workforce. And the less people feel needed, the more we run the risk of overdependence on the technology. 

Analysis made easy

AI has the ability to analyse lots of data in a much faster way. This means that more informed decisions can be made as more data and information has been analysed. This in turn reduces some of the risk associated with the decision-making process.

Privacy concerns

Many businesses have taken the decision not to upload business-sensitive data into AI machines. More and more companies are likely to change their stance on this in the coming years, but as we’ve seen with all kinds of technology which holds personal data, from cloud systems to password protection – things can go wrong.

Access to credit

The use of AI and Machine Learning in credit applications is more and more commonplace. Using these technologies allows lenders to form a more holistic view of a business without the need to manually sort through years of statements, cash flow trends and other less-common data points such as how a business might’ve adapted to change or demonstrated agility to unforeseen events. This helps the lender make an informed decision more efficiently.

Upfront costs

Initial expenses to get your business AI ready can add up – software, hardware and expertise all come at a price. There are cheaper alternatives, such as cloud-based AI services, but none of these things come for free.

As our relationship with AI continues to evolve, and the awareness of it creeping into our day-to-day life is felt more and more, it’s important for small businesses to keep a level-head. Keeping up with AI training is a good place to start – and continuing to conduct independent research to avoid potential algorithm bias from affecting decision-making will be key. Used well, AI can (and is) making life easier for many, but with the potential for over reliance, demotivated workforces and ongoing privacy concerns – the risks shouldn’t be ignored.

Simon Morris, Area Vice President, Consulting, ServiceNow:

Artificial intelligence (AI) is having a transformative impact on the workplace for businesses across all sectors and sizes. When it comes to small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in particular, automation technology offers vast capabilities for boosting efficiency and productivity and help scaling in the long run.

AI algorithms can in fact analyse huge amounts of structured and unstructured data to identify patterns and develop insights that can then be applied to predict future outcomes. This allows businesses to create fully automated end-to-end processes, capable of operating, learning and adapting entirely on their own. Ultimately, employees can be enabled to operate more efficiently and streamline unnecessary tasks.

Alongside improving efficiency, AI will also enhance decision-making for SMEs in all areas of the business. By harnessing AI, SMEs can analyse large volumes of data at speed, empowering them to gain valuable insights and expose patterns, which in turn can drive more informed decisions, reducing frictions, gaining competitive edge and ultimately, leading to healthier revenues. SMEs can also use this data to predict future trends that shape the way they carry out daily operations. For example, SMEs can bolster customer service teams during periods when they receive larger amounts of incoming customer enquiries, helping them to meet increased demand before it becomes an issue.

Employees’ satisfaction is a key driver of customer satisfaction – the two go hand-in-hand. Leveraging the power of AI-driven solutions to upskill a business’s workforce should be a priority, particularly for SMEs where teams are smaller and more agile, and most of the time find themselves juggling with a variety of tasks. Today, businesses are starting to invest in AI to provide staff with personalised learning opportunities, tailored to each employee’s area of interest and needs. AI-enabled learning platforms use algorithms to adapt the learning experience in real-time, ensuring that employees receive relevant and engaging training materials.

Investing in AI can be daunting, particularly for SMEs which have smaller budgets and higher costs than larger organisations, but it does not have to be. Understanding the potential benefits that AI can offer, and having a clear strategy on where to prioritise and which tools to use can lead to significant benefits and be a game-changer. In today’s competitive landscape, relying on an integrated platform which embeds GenAI capabilities and helps automate processes, increase efficiency, and improve both the employee and customer experience is critical, not only for the success of any business, but also and most importantly for its survival. SMEs, and especially those that are at the very beginning of their journey, can take advantage of investing in AI sooner rather than later, capitalising on this investment in the long-term, while also avoiding technology disruption and employee’s training and re-education further down the line.

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