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AI and SMEs: How small to medium enterprises can take advantage of the technology?

By Rohit Talwar

Artificial Intelligence, the computer science that aims to replicate the critical functions of the human mind, has increased in power and decreased in cost. SMEs are in a key position to utilise the technology to increase productivity and efficiency and bring down costs. We draw on key themes from our book The Future of Business and our upcoming release The Future of AI in Business to bring insights as to how SMEs can embrace this new technology to the best effect.

Artificial Intelligence

The increasing power of artificial intelligence (AI) and the subsequent decrease in cost has resulted in many highly useful potential applications of the technology. AI There is opportunity for SMEs to use the various applications to maximise their business potential. Here we offer some applications as well as strategies to take advantage of AI’s potential specifically for small to medium businesses.


AI has many potential applications that a SME can harness; customer service can be improved, time management systems introduced, marketing strategies enhanced and tasks can be automated.

AI powered chatbots can function as highly skilled customer service assistants. Using AI and big data analytics the chatbot will have a wealth of information to draw on to deliver answers and provide support to your customer base. As they can analyse and interpret all past interactions between customer and client base they will be able to know your customers better than you know them.

As AI grows in power and comes down in price it can be used to enhance already existing services at low cost. For example AI processing can be applied to your social media platforms to create highly sophisticated marketing strategies. An AI programme can analyse interactions on social media, in newsletters and blog posts to assess the most influential markers; what headlines work best, what key trigger words work well, what times of day are people interacting and responding – all this information can be captured. Thereafter it can be used to deliver differentiated and bespoke marketing campaigns. Each interaction can be unique to the recipient – using language and form they will respond well to.

SMEs are in a key position to benefit from the time saving and time management opportunities that AI can offer. For example, Google has already applied AI to generate inbox replies, as well as internal management platforms that promise to consistently return your inbox to zero. These applications can cut down on time consuming and simple administrative tasks allowing freedom to develop more in depth customer relationships.

Equally, AI can be taken further to assist or even replace entire jobs; routine tasks can be automated by an AI. A key area that is continuing to see AI automation is the legal sector; firms of all sizes are automating the everyday work of low level legal sector employees such as paralegals. Automating an aspect of your business can have multiple benefits; it can introduce consistency to the task while cutting costs and saving time will free up time and capital to devote to growing your business.

Many AI applications are available as open source, or as software as a service (SaaS). As open source is built from the ground up it can be customised to your individual business’s needs. It allows an application to be built without any unnecessary extra features. Whereas SaaS sees software already built to be used for a specific purpose, ready for companies to purchase. Buying software to run a service, such as an AI powered marketing strategy, is low cost and easy to use. It can especially benefit SMEs who may be looking to make a small investment with a relatively high value return.

Strategies for uptake

While there is remarkable transformative potential, SMEs must establish internal processes to assess what technologies to adopt and how to implement them.

Not every technology will be appropriate for every business. SMEs need to spend time deciding where to direct resources in order to avoid investment being wasted in unnecessary technologies. Importantly, time must be spent researching your industry sector; talk to colleagues, open up dialogue between past business partners and collaborators. Encourage your IT department to network in person and online to stay abreast of what other similar departments are doing. An industry association can be a great resource for such networking opportunities, as well as providing information on your industry developments.

Additional investment may be appropriate for some; if your business is medium sized and has the bandwidth, perhaps an AI specialist could be brought in to give a perspective on potential applications.

There are key questions to consider when deciding where and how to deploy artificial intelligence:

  • How deep to take it? – AI can have many levels of impact. It can be used narrowly for simple rule-based applications, such as processing back end data. Equally, it can be used in a narrow case such as running a marketing campaign. For other businesses, a broader approach can have benefit, such as using AI across much of the HR department. How deep to take AI applications will be based on your company and desired outcomes.
  • What would success look like? – this is an especially pertinent question for SMEs, who should be conscious of not getting overwhelmed by the potential applications. Having a realistic picture as to the desired outcomes for your AI application will help you decide what to use and how to use it.
  • Who should lead? – depending on your business, the responsibility could come from the CEO, COO or heads of department in leading the way to incorporate AI into your business.

AI has great potential to improve many aspects of small and medium businesses, it can be used very narrowly for a single campaign, or in a wider application to take over a whole task, even a whole department. SMEs have a wide variety of possibilities before them; deciding what to invest in and how deep to take the technology are critical strategies in order to maximise benefit.



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