Artificial intelligence (AI) has advanced rapidly, graduating from narrow applications like chatbots to sophisticated systems like ChatGPT capable of generating content and code. This technology is set to transform society and business. For UK SMEs, developing a plan to harness AI is now an urgent priority, and it is important to do it before your competition does.
Unleashing the power of AI can deliver profound growth, boost profitability, and unlock whole new market opportunities. Now is the time to claim your AI advantage whilst the competition is indecisive.
The pace of change
Unlike past technological shifts, AI’s adoption is exponential rather than linear. Each innovation enables accelerated progress. It took 25 years to evolve from the Nokia Snake experience on a mobile phone to the capabilities of phones today and the games they can run. It has taken over a decade for organisations to transition to the cloud, and many are still on the journey. Mobile adoption took two decades. AI is different as it has already created huge, disrupted value even if its development stopped today.
We are transitioning through three key phases:
For millennia, we used tools and machines for physical enhancement, but humans remained essential for knowledge work.
We have now entered the age of expertise augmentation where AI supercharges productivity, but humans still lead initiatives.
In the future, AI may reach artificial general intelligence (AGI), handling complex work independently. Humans focus on even higher-level oversight.
The AI- assisted era
Over the next decade, AI-assistance will become a pervasive reality – first augmenting cognitive labour, but eventually physical labour too as robotics are designed by AI and economies of scale reduce costs. Basic automation through chatbots and process robots will evolve into sophisticated AI systems that transform decision-making, product development, customer engagement and overall strategy.
A window for organisations to integrate AI to create competitive advantage exists. Laggards risk sudden disruption as rivals successfully harness AI’s potential. It has been interesting to observe very large companies embrace AI due to their understanding of the threats and opportunities. SMEs must follow suit as large enterprises can leverage AI and hyper-personalisation to engage SME customers in ways that were previously impossible or not cost-effective.
Now is the time for UK SMEs to develop a transition plan to become AI-assisted. Start with an assessment of your organisation’s exposure:
- Digital vs. Physical – AI can readily transform digital processes and offerings
- Knowledge vs. Manual Work – AI threatens white collar productivity first
- Repetitive vs. Custom Work – Routinized tasks are ripe for automation
- Regulated vs. Unregulated – Regulations may slow AI adoption
- Commodity vs. Luxury – AI enables personalisation and differentiation
Target repetitive tasks like data entry and customer service queries to build initial AI experience within contained environments.
Train employees on collaborating with AI tools through hands-on workshops focused on incorporating AI into existing workflows.
Evaluate AI risks
Institute oversight policies and governance to ensure ethical, transparent and unbiased AI development aligned to emerging regulations.
Seek strategic guidance
Consider options like appointing a part-time or fractional Chief AI Officer to provide expert input on AI integration.
The AI Imperative
AI is no longer an intangible concept that your can ignore when it appears in news stories, it is now a pervasive reality. Tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, Intel and Amazon are locked in an innovation arms race, attracting massive investments and acquisitions. They are literally betting the farm on AI. Many well-funded startups such as OpenAI are racing to stake their claim or, in most cases, partnering with the incumbents who own computing infrastructure at scale.
Forward-looking organisations are already reaping benefits:
- Productivity: AI automates repetitive and routine work for efficiency gains up to 50% in knowledge and administrative roles.
- Personalisation: AI enables hyper-personalized and differentiated customer experiences through predictive analytics.
- Innovation: AI unlocks new business models, product offerings and entirely new markets to pursue.
Those who delay risk sudden irrelevance and disruption, or just an inability to catch up with exponential change. Just as smartphone apps brought revolutionary change to sectors like taxis, AI now threatens to rapidly dethrone incumbents across many industries.
Only 19% of executives say their organisation currently has the skills to implement AI, presenting a major gap to address through recruitment, training and partnerships.
Steps to AI implementation
Becoming an AI-assisted organisation is not an overnight shift. It requires a strategic, phased approach focused on use cases that deliver clear returns. The journey can be compared to the maturity levels achieved with electric vehicles, progressing from manual control to full automation. Similarly, businesses must traverse an
It pays to walk before you run. Starting small with pilots builds expertise. Training staff then expands adoption. Eventually AI can be orchestrated across the enterprise guided by policies and priorities.
The key phases include:
- AI Pilots: Start by experimenting with contained AI applications like customer service chatbots. Learn capabilities and build expertise without disrupting operations.
- AI Integration: Next expand use of AI across business units. Integrate AI with core systems like CRM and ERP to connect insights. Marketing, content, sales and operations begin using AI tools for tasks like forecasting and personalisation.
- AI Enablement: With AI embedded in key functions, institute enterprise policies, standards and training to ensure responsible and ethical AI development. Oversight and governance become crucial.
- AI Strategy: At this stage AI becomes a core strategic capability rather than just a productivity tool. It can drive business model transformation, hyper-personalisation, predictive analytics and more. But scaling AI requires planning.
- AI Orchestration: The end goal is seamless enterprise-wide AI orchestration with humans focused on high-level oversight like governance. AI handles complex implementation according to strategic objectives. This level of autonomy will take time.
With the right roadmap focused on use cases that demonstrate material returns in investment, UK SMEs can start to make progress along the path to an AI-assisted organisation and an AI-first future. Are you ready for the journey?
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