By Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells, April Koury and Alexandra Whittington
Technological disruptions are defining our current era of rapid business transformation and raising questions about what the future of work might be, the implications for organisations, and how to navigate successfully to the ‘next horizon’. How small businesses in particular respond to the challenges and exploit the benefits of smart technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) will be a key determinant of their success going forward.
Artificial intelligence is the rapidly growing field of computer science focused on creating intelligent software tools able to replicate critical human mental faculties. The range of applications includes speech recognition, language translation, visual perception, learning, reasoning, inference, planning, decision-making, and intuition. Artificial intelligence is perhaps the most disruptive technology fuelling the radical transformation of business; it is truly altering the nature, scope, and scale of today’s organisations.
With a level of focused attention on the now, the next, and the future of AI, small business leaders will be able to prepare for a range of possible outcomes and increase their organisations’ resilience in the face of future uncertainty.
Task automation is currently a key area for AI applications. Roles that have been traditionally thought of as requiring a high level of human intellect are being automated. The legal profession is seeing such disruption: legal precedent and case review can be automated, contracts can be created and adapted, case outcomes can be predicted, and workload can be organised by an AI.
Small businesses’ initial consideration should be how deep to deploy AI within the organisation - AI can be used narrowly to automate a single task, or it may be used to go deeper and automate entire departments, e.g. customer service. How deep to take AI will depend on the goals, priorities, and especially on the resources of smaller firms, and where they see the future role of humans in service, innovation, and sales.
Additionally, whilst AI boosts efficiency, decision makers must be mindful of how this may impact brand identity and user experience, and where it is still critical to maintain human involvement. As similar smart automation is deployed by competing businesses, there’s a risk of commoditisation: How firms stand out and maintain personality in the near future will be a critical consideration.
The goal for now, ultimately, should be to figure out how to best deploy artificial intelligence to help unleash human potential and take the business to the next level, rather than simply automate current tasks to reduce costs.
In a relatively few years, it is possible that firms may risk becoming over-reliant on AI technology while ignoring the value of human contributions in the workplace. Moreover, digital transformation initiatives typically fail as a result of paying too little attention to the human and cultural aspects of change. Smaller organisations will need to consider how to best invest in the technologies that will enable, not hinder, staff; how to care for those whose roles are being disrupted by AI; and how to raise everyone’s digital literacy so they understand and accept the nature of this work-altering technology.
Luckily for smaller organisations that may not have a dedicated IT department, the strategic nature of deploying AI company-wide may actually fall under the responsibilities of the COO or CEO. Support for these organisation-changing leadership decisions can be drawn from a multitude of different places: Industry associations, conferences, and events can facilitate learning and networking opportunities; vendors can share their experience and advice; discussions with other organisations who have experimented with AI can allow leaders to tap into first-hand knowledge and experience; and science and technology graduates can intern to bring technical expertise and fresh perspectives to a firm in exchange for business experience.
As AI is adopted across the organisation, business leaders should be aware that different levels of training may be necessary to facilitate transition, something akin to cultural or sensitivity training, that helps employees become accustomed to the new technology. Understandably, a senior manager whose job is being fundamentally disrupted may require a higher degree of retraining and emotional support than the customer service representative who was hired a month ago.
Furthermore, small business leaders need to keep in mind that a sweeping implementation of AI without regard for the impact on employees would be bad internal PR at the least, and could actually have devastating consequences in terms of customer appeal and local reputation for a business. Careful decisions about which roles and functions to automate should guide AI strategy in the next few years – a simple “bottom line” approach may compromise the human element and could erode the firm’s uniqueness over time.
Within the foreseeable future, the structure of entire businesses may be revolutionised. For example, the number of decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs) is growing; these organisations exist entirely in software - adopting self-executing smart contracts, and therefore require no human employees. This in itself raises questions as to how businesses will be perceived in the future. And as DAOs increase in prevalence, will there be a need for human involvement and influence in business at all?
With AI becoming commonplace, employees’ soft skills will be ever more important. As rule based thinking, automation, and DAOs proliferate, sensitivity, creativity, verbal reasoning and communication, empathy, and spontaneity may become increasingly desirable skills. Smaller businesses should encourage and facilitate these aspects of personal development to ensure that their organisations make the most of this interplay between emotional intelligence and artificial intelligence.
Finally, and somewhat contrarily, future firms might focus on learning when not to use technology. Going offline is considered a luxury in 2017; by 2025, with AI pushing productivity through the roof, disconnecting could be the key to differentiating and rehumanising smaller firms. An organisation in 2025 might enact an ‘information vacation’ where employees could put digital work aside in order to socialise, connect, and reinvigorate business and client relationships face-to-face rather than AI-assistant-to-AI-assistant. Recognising when not to use technology may become a key function of healthy businesses, and place smaller firms in higher standing with key clients.
Ultimately, the now, the next, and the future of AI all evidence the growing need for small businesses to focus on the human dimension. How will staff respond when their jobs are drastically changed or eliminated because of AI? How will the organisation mitigate worries or stress that AI may cause? What new skills might employees need? What responsibilities does the firm have for those displaced by technology? These are the questions small business leaders should continuously ask themselves as they plan ahead for the AI-enabled future.
The authors are futurists with Fast Future who specialise in studying and advising on the impacts of emerging change. Fast Future also publishes books from future thinkers around the world exploring how developments such as AI, robotics and disruptive thinking could impact individuals, society and business and create new trillion-dollar sectors. Fast Future has a particular focus on ensuring these advances are harnessed to unleash individual potential and enable a very human future. See: www.fastfuture.com
Rohit Talwar is a global futurist, keynote speaker, author, and CEO of Fast Future where he helps clients develop and deliver transformative visions of the future. He is the editor and contributing author for The Future of Business, editor of Technology vs. Humanity, and co-editor of a forthcoming book on Unleashing Human Potential–The Future of AI in Business.
Steve Wells is the COO of Fast Future and an experienced Strategist, Futures Analyst, and Partnership Working Practitioner. He is a co-editor of The Future of Business, Technology vs. Humanity, and a forthcoming book on Unleashing Human Potential–The Future of AI in Business.
Alexandra Whittington is a futurist, writer, faculty member on the Futures programme at the University of Houston, and foresight director at Fast Future. She is a contributor to The Future of Business and a co-editor for forthcoming books on Unleashing Human Potential–The Future of AI in Business and 50:50–Scenarios for the Next 50 Years.
April Koury is a foresight researcher, writer, and publishing director at Fast Future. She is a contributor to The Future of Business, and a co-editor of Technology vs. Humanity, and a forthcoming book on 50:50–Scenarios for the Next 50 Years.