What added value does AI promise for medium-sized businesses?
Susanne Boll-Westermann: First of all, it is important for small and medium-sized companies to generally deal with the topic of digitalization - to which AI belongs nowadays. According to our observation, this is not yet sufficiently the case. SMEs need to understand which products they can improve by using AI methods, for example: Where, for example, can Machine Learning methods predict how logistics can be better designed? Where can they contribute to making production processes more effective? Or: Where can AI be used to develop entirely new - digital - products?
In order to find out, SMEs should deal with the topic and not remain stuck in the myth: AI is only something for large companies. Or for companies that have a lot of data. What is needed is a systematic approach. For example, if an SME has not yet come into contact with digitisation and AI, it should look for partners in its region and exchange ideas with best practice companies to see where digitisation and AI can lead. Chambers of Industry and Commerce and specialised transfer centres usually offer events and information on digitisation and AI.
What should SMEs consider when introducing AI?
Susanne Boll-Westermann: First of all, companies really need to free up time and resources to clarify what digitalization and AI can do for the company. Because this requires a certain technological understanding, for which appropriate skills are needed. It may be advisable to bring strategic consultants on board for this process. In addition, SMEs need to consider which technical competencies they want to build up in-house. This does not only mean hiring computer scientists. I also have to give a management or development team the freedom to look at the opportunities AI offers the company. Some experts recommend that the team responsible for digitisation be given one day a week to develop new ideas - for improving products and maintenance processes or for developing new product ideas. Because all that needs space.
In the next step, an SME must then analyse the partnerships and skills with which it can implement ideas. Do I have the computing platform for this? Is my own computer centre capable of doing this? Do I need strong partners, possibly from my region? Do I have to enter into alliances with other - perhaps similar - companies because together we can achieve something that may only prove successful in the marketplace if we work together? What does my prototype look like? Who are my first customers? All this must develop step by step. This is often referred to as agile or iterative development: always thinking the next one or two steps ahead and then making sure that I can bring this to the market in the long term.
Do SMEs have to transform themselves into tech companies?
Susanne Boll-Westermann: At least not at the beginning. But you have to look deeply into technology and make decisions: Which technologies do they want to purchase, which ones can service providers provide? Which strategic partners are available? If a medium-sized company wants to drive its business through technology in the long term, it has to build up this technological competence within the company. But this can happen step by step. It is important that the company management has a good sense and understanding of technology. Especially in SMEs we observe that a high degree of digitalisation is strongly paired with managing directors who have developed a passion for the topic themselves. If SMEs build up a strong technological competence over time and AI drives their own projects, they will of course also change into a technology company - but certainly not become a tech company.