It wasn’t that long ago that emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, and internet of things were considered too expensive, too complex, too much for small businesses to consider. But COVID-19, continued innovation, and changing business models now have all but eliminated any barriers to entry, leaving SMBs—and the solution providers serving them—with plenty of opportunity.
In fact, now’s the time for solution providers—and any tech company, frankly—to start learning how the technologies can be integrated into current offerings and how they can solve customers’ real-world business problems, according to Maddy Martin, head of growth and education at Smith.ai, and Dan Scott, innovation and systems director at Complete I.T., during a recent session at CompTIA’s 2020 EMEA Member & Partner Conference online.
If they haven’t done so yet, companies should create a cultural pillar so to speak around being open to new technology, said Martin. “Say, ‘I’m going to carve out time for the exploration and understanding of it so that when the times comes, I’m prepared, and I know what’s a year or two down the road.’”
Added Scott, it’s similar to looking at a house that hasn’t been built yet. You’re not buying what it looks like today, you’re imaging what it’s going to look like and what it will do for you.
“Try to get ahead of the curve. I try to stay abreast of what’s going on. It may not be right for us today, but that requirement could change. Don’t become too comfortable where you are. Expect what you do to change. The best way of looking at a plan is knowing that someday that plan will be old hat and something that better is going to come along.”
The Importance of Incremental Improvements
Early iterations of a new technology might bring expectations that dramatic change is needed as well as a massive overhaul to current systems and processes. But today’s emerging tech has been designed for more measured, incremental changes, a trend that has accelerated innovation and adoption.
“When you talk about emerging technology, I think everything thinks we’re all going to go and reinvent the wheel. But there is a curve of innovation that’s going to happen in any market, any service, any product. As times goes on, it’s going to flatten off. If you look at Moore’s Law with Intel of [processor] speed doubling every 24 months, they haven’t been able to keep that up for a while now because we’ve reached such a point of progression that the level of noticeable change slows down.”
Incremental change works. For example, Formula One racing teams spend millions trying to make a car go around a circle 1/1000th of a second faster than the week before.
“That’s incredible when you think of return on investment. They’re always chasing marginal improvements. But the thing about marginal improvements is that they all add up,” said Scott. “Sometimes it’s things that you can’t see are the things that make it, especially when you’re talking about services. When you talk about the tech industry, it doesn’t have to be this all-knowing artificial intelligence that’s all of a sudden going to be fielding all your support calls. How can you bring in new and different technologies that are just going to raise the bar in loads of little areas, some of which people who consume the service may never even notice?”
While most CompTIA members will hope for improvements more noticeable than 1/1000th of a second, it’s all about the impact it can have on a business and how it helps customers do things better, faster, cheaper, said Martin.
Her company, Smith.ai, recently added real-time English/Spanish translation to its chat product, which allows companies to expand their bilingual support capabilities with customers without having to spend recruiting for or training bilingual employees.
“That is a simple improvement that gives you a more beneficial experience for the end user and a far more satisfying experience for the chat agent. You’re doing something of value that didn’t require you to go to years of language classes. You’ve built a new skill and you can approach and help a totally wider audience,” she said.
COVID-19 Silver Lining? New SMB Opportunities Emerge
Historically, many emerging technologies have been considered the domain of large enterprises—nothing that a small business could integrate into its own operations. But that’s not the reality, at least not now, according to Scott.
“The wonderful democratization of new technologies that are becoming available that all of a sudden a startup that was founded with three people three hours ago can have a virtual cloud platform up and running, a collaboration platform up and running, an AI-based telephone answering partner and web chat up and running and be onboarded with a website that they’ve thrown together,” said Scott. “Isn’t that amazing? It’s given SMEs the weapons they need to be effective.”
That democratization of innovation extends to the components of a solution too, added Martin. We’re no longer trapped by technology that requires customers to buy an entire suite if it doesn’t suit their business. Plug-and-play has moved from devices to functionality.
“The old perception of emerging technology was there’s this entirely new platform and everything I use has to be adapted to it. You’re not stuck with one single system that may do everything, but nothing really well,” she said. “Now there are new tools and even systems managing all your subscriptions and billing details behind that. You can choose the best solutions for you, tie them in together with third-party programs or API integrations and have exactly the suite of services that matches your business needs at the cost that makes sense for you.”
And those customizable services can grow with you as your needs change, added Scott.
“It might take a bit of time to ramp up whatever it is you’re looking at. There’s always going to be a good, better, best model that allows you to grow into it and assess the viability of it. You can think about development in terms of weeks and months rather than years or more. If something doesn’t work, you can move but not have to worry too much about the sunk cost that’s gone into the trial and error.”
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