What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution and what does it mean for SMEs in the UK?
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) has brought about an incredible wave of innovation and technology that is radically transforming our economies, our societies and our daily lives. For business, it’s the application of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, and other technologies to significantly improve the efficiency of organisations. Companies are using these technologies to deliver amazing experiences, which in turn is changing customers’ expectations for the companies that they do business with.
For SMEs, the 4IR opens up opportunities to level the playing field with competitors and larger companies. There are some wonderful examples of SMEs using technology to transform industries – just look at GoCardless disrupting the banking sector, or Treatwell transforming the health and wellness world.
>See also: Self-employed think artificial intelligence won’t majorly affect the workplace
Which elements of technology can help SMEs be more productive and better service their customers?
Some SMEs are scrambling to service their customers – and customers don’t care if they are dealing with a large or small company because they expect the same level of service regardless of size. This presents a key challenge for SMEs if they don’t have efficient processes in place.
SMEs have to focus on building and retaining trust with any digital transformation. As well as attracting and retaining customers who demand an always-on service and highly personalised experiences, employees expect greater transparency from business leaders around the impact of new technologies.
The 4IR will ultimately be driven by people. Given that the majority of the UK workforce are employed by SMEs, the development of digital talent is fundamental if the 4IR is to realise its potential and work for all. With digital skills at a premium, retaining and harnessing this talent is essential. The key to achieving this is making employees feel trusted and empowered by providing them with the right tools and information for this evolving digital age.
Do business leaders have a part to play in creating a successful Global Britain?
We are entering a critical period in business. People today expect more from business and the 4IR presents a huge opportunity for business leaders to help drive the UK forwards. Our own research found that almost three-quarters of consumers agree that business leaders need to step up and help create a successful global Britain. Encouragingly, two-thirds of UK business leaders recognise that larger businesses have a responsibility to provide more support to UK start-ups and entrepreneurs.
Investment into the UK start-up ecosystem will be vital in enabling homegrown entrepreneurs to realise their ambitions without being forced to relocate elsewhere globally to increase their chances of receiving the investment they need. In practice, organisations of all sizes must collaborate together and with government to ensure that the UK maintains and grows its economic prosperity.
>See also: How small businesses can make the UK a leader in artificial intelligence
Is automation a threat or an opportunity for businesses?
Time will always be a limited resource, and the pace of modern business is only likely to increase in the future. To thrive in the 4IR, UK businesses must maximise the benefits of automation. AI and automation can increase productivity by removing simple but time-consuming tasks so employees can focus on higher-competency work. This puts SMEs on a more levelled playing field with larger enterprises.
Research we launched earlier this year highlighted a collective ambition from SME owners to find better and smarter ways to solve some very specific time-related problems. For example, over half (54pc) agree that emerging technologies such as AI and automation will save their business time, whilst a similar number (51pc) think that new technologies have already made their employees more productive than they were two years ago.
Is the growth of automation in the workplace a threat or an opportunity to a business’s workforce?
Employees within British businesses – and particularly SMEs – spend too much time performing tasks that can be easily automated. Embracing technologies like AI and machine learning into the workplace means employees can focus their time and expertise on closing sales, strengthening client relationships or planning for the future. To this end, businesses must work to ensure that employees feel empowered by automation rather than threatened by it. This process requires a change in workplace culture and as business leaders, we need to show people how re-skilling and gaining new qualifications is easier than many people think.
What is Salesforce doing to help SMEs develop their workforces?
Salesforce is committed to helping the UK maintain its position as a leading hub for digital businesses. We recently conducted research which found that 24pc of business leaders say businesses are primarily responsible for ensuring the UK has the skills it needs to thrive – I am part of that 24pc. We’re advocates of workforce development for all and our free online learning platform, Trailhead, has a range of digital skills and management trails for everyone to learn. In the UK, we have launched a Trailhead campaign to support the re-skilling of the nation’s workforce and as part of this campaign we will be making a pledge to help 250,000 people across Europe work towards a Salesforce certification by 2022.
Why is Salesforce so committed to the SME sector in the UK?
SMEs play a vital role in the UK economy. Not only do they comprise 99.9pc of the country’s business population, they also employ 60pc of employees and account for half of turnover in the UK private sector. SMEs will drive innovation and explore new ideas and approaches to technology. This helps to produce businesses which excel in a variety of cutting-edge business sectors, such as the UK’s vibrant fintech scene and leadership in AI. For Salesforce, it’s clear that British small businesses have huge potential to fuel the 4IR. Through our online learning platform Trailhead and wider ecosystem of partners, Salesforce is committed to help SMEs continue to prosper both domestically and overseas.
Paul Smith is EVP and GM UK, Salesforce
Further reading on productivity
Ed Vaizey on productivity: ‘Network with other businesses. It’s what MPs do all the time’