Technology & Innovation

How to use tech and data to recruit, build and grow your business

Tech and data can play a big role as you grow your business. Learn how AI and automation can make a postive impact.

The foundation of business and the goal of entrepreneurship is not an easy one.

And with the ever-increasing need to fuel growth through technology, small and medium-sized businesses are finding it more and more difficult to manage expectations, hire emerging talent, and support staff in their ambitions.

In 2018, a group of US and UK-based Sage global business experts participated in an X (Twitter) discussion about key topics ‘enterprise and entrepreneurship’.

Below are just a few of the insights shared by our independent experts that are still relevant today, along with updated analysis on the current question centred around technology: automation versus artificial intelligence (AI)—what’s best for business?

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How is technology helping businesses innovate and manage growth?

“The sharing economy or collaborative consumption has impacted business through outsourcing services, peer-to-peer rental of equipment, etc. This essentially means agility and cost savings. Collaboration software allows organisations to work regardless of location, without the need for expensive office space and share great ideas.” Rob May @robmay70

“Technology helps get things done faster. It gets information faster, automates processes to get routine tasks done faster, and can help get customers’ problems/questions resolved faster. Technology provides for speed and convenience.” Shep Hyken @Hyken

“Technology allows us to automate repetitive tasks freeing up time to focus on more important tasks…that is when we aren’t wasting that freed time on our phones.” Robert Wood @bertowud

“Spending on tech allows you to spend more on R&D or marketing or whatever your business needs. Tech also gives businesses access to markets that were formerly too costly to reach.” Rieva Lesonsky @rieva

Automation versus AI

In the discussion held six years ago, our business leaders identified that technology was a driving force in growing and innovating a successful business.

What no one knew then was the impact automation and AI would have, or the acceleration in adoption that would happen by the time of writing.

At first, automation was developed to take on repetitive processes that were previously time-costly, freeing you up to focus on strategy and business-critical work.

These solutions were always programmed to follow set rules and the process logic itself only.

Combining automation with AI takes this several steps further.

Not only has it expanded on automation’s process improvements—as it’s able to learn from data stored elsewhere, rather than just be programmed—but it can calculate and consolidate data faster than humans can.

Disparate data can be checked and analysed, to create top-level reports or drilled into for more details that pull insights from previously disconnected sources.

This is especially useful when dealing with multiple entities, offices, time zones, or projects.

Process errors or even fraudulent transactions can be identified, and fixes suggested where AI can identify improvements that were not spotted by overworked managers or analysts.

This creates efficiencies and helps refine and reallocate workloads.

For accountants and finance managers, this is especially clear when AI powers the accounts payable process and speeds up the day-to-day facilitating a strategic refocus on the human-to-human connections businesses rely on.

How can CFOs and leaders ensure their supply chain supports their strategy?

“Having instant access to real-time business data to be able to make smart, quick decisions!” Jeremy Ploessel @SageJeremy

“Trying to automate or incorporate technology without taking a more holistic view of the internal processes is like putting a Band Aid on a broken arm. That technology will never be optimally effective.” Rachel Fisch @FischBooks

Supply chain strategies: AI vs automation

On the Sound Advice podcast, Bloom & Wild founder Aron Gelbard revealed that he used the proving grounds of the pandemic to grow his business internationally.

He knew he couldn’t rely on only a UK-based closed loop system for international shipping of flower boxes, especially factoring in climate change effects on growers, and the supply chain, and other unforeseen challenges.

“Between being grown in a field somewhere and reaching a recipient’s kitchen table, they’ll often go from an exporter to an importer to an auction to another exporter and three or four more steps,” he revealed of the process. At any of these steps, the supply chain could break down.

So, he used an acquisition of Bloomon, based in the Netherlands, that already used technology powered by AI to optimise the supply chain through real-time data analysis, as a way to build resilience into the farm-to-consumer chain.

Aron said: “We have proprietary technology that enables us to balance volumes between growers, communicate with growers, increase, or decrease volumes between them based on real time information.

“Also, that same technology now allows us to track the carbon footprint of each stem at the grower level, so that we understand and can make sure that we’re delivering also on our commitments to reduce carbon intensity, each year on our path to net-zero.”

In ensuring the technology is as innovative as possible and with continuous investment, Bloom & Wild’s supply chain can remain agile as well as continue to excel as an international company with B-Corp standards.

How can businesses support creativity from within their ranks?

“To support innovation, use brainstorming sessions and don’t focus on quality of suggestions. Focus on quantity of ideas first. The craziest sounding idea may lead to a breakthrough.” Anita Campbell @smallbiztrends

“Encourage staff to challenge status quo – ‘we’ve always done it this way’. Push to find new ways to use tech as an enabler.” Nancy Teixeira @nancytex

“Harness best in class technology and tools to get tasks done faster than ever before, freeing time for creativity, collaboration and growth.” MindBridgeAI @mindbridge_ai

Are there benefits to creativity from using automation vs AI?

This is still a hotly debated topic.

Does outsourcing creativity to AI, or manufacturing it through automation, help to support creativity?

Today, it seems there’s an AI-powered app or website for any creative task you can think of—with wildly varying results—making it clear the creative power of AI is still in its toddler period.

Previously, it could barely create a believable face after many hours of trying.

Now, you can create generate almost anything you can imagine if you know the right prompts.

You can replicate your voice and body to create entirely fictional versions of ‘you’ or indeed a new persona entirely that reads scripts for videos, automatically dubbing that into multiple languages, ask AI to visualise what angels look like, or simply create branded logos for multiple formats in one button-click.

Yet, it still requires a creative brain to generate the prompts on which all of this is delivered or audit the content for ‘believability’ and fact-checking.

The creative role that would previously use static software to design and build is changing to rely on a broader understanding of that technology, taking on new skillsets to adjust.

On the question of AI versus automation though, both tools can help speed up the creative process used carefully but, at the moment, can’t replace the human touch.

What should businesses seeking to recruit talent with expertise in AI, machine learning and data science do?

“Look for people with clear problem-solving experience and not just the ability to explain algorithms, look for where they’ve previously used this when it comes to machine learning.” Rob May @robmay70

“Start early and often, identify people who are interested and help find their early education in the field. Partner with education institutions to help create programmes in outlying areas to get more people interested in the field.” Tripp Braden @TrippBraden

Attracting talent is much more than a competitive compensation package. It’s multifaceted – look to ‘gravitational hires’ who attract others; exciting challenges that inspire participation and innovative benefits that keep great people.” PaymentEvolution @PayEvo

“Work with universities and colleges in your area to find recent grads who majored in those fields.” Rieva Lesonsky @Rieva

Power in perfecting prompts

Six years on and this advice still holds if you are building or maintaining AI systems and bespoke tools.

Now, though, not only are programming and computer skills a must, there’s also power in perfecting prompts too.

So don’t overlook this particular skill for content roles, as programming is just one route into it.

As new tech emerges, how can businesses support professional and technical development of employees?

“Skills for the new tech is one of the going challenges, especially for the small-to-mid-sized firm.” Ian Moyse @imoyse

“Ensure they have ‘business skills’ and ‘know how to interpret the data’ NOT just buzzwords like Python and Perl – ensure they know how to avoid bias in the models.” Carla Gentry @data_nerd

“As a business owner or manager, ‘investing for the future’ is how you have to view it. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Consider where your team will be a year from now. That’s the goal.” Anita Campbell @smallbiztrends

Automation versus AI: What this means for employees

Automation and AI have been slowly creeping into all aspects of business for a few years now.

Combined with cloud computing, previously siloed roles have been broken open via an influx of data and roles are changing to reflect this:

Data no longer remains location-based,

Skill sets have shifted from manual collation of documents and spreadsheets to focus more on the strategic and analytical as AI drives this information to your fingertips

The roles of chief executive officer (CEO) chief technology officer (CTO) and chief financial officer (CFO) must work even more closely together to ensure business success.

Businesses that use technology to support and value its employees and customers will thrive.

Examples of this include ensuring all employees have necessary training on any new systems, such as learning to write prompts in ChatGPT, or using automation itself to streamline HR software and people management software to help HR teams work more efficiently.

With an AI-powered process in place, your pass on the time savings of removing manual admin work to your employees, helping them focus on business-critical work instead.

This has a positive effect on career development, and in turn helps your company culture thrive as people feel more valued for using higher-level skills.

Integrating AI and automation can help your business transition into a company that leads from the inside out.

PwC claims Industry 4.0 will revolutionise industrial production. What should businesses do as they implement new tech and try to reduce costs and increase revenues?

“Take the time to analyse which parts of your business need automation – connectivity, better data. A little bit of upfront consultation/analysis could avoid costly, and unnecessary, tech investments. One size does not fit all.” Nancy Teixeira @nancytex

“Organisations need to know where their profits come from and then work to build value in those unique capabilities.” Tripp Braden @TrippBraden

“Become predictive and use all that technology has to offer but remember, there is never a quick fix (I hate ready, fire, aim) so ensure your staff is data driven and has the talent and experience needed to take you to success – tech is great if used correctly.” Carla Gentry @data_nerd

How AI and automation lead the charge

Our experts knew that data and analysis were key to overcoming production-line challenges.

But is it AI versus automation that has led the charge in modern production?

The answer is both.

Since AI can continuously learn from and analyse data, it suggests adjustments to the automation process that not only are more efficient but can add value to the customer.

When your production is streamlined, you can refocus strategy on agility to cope with the demands of an increasingly challenging world.

Tim Boldt is the founder of Gousto meal-prep company.

On the Sound Advice podcast, he revealed that by using AI and highly automated processes, his business has cut through risk factors and human limitation to keep manufacturing going through the pandemic, the rising cost of goods, and climate change challenges.

From scanning weather to predicting recipe preferences and creating an automated factory system from the ground up, Tim has invested in bespoke AI that focuses on finding efficiencies by analysing details.

He said: “Do you put tomatoes on one station in the factory, 100 stations, the first station, the last station of how the box travels through the factory?

“No human has any clue how to ever solve that optimisation challenge. And so we build a lot of fulfilment AI, automatic order allocation, where to allocate the order, which factory, which shift and so on.”

Having these efficiency improving processes in place frees Tim up to constantly innovate and answer big questions posed by his customers.

“Every single day you want to deliver customer value, and you want to innovate the proposition.”

Final thoughts

Automation and AI are changing the game for businesses everywhere.

To take advantage of this sea change will take some openness to learning, perhaps changes in strategic decision-making, and fast onboarding of the technology itself.

Understanding how your business can use automation vs AI is the key to driving it forwards because it’s not a question of either/or, it’s how they can both be used effectively.

Luckily, the enterprise and entrepreneurship field is a community full of AI and automation trailblazers.

If you look and not too hard either, you’ll find support from some of the most successful people in the space.

Their ambitions mirror yours and their willingness to offer guidance is frequently a free service that you’d do well to take advantage of.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in August 2018 and has been updated for relevance.