Is the Value of AI & Machine Learning Out of Reach for SMEs?

Concept image of a person in profile with ones and zeros filling in their face

As we navigate the meandering journey that is the pandemic exit route, there is no denying that SMEs need not only support but also a resilient plan.

Early 2020 was already rather turbulent, with Brexit looming, when lockdown commenced and businesses were forced into the new normal as it is affectionately known, supply chains faltered, and demand fell by the wayside.

The results, as we know all too well, were pretty catastrophic. Businesses of this size were hit disproportionately, particularly in East Anglia, London, and the North West. Their problems were caused by the difficulties that we’ve mentioned above but, also because of many SMEs struggled with the rapid adoption of digital technologies.

Below, we have detailed the average costs assumed per business in the UK up to June 2021 (so far).

Diagram of mainland UK with counties shaded in different purples
(Source:, 2021)


Cost of COVID so far Estimated total cost of COVID
East Anglia £25,035 £44,703
London £23,667 £38,127
North West England £21,982 £23,766
Scotland £18,637 £25,770
North East England £17,368 £22,920
Wales £17,338 £16,520
The Midlands £16,353 £23,547
South East England £15,671 £22,577
South West England £14,953 £16,472

How to keep my business alive

In order for businesses to thrive and, mainly, stay alive during the pandemic, ESEI suggests that they invest in innovation, take their business online, respond to logistic demands, alter the existing business model, and rebrand.

While not all the above are entirely achievable, some of them at least were attempted by nearly every business in the United Kingdom – in reality, they had to do something. Unfortunately, for SMEs, which make up 99% of businesses in the UK, the cost of COVID is expected to be around £126.6 billion, a sum that will have detrimental impacts on these businesses for years to come.

The first of ESEI’s suggestions, to invest in innovation, sits at the very forefront of business events which took place during the initial months of the pandemic. Businesses found themselves turning off most, if not all, of their physical operations to focus purely on digital.

Teams became the new office space while the Cloud became the new filing cabinet. Companies that had barely used these new technologies before found themselves entrenched in their capabilities, making a number begin to ask the question, ‘well, what else can my business take advantage of?’, and the answer is ‘plenty.’

This brings us on to AI & Machine Learning. Business decision makers call upon the help of these technologies in a bid to reduce their operational costs, increase their efficiency, grow revenue streams, and improve the overall customer experience. Sound familiar? Yes, these are exactly the same ways in which businesses can survive – by cutting costs, increasing profits, and holding on to customers!

Welcoming AI & Machine Learning

Before we delve into the reasons why these technologies are growing exponentially in popularity, it’s worth explaining what they mean.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the mimicking of human cognitive functions such as learning and problem solving. It uses both maths and logic to re-enact the reasoning people use to form new decisions and learn information. Meanwhile, machine learning is an application of AI that uses mathematical formulae and data to allow a computer to learn without instruction. Ultimately, this allows the device to be let loose on self-improvement and knowledge enhancement.

At this stage, some business owners may be put off, thinking that advanced digital infrastructure like this is way beyond their business but, the fact of the matter is, every business can benefit from learning more about themselves and their operations through the power of data.

The term big data, often used for the data used by AI and machine learning, may come across as intimidating but it’s not about providing all the data associated with your business throughout history. Rather, it is about harnessing relevant data and technology to get a clearer picture of the current situation and what the future will is likely to hold.

In good news for SMEs – most of the groundwork associated with AI and machine learning has already been done, so all you have to do is implement it and start reaping the inevitable rewards.

Considerations and benefits

One important thing to consider for SMEs before investing is inevitably the initial upfront cost, Many systems are elaborate, so ensure that you can acquire a solution or software that gives you access to the data analysis that you need, rather than a full suite of tools that are redundant to you.

Your journey time from deployment to integration should be considerably lower than that of a major corporation as you should be able to get it running in conjunction with your current setup.

The price of technology has dropped significantly in recent years as have the costs associated with accessing data – use free government databases and social network stores to power your insights combined with in-house data that you have already been collecting.

As for the benefits, through the implementation of AI and machine learning you can successfully position your business as one of the most competitive within the market, anticipating trends and making moves ahead of fellow business decision makers.

Similarly, SMEs are craving innovation in order to excel, however, business owners and key decision makers often find themselves swamped in the day-to-day decisions that could easily be made by AI. Take the time back from less important decisions and reassign it to those which could be taking your business to the next level.

Where do you start?

In order to hit the ground running with these technologies, you need to understand the problems that you face rather than automatically trying to come up with a solution. Likewise, implementing AI and machine learning throughout the business at every possibility will simply result in you becoming inundated with data that you’re unsure how to utilise – find the areas that need assistance and start there.

Of course, you’ll be wondering where you get the data to feed the machine – well, you’ll be glad to know that it’s all around you within your business. Emails, social media, web traffic, and customer data – it really is everywhere and ready for you to manipulate.

There exists a swathe of opportunities for SMEs in a post pandemic world, especially when it comes to government contracts. Using the capabilities offered above can truly be the way that your business stands out amongst its competitors and thrives in the future.

Written for SME News

Rebecca Grewcock