Why machine learning really matters for small businesses

Authored by Bernard Marr.
5 min read
man holds laptop while adjusting dials on machinery
Business expert, Bernard Marr, takes a look at how machine learning can bring opportunities for your small business.

Machine learning tools and services are now accessible to small businesses either through renting them, loading your business’s data into the cloud or using a third party. Whichever way you use them, machine learning brings opportunities.

Even though machine learning, (external link) the leading edge of artificial intelligence (external link) (AI), has moved from a sci-fi concept to our everyday lives, many small- and medium-sized companies still believe it’s technology reserved for the tech giants. But, it’s time to take another look, because machine learning can be the key to help small business owners compete. Machine learning can be applied to almost every industry and it can streamline business processes to make companies more agile.

What is machine learning?

Computers outperform humans when it comes to counting and calculating or following logical yes/no algorithms. However, we never considered computers ‘intelligent’ because humans always had to program them to operate. This started to change when Arthur Samuel of IBM proposed the concept of realisation (external link) in 1959, an idea that it might be possible to teach computers how to learn for themselves. The ability for machines to learn began to accelerate with the emergence of the internet and the huge amount of digital information we generate, store and now have available for analysis (known as big data (external link)).

Machine learning is quite simply teaching computers to learn by interpreting data, classifying it then learning from its successes and failures. The development of artificial neural networks helped to teach computers to learn and understand the world around them with advantages such as speed, accuracy and lack of bias.

The pioneers of machine learning are tech giants with substantial innovation budgets on the scale of Google which uses machine learning in its search and image algorithms to better connect us to the information we want when we want it. While Facebook customises our newsfeeds because its machines learn what we like and don’t like and serve that content to us Amazon uses AI as our shopping assistants to make recommendations on what we might like to buy next based on browsing history and past purchases.

Machine learning opportunities for small businesses

Small businesses don’t normally have the resources, time or skills of larger organisations to develop machine learning capabilities, which leaves many feel like this tech is out of reach. But, there’s good news. Since the tech giants did the heavy lifting to build and perfect machine learning tools, small businesses don’t have to start from scratch with research and development to get a foot in the door and reap the advantages of machine learning.

What’s more, several businesses now offer machine learning tools as a service (external link) or as pre-packaged machine learning tools. Small businesses can load data into the tools offered from vendors such as Amazon, Microsoft (external link), and other tech giants along with several smaller machine-learning start-ups such as Gluru (external link), Digital Genius (external link) and Crystal (external link).

How machine learning could impact the business of SMEs

So you now know that machine learning tools might be within your reach, but how can it really improve your operations or streamline your business activities? There are in fact endless ways, but let’s take a look at sales, customer service, process improvement and accounting as they offer very practical examples.

Sales: Tools with machine learning can look at many facts including customer data so you can track how your customers interact with your brand, what product or service they might be ready to purchase next and even competitor insights. Crayon (external link), a market intelligence platform, is just one tool that can review millions of data sources and output only the important information to help your business. Customer relationship management tools like Salesforce now apply machine learning to help companies sell the right product or service, via the right channel to the right customers.

Customer Service: Google (external link) offers pre-built APIs such as a Natural Language API that can extract a person, place or thing from text, analyse sentiment and syntax to label messages with tags to help process feedback or customer inquiries and direct them to the right people to take action.

Process Improvement: As our buildings, machines and devices are becoming smarter with in-built data collection and transmitting capabilities we can use machine learning to optimise their use and automate things. Many tools like the Nest’s smart thermostats, fire alarms or security cameras already use inbuilt machine learning capabilities to optimise your heating or alert you to strangers in your office. Soon, everything from chairs and desks to vans and machines will be ready for the machine learning revolution.

Accounting: Xero (external link), a cloud accounting software provider, announced this year that they have a new product that will support small business invoicing and will be able to suggest account codes for invoices based on past invoicing behaviour, categorise your expenses in a consistent and meaningful manner, and learn with you as you change things.

As with any technology, only a few companies had the resources to be early adopters. Now that they have made investments that launched machine learning, the prices to implement it have gone down and the opportunities to access the technology in a variety of ways have grown. Every SME should investigate the machine learning tools and services that are now available that could positively impact their business.

London Tech Week (external link) runs 11th-17th June.

Find out more about our Hiscox small business insurance.

At Hiscox, we want to help your small business thrive. Our blog has many articles you may find relevant and useful as your business grows. But these articles aren’t professional advice. So, to find out more on a subject we cover here, please seek professional assistance.

Bernard Marr

Keynote speaker and strategic advisor to companies and governments. Bernard is one of the world's most highly respected voices when it comes to data in business; LinkedIn have ranked him as one of the world's Top 5 Business Influencers. Marr is also the founder and CEO of Bernard Marr & Co, an independent think tank and consultancy organisation.