Part 1 of a 2-part series on artificial intelligence for mid-market businesses. Read Part 2 here.
There are several steps to consider when thinking about the adoption of an AI (artificial intelligence) strategy for mid-market businesses. Luckily if you are working on Microsoft Intelligent Applications like Dynamics 365, you already have AI technology at your disposal. Microsoft has infused artificial intelligence into some of the products and services that businesses use everyday.
What Exactly is AI?
Artificial intelligence has been around since the 1950s. It is a broad area of computer science that make machines (ie: computers) seem like they have human intelligence. It can analyse large quantities of data, learning from the results of such assessments, and use this knowledge to refine future processes and systems.
When discussing AI, you may also hear the term ‘machine learning’. This is a subset of AI based on algorithms and statistical models that computers use in order to perform a specific task without explicit instructions, relying on patterns and inference instead.
So, what is all the AI hype about in 2019? AI is all about massive data, and cloud computing power! Microsoft is leading the cloud computing market with Azure. This has allowed mid-market companies to ease into cloud computing in order to transition from high cost legacy on-premise business applications, manual business workarounds and siloed Microsoft Excel reporting.
Steps to Adopting an AI Strategy
- Step 1 – Think of AI from the business process point of view
- Step 2 – Identify the business problems that you want AI to solve
- Step 3 – Start prioritizing business problems and tie AI initiatives directly to business value
Is your Business Ready for AI Adoption?
After familiarizing yourself with Microsoft AI “out of the box”, it’s time to look at your business and identify “quick wins” that will contribute to increased efficiencies.
Do you have the people, resources, and tools to implement an AI strategy? How will AI improve your internal stakeholders’ workloads, vendor relationships, and customer experiences?
Where to Start
First, investigate what you may already have licensed within Microsoft Intelligent Applications like Dynamics 365 and identify where to apply AI “out of the box” to improve a business process. For example; is your sales management getting the complete picture from sales representatives forecasting accurate revenue closing? Dynamics 365 AI for Sales provides insights around what keywords sales and customers are discussing related to high growth products and services. Customers may be expressing consistent specific pain points and negative sentiments that sales managers can view in a dashboard. This is an opportunity for sales team coaching to address these customer concerns with a consistent message and help improve customer communication.
Second, Microsoft provides the technology to go beyond “out of the box” and recently introduced an “in preview” AI Builder that doesn’t require mid-market companies to hire programmers, data scientists, and robotic engineers to accomplish further AI technological benefits. AI Builder is bundled within Microsoft Power Platform that provides line of business users the ability to build business apps and extend or customize the apps already used.
Among AI Builder’s capabilities is the ability to recognize objects and to output what it sees in a format that can be easily acted upon. For example; AI Builder will help build an AI model to automatically identify and track your products using object detection. For a field technician, it could be as simple as taking a photo of a piece of equipment’s serial number, and the AI providing the predictive maintenance. Note, the AI model has to be trained from historical data, or it doesn’t have a context within which to perform its task.
Example Uses for AI in Business
If you look at mid-market distribution companies, countless hours are spent doing busy work (ie: processing paper; tweaking PO’s; answering supplier inquiries; etc). Dynamics 365 AI technology can be utilized to streamline these processes and reduce costs.
An example of a specific problem a mid-market distribution company might have would be around procurement and vendor management. AI machine learning reduces manual work by sourcing vendors via phone, email and web form inquiries. Purchasing agents can then identify past consumption patterns via Microsoft Power BI and provide predicative analytics for demand planning and forecasting. Machine learning can narrow down hundreds of vendors to the top ten, enable agents to get the best discounts and best service, all while reducing costs and increasing revenues. This, in turn, frees up procurement professionals to focus on higher-value work and spend more time developing relationships with both vendors and internal stakeholders to create additional value for the business. The customer experience could be augmented by virtual assistants in the form of chatbots to assist with accessing account statements, part numbers, service schedules and online orders.
How Does Power BI Fit in?
AI is all about analyzing data and patterns and helping you make smarter business decisions. What you’re doing in Microsoft Power BI is you’re visualizing your data so you can see anomalies within the data, and then ask pertinent business questions. It could be something as simple as ‘I see that I’m going to have a negative forecast of these items and the machine is recommending that I should order x number of products because in 2 months I know it’s going to be a high ordering season.’ AI is really the combination of machines and humans, it gives you the pattern recognition but then it’s up to you to make the best business decision. AI is not going to replace humans, it’s complementing what we do.
Another example is in the area of preventative maintenance, using data from embedded sensors in fleet vehicles to monitor the vehicle components with advanced analytics, and predict the remaining useful life of the components so that maintenance can be scheduled with minimal disruption to service schedules.
Empower Your Employees Through AI
You will want to bring AI to every employee in a company, so they have access to not only structured but un-structured data. That could be anything from financial data to document management. It’s all about empowering them with the knowledge to consume AI and create self-service AI systems. This way, every individual in the company has the ability to ask questions of the data because all the patterns have been built up over time, and they can then make more informed decisions.
If mid-market companies need help beyond their internal team, the next step would be to bring in consultants. Consultants like Encore can work on a small pilot project to get quicker wins, sometimes within two or three months. Please contact us if you’re interested in learning more about how AI can be integrated into your business.
"We met our three project goals of 100% completion of critical business requirements at Go Live, completed with 90% Best Practices or better, and GO Live done in a timely manner."