Will the transformative power of AI replace or augment IT staff in smaller businesses in talent-short Asia Pacific?

The efficiency and sophistication of generative AI has captured the world’s attention with businesses increasingly seeking to leverage its abilities to optimize routine tasks.

IDC projects that AI spending in the Asia Pacific (APAC) region will reach a staggering $49.2 billion by 2026. Among the prominent use cases of this technology, “IT optimization” stands out as one of the leading areas of focus for businesses.

According to global data from GoTo’s 2023 IT Priorities Report, investing in the right IT tools has become a key area of focus for small and midsized enterprises (SMEs), given their high impact on productivity and their integral role in the customer engagement process.

IT wields a substantial influence on the growth trajectory of a business. Therefore, it is important to consider the implications of the emerging AI wave for SMEs. Will AI render their IT teams obsolete, or does it hold the potential to enhance their roles and improve overall efficiency?

Over the course of the last two years, GoTo has been working closely with small businesses across APAC to understand their challenges in the face of an evolving digital landscape – from facilitating the transition to remote work, to helping them harness the transformative advantages offered by AI. So DigiconAsia decided to draw some insights from Lindsay Brown, Vice President and General Manager, GoTo, Asia Pacific and Japan.

According to global data from GoTo’s 2023 IT Priorities Report, investing in the right IT tools has become a key area of focus for SMEs. What are the key technologies under consideration, and is AI high on the list?

Brown: Our 2023 IT Priorities Report is based on the perspectives of more than 1,000 IT decision-makers from companies with less than 1,000 employees across markets, conducted in collaboration with Frost & Sullivan.

According to the report, in 2023, 92% of SMEs are focusing on reducing IT burden as a top priority. At GoTo, we found that within the last year, 65% of respondents reported a surge in workloads due to increased responsibilities and the complexities associated with remote or hybrid work arrangements.

Globally, respondents also highlighted that a significant amount of their time is spent on operational tasks such as supporting remote/hybrid employees, contacting customer support, and resolving employee issues. From this, it is evident that small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are placing greater emphasis on investing in the right IT tools to increase operational efficiencies.

Lindsay Brown, Vice President and General Manager, GoTo, Asia Pacific and Japan

Another area of focus for SMEs (65%) is expanding their customer base, with budget allocation for customer experience technologies increasing by 62% compared to the previous year. These technologies are employed by IT teams together with customer service, as they form a crucial part of the customer engagement process.

The study found that the top three tools that SMEs are focusing on include:

    • Video Conferencing solution
    • Project Management software
    • IT Helpdesk system

SMEs are primarily upgrading and planning their investments around these tools.

Although AI was not explicitly mentioned as one of the key technologies under consideration, the common theme that emerges from the survey insights is the need for automating routine tasks to increase productivity. This is where AI can be highly beneficial for SMEs.

AI offers a cost-effective way to automate mundane tasks, reducing errors, and alleviating the time constraints faced by IT staff. Furthermore, simple AI bots can streamline requests going to customer service teams, enabling them to handle inquiries and triage issues more efficiently. This empowers staff to redirect their time and energy toward higher-impact and more strategic tasks.

In what ways can AI enhance instead of replacing the work of humans, transforming their roles and augmenting their skills?

Brown: The ongoing debate regarding the replacement of humans by AI is an important one. However, I prefer to view AI as a complementary force to human workers, particularly in the context of SMEs, who are our primary customers. These businesses often face financial limitations and work with smaller teams. For them, AI can be an empowering technology that can help employees excel in their roles and drive innovation within the organisation.

AI can automate repetitive and mundane tasks, allowing employees to focus on higher-value work that requires creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving abilities. By offloading routine tasks to AI systems, employees can dedicate more time and energy to strategic planning and decision-making.

AI can also act as a powerful tool for data analysis. It can quickly process vast amounts of information, identify patterns, and generate insights that can enable business owners to make more informed decisions and devise innovative strategies in a timely manner.

Additionally, AI can increase collaboration and productivity by providing intelligent assistance. For instance, virtual assistants powered by AI can streamline communication, schedule meetings, and retrieve relevant information.

While AI or generative AI may feel like something reserved for large enterprises with unlimited resources, I strongly believe it can be transformational for SMEs as well, allowing employees to dedicate focus on higher value strategic work such as growing the business instead of getting caught up in admin tasks.

How does an AI-driven approach save time and relieve the workload of IT teams in small businesses?

Brown: As SMEs progress in 2023, AI is becoming an essential tool for their operations, especially with regards to IT. International Data Corporation (IDC) projects that AI spending in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region will reach a staggering $49.2 billion by 2026. Among the prominent use cases of this technology, “IT optimisation” stands out as one of the leading areas of focus for businesses.

This emphasis on IT optimisation comes as no surprise, considering that IT teams serve as the backbone of a company’s digital operations. The workload on these teams can often be overwhelming. Our recently conducted 2023 IT Priorities Report reaffirmed this observation, revealing that more than half (65%) of SMEs worldwide experienced a surge in IT workloads in 2022 compared to the previous year.

Implementing AI strategically within your IT infrastructure can significantly ease that burden in many ways:

    • Faster and more accurate resolution of queries: AI can sort out customer requests based on urgency and complexity. This helps prioritise issues, ensuring that critical problems receive immediate attention and customers are appropriately serviced with a great level of efficiency. This reduces the effort required by IT teams to manually sort through and assign tickets, saving valuable time.
    • Automated troubleshooting: By analysing system logs, error messages, and historical data, AI can help IT teams quickly diagnose and resolve common problems without extensive manual investigation.
    • Predictive maintenance and monitoring: By examining data patterns and anomalies, AI can proactively detect potential issues enabling IT teams to address problems before they escalate, avoiding major downtime incidents.
    • Streamlined workflows and task automation: Routine tasks like software updates, system patching, backups, and data migrations can be automated using AI. This frees up IT staff to focus on implementing more critical projects that require their direct management.

All in all, especially with looming economic uncertainty, AI helps SMEs achieve more output with less employee strain. This, in turn, allows employees to allocate their time and efforts towards other productive tasks, ultimately leading to a higher return on investment (ROI).

What challenges stand in the way of SMEs adopting AI to improve business outcomes, and what steps should they take to gain a deeper understanding of internal pain points and effectively leverage AI technology?

Brown: Integration of AI systems into existing business processes and infrastructure is the biggest obstacle to AI adoption for SMEs.

SMEs often rely on legacy systems or have fragmented IT environments. This can pose a problem since the quality and effectiveness of AI’s outcomes are tied to the input data provided. So, if your data is not unified then it will be difficult to maximise the potential of AI in driving business outcomes. To overcome this challenge, SMEs should consider IT consolidation.

By consolidating various IT solutions, organisations can create a unified and streamlined infrastructure that helps seamless data integration. This will enable the generation of more accurate and relevant input data for the AI system.

To successfully implement IT consolidation, SMEs should listen to their IT teams, understand their pain points, and collaborate with them. Today, IT wields a substantial influence on the growth trajectory of a business. Our 2023 IT Priorities Report uncovered the major influence that IT teams now have in the purchase of tools – 47% for IT support and management tools, 39% for communication and collaboration, and 37% for customer engagement tools. IT teams can identify technology gaps and guide the consolidation process according to the specific needs of the business.

Encouragingly, our report found that 83% of SMEs consider the consolidation of tools an important initiative for 2023, with “ease of management for IT teams” (49%) being cited among the top three reasons. This indicates a growing recognition of the benefits of consolidation and its alignment with SMEs’ business goals.

By embracing IT consolidation and actively engaging their IT teams in the process, SMEs can improve their business outcomes. This approach allows them to develop a comprehensive understanding of their internal challenges and effectively harness AI technology to drive improvements.