Artificial Intelligence in SMEs: Relevance, Applications and Transfer

According to the "National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence", Germany is to become a leading AI location. The implementation of AI business-solutions is seen as an essential contribution to maintain the internationally leading competitive position of the German economy. The transfer of AI solutions to small- and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) is indispensable as they are the backbone of the German economy. Nearly 60% of all employees work for the approximately 3.5 million German SMEs. The German "Mittelstand" generates more than 50% of the net value added of all companies in Germany. Germany will not reach its goal of being the leading AI location without the contribution of small and medium-sized firms. The digital transformation of the "Mittelstand" has to be a success. At the same time, however, the digital transformation of SMEs entails long known special challenges: for example, they frequently suffer from a shortage of skilled workers in the field of digitization and/or they are more dependent on a dominant supplier or customer, who defines their IT-ecosystem.

For these reasons, several crucial questions on the implementation of AI in SMEs arise:

  • How can SMEs benefit from AI?
  • Which AI-technologies and -applications are especially relevant for SMEs?
  • Which opportunities and challenges will be faced by SMEs?
  • How can the transfer of AI-solutions to SMEs be successful?

To answer these questions, we conducted a survey of 40 AI-experts. The participants in the survey are mainly representatives of renowned research and transfer institutions. Since AI solutions are still in an early implementation phase in SMEs, the selection of experts from research institutions is considered to be reasonable. In an early market phase, scientists are usually more familiar with the opportunities and challenges of the new applications than business representatives (due to a lack of business applications in use). In addition, the experts mainly come from the transfer area at the interface between science and implementation in practice. For this reason, the participants in the survey are familiar with the entrepreneurial challenges. The results of the survey have been deepened by discussing the implications in expert interviews.

The study illuminates the relevance of various facets of AI for SMEs, of which we present in this abstract only main findings. The results indicate that cloud-based "AI-as-a-Service"-offers in particular will play a major role in SMEs. SMEs often lack the corresponding specialists and/or their own database is too small to develop their own AI solutions.

The interviewed experts see a great potential for SMEs in all areas of the value chain through the use of AI, the largest in logistics, production, purchasing and procurement. According to the survey results, the main opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses lie in the optimization of distribution, increased process efficiency and more targeted advertising and promotion.

We also tried to substantiate experts’ views to the public support of the transfer of AI solutions to medium-sized businesses. Whereas financial benefits for SMEs as well as pure advertising measures are classified as less sensible, the identification of best practices as well as sensitization and qualification measures are considered to be particularly useful. Another measure that experts consider to be very useful is the establishment of "AI-Trainers". These trainers should support SMEs on-site in implementing AI-solutions. In a "hands-on-approach" they can demonstrate the possibilities of applied AI.

The study (in German language) is available for download.

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