AI Literacy, A Key Competency for SMEs in the New Era

AI Literacy, A Key Competency for SMEs in the New Era 

Thought Leadership

From the era of oral traditions through to 2023, the evolution of human literacy has journeyed through several pivotal stages. First we moved to the invention of writing and the birth of basic literacy. The printing press then sparked mass literacy, making reading accessible to all. The 21st century ushered in information literacy, followed by digital literacy and then media literacy.

Now, we find ourselves on the brink of a new type of literacy — AI literacy — with the World Economic Forum boldly declaring that “without universal AI literacy, AI will fail us”.

Amidst this backdrop, we see a distinct and pressing relevance of AI literacy to SMEs that has begun to unfold in several key dimensions:

1 - Enhancing marketing strategies and business growth: AI-powered tools can provide valuable insights into target audiences, improve customer experience and engagement, automate marketing processes, optimise advertising efforts and improve other sales-related functions such as forecasting and inventory management. 

2 - Minimising expenses and optimising tasks: The adoption of AI in SMEs can lead to cost reduction, risk minimisation and optimisation of task completion.

3 - Overcoming technological challenges: SMEs often face challenges related to data availability, data collection standards and infrastructure to support AI adoption. Building AI literacy can help SMEs address these challenges and successfully implement AI technologies.

4 - Empowering innovation and growth: AI education enables SMEs to navigate the complexities of AI implementation, make informed decisions and leverage AI's potential for innovation and growth.

5 - Addressing challenges in AI adoption: Understanding the main challenges of AI adoption in SMEs, such as change management, education, data, hiring, project structuring and external help, can help businesses overcome these obstacles and successfully implement AI technologies.

6 - Improved Leadership in the age of AI: Building AI literacy among business leaders ensures that they can collaborate effectively with technologists, make informed decisions and mitigate potential risks associated with AI adoption.

Or, to be said in fewer words, businesses that invest in building AI Literacy amongst its people will gain a significant competitive advantage that will be difficult for their competitors to catch up with.

So what exactly is AI literacy?

Depending on who you ask, the definition varies. The UN, for example, describes it as being the ability to “understand, use, monitor and critically reflect on AI applications without necessarily being able to develop AI models”.

But in the context of SMEs, it makes more sense to view it as being all about understanding, interacting with and leveraging AI technologies in a manner that furthers professional and organisational goals.

In that respect, AI Literacy for professional workers can be defined through 3 components.

1 - Conceptual understanding. This is all about understanding the principles behind AI and machine learning. The idea is to not just use AI, but to understand what’s happening behind the scenes. 

2 - Operational proficiency. This entails the ability to work effectively with AI tools and systems, using them to solve real-world business problems. This might involve using role-specific AI-powered software or more generalist tools like ChatGPT.

3 - Strategic foresight. This involves the capability to discern AI's potential impact on an organisation, including risk management, ethical considerations and change management. It also includes the ability to identify opportunities where AI can bring value and the strategic acumen to drive AI initiatives within the organisation.

The extent to which each person in an organisation must become AI Literate varies according to their role. CEOs may have their own literacy needs that differ from other C-Suite executives which, in turn, are different from middle-management and front-line support teams. This is why companies must approach AI Literacy following the methodical role-by-role approach I explained in another article titled Role-Based AI Literacy, A Three-Step Strategic Blueprint.

The paradigm shift we are now experiencing is akin to the dawn of the digital age 20-30 years ago. That change saw digital literacy become an essential skill for virtually everyone in an organisation. The expectation wasn't for everyone to master intricate Excel functions or to become adept in programming, but rather to understand basic concepts like saving, opening, sending, receiving, undoing, attaching and so on, along with tools relevant to each role. 

Now, in the age of AI literacy, not every professional needs to become an AI engineer or a data scientist. But they should certainly be familiar with the basic principles of AI, be comfortable interacting with AI tools and recognise the potential impacts and applications of AI in their daily work. 

And the more AI Literate employees become, the more effective they will be at achieving professional and organisational goals. This is true of all organisations, but especially so for SMEs, where the available resources are limited and the need to leverage all opportunities available is greater than ever.

About the Author

Fahed Bizzari is the founder of the Bellamy Alden Institute for AI-Enablement.

Connect with him on LinkedIn via 

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