However, whilst Brexit gets the headlines, is it really the top of business concerns that UK SME leaders should be focusing on right now?
Shouldn’t they be more concerned with future proofing their businesses so that no matter the outcome from Brexit, products and services remain compelling?
From the implications of the EU General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) which come into force in May 2018 to the way in which artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming mainstream and transforming models, there may be more pressing business concerns than Brexit to address this year.
The political shocks that hit the global economy in 2016 are still resonating today.
Given the difficulty in predicting the economic impact of diverse global political decision making – from relations between the US, Russia and China to forthcoming elections in France and Germany – it is no wonder that leaders remain somewhat obsessed with Brexit business concerns and the implications of invoking Article 50.
The question has to be asked, however, whether Brexit really is the most significant of business concerns in 2017.
The timeline for the Brexit negotiation is two years – and the terms of our exit will to and fro over that time. Clearly, business leaders should keep an eye on the exit terms being deliberated by government but these negotiations should not become a distraction.
In fact, one of the biggest business concerns facing companies of every size this year is EU-related – but it is not Brexit.
The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is set to come into force in May 2018 and organisations will need to work hard over the next 12 months to ensure they are ready.
At the same time, a quiet revolution is taking place that will fundamentally affect the way businesses operate over the next decade.
The speed with which AI is being adopted has increased rapidly in recent months, with organisations now actively looking to develop and deploy technology such as chatbots to replace human contact centres.
In many ways GDPR and the current AI revolution are born out of the same trend: the need to understand, manage and protect the vast amounts of data now available. AI’s self-learning capabilities and ability to make sense of huge data volumes certainly open up new business opportunities.
At the simplest level, chatbots will replace call centres, using the information provided by a customer’s style and responses to make accurate assumptions about what is required – enabling companies to radically cut the costs associated with both onshore and offshore services.
More complex AI solutions will be used in areas such as affiliate marketing to quickly understand data patterns and historic activity to make incredibly accurate predictions of customer demand.
Not only will AI enable performance marketing to match people to the items they want – from trainers to electrical goods – more quickly and efficiently, but automating this process will release highly trained staff from current manual activity, such as spreadsheet analysis and report generation, allowing them to focus on providing more value to clients and publishers.
This technology is already being widely used in complex areas such as financial derivatives but there is no doubt that during 2017 its application will broaden significantly, with growing numbers of individuals likely to experience direct exposure to chatbots at the very least.
Of course, this growth in AI raises the spectre of the “bad robot” and highlights the need for strong controls to safeguard consumers – both their personal data and experience. Which is, of course, where GDPR comes in.
All organisations that handle personal data need to understand GDPR, but in terms of business concerns, the risks and exposure clearly vary significantly.
However, any organisation that has built a business based on someone else’s data – such as Google or Facebook – will be massively exposed if that third party fails to put good information controls in place.
GDPR is a complicated piece of legislation that puts control back in the hands of the individual by giving everyone the chance to request to see any personal information, to have that information deleted and, most critically for web based organisations, demand not be tracked.
That means, of course, no more cookies; but the “no tracking” is at browser and device level, not just website. The implications of GDPRs are very significant for any organisation that makes money online.
While right now there is no simple solution to this inability to track customers, this is one area in which AI could play a significant role.
While it is not possible to track an individual through an online journey, AI’s ability to contextualise data and behaviour and make assumptions as to likely activity and behaviour could be used to support activities such as performance marketing and creating a relevant customer experience.
Right now, while Apple, Google and others are exploring such solutions, there is no standard approach so organisations need to keep a watching brief.
In the meantime, it will be important to put in place auditable, documented processes and policies for managing personal data in line with GDPR – including responding to data requests and data retention/destruction solutions.
Ask third party suppliers to define their GDPR strategies and draft a website policy announcement that outlines the steps being taken to comply.
Politically, economically and technologically we are entering a new era. But GDPR’s potential huge fines and personal liability for company directors also heralds a new era of personal data security with pressure on organisations to pay far more respect to the information captured and retained.
On every front, therefore, business owners face unprecedented change – from the way in which economies interact to the increasing role of smart technologies, from driverless cars to AI, as part of day to day life, and customers’ ability to control and protect their own information.
Prioritising investment over the next 12 months is difficult. But look ahead; in a year’s time Article 50 will have been invoked and we will be in the midst of passionate arguments about the UK’s post EU deal.
GDPR will be looming large, with those organisations that have failed to prepare becoming ever more nervous about their level of risk exposure and AI will have gained broader commercial recognition.
Uncertainty, however, will not have disappeared; it is therefore essential that organisations gain real perspective about investment objectives this year.
Richard Dennys is CEO of Webgains
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