Business Advice

Disruption ahead: SmartCompany readers say artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things will be biggest SME disrupters in the next decade

Patrick Stafford /

SmartCompany readers are more concerned about artificial intelligence, big data and the internet of things than any other possible disruption in the next decade.

This finding, one of several key revelations found in SmartCompany‘s annual SME Directions survey, highlights the key underlying belief among SmartCompany readers who completed the survey: the economy is changing, and businesses are well-aware of the technology trends that could render them irrelevant.

As a result, more businesses are investing in a range of strategies including upskilling, content marketing, and research and development.

The survey, answered by more than 700 SmartCompany readers and sponsored by Netsuite Oracle, is a diverse representation of business. More than half live in Victoria or New South Wales, although businesses are represented from every state and territory. The most represented age demographic is 45-49 at 15.88% of all respondents, however, 25% of respondents are under the age of 40.

Respondents work in a range of industries, with the most popular in marketing and communications, manufacturing and logistics, consulting and professional services. Information technology and education are also popular industries.

Just under 40% of the respondents are women, and 60% of all respondents say are the owner or director of a business.

More than a third of respondents said their business earned less than $500,000, but close to another third said they earn over $1 million. Only 18% of businesses said they don’t have a website.

When asked which trends are most likely to disrupt their businesses in the next 10 years, the majority of respondents listed the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence and big data as key issues.

This comes a year after the federal government’s own report found that up to half of Australian jobs may at risk due to automation.

Read more: Cloud computing comes of age, but websites are a challenge for SMEs — SmartCompany Tech Survey

Forty percent of businesses said they plan to make a strategic financial investment in their business over the next 12 months, although one third said they would not, and just under a quarter said they “weren’t sure”.

However, of those who choose to invest, the main target area will be marketing; most respondents said they don’t have a dedicated marketing resource.

Technology solutions and research and development were listed as the second and third most likely investments, respectively.

The rise of tech-based alternatives to traditional business services is also taking hold. A significant number of respondents — nearly a quarter — said they will seek finance in the next two years. Of those, 20% said they would seek out an alternative lender and 50% overall said they would consider using one.

However, one factor in not seeking out an alternative lender was a lack of personalised support.

SmartCompany readers are thriving: nearly three quarters of respondents say they would describe their business’ culture as either “good” or “excellent”. When asked what would help improve that culture, or maintain it, the most popular option was flexible working standards.

Sixty percent of businesses said they offer flexible working standards, which is perhaps related to the 50% of businesses that said their employees are highly motivated.

As a result, perhaps, businesses are keen to invest in their workforce, with nearly 20% of respondents saying they have spent between $2,000 and $5,000 on professional development. In total, nearly a third have spent over $1,000.

Despite this, most businesses surveyed say they are suffering at least moderate skills shortage, with 65% saying they are having trouble in this area. However, most businesses — over 50% — say the best way to solve this would be to train existing staff.

Despite the concern over artificial intelligence, big data and machine learning, the most popularly cited area for staff professional development was sales and lead generation, leadership skills and digital marketing.

After several years of taking time to adopt social media, more than 50% of businesses now say they have at least a weekly presence on a social media platform. This is also represented in the number of businesses now keen on investing in content marketing, at 43%. Fifty-seven percent of businesses say they will focus more on content marketing in the year ahead.

One of the biggest technological problems facing SmartCompany readers is scalability — 30% said this was the biggest issue with their current business software. This may be due to a reliance on server-based or on-premise solutions, with 40% saying they don’t use any software over the cloud.

Most businesses who don’t use these solutions say they are concerned about ease of use, and security.

The biggest factor that has changed business over the past five years is smartphones, according to SmartCompany readers. More than 60% cited the smartphone as the biggest influence, followed by 50% who said the cloud, and 36% who nominated desktop computer improvements.

Nearly 60% of businesses said they be implementing new technology solutions in the year ahead.

Read the full survey findings in SmartCompany‘s ebook, The SME of the future.

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Patrick Stafford

Patrick Stafford is a freelance journalist and a former deputy editor of SmartCompany.