One of the online roundtable discussions during Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation’s (MDEC’s) recent 2020 SME Digital Summit discussed AI’s real viability to become the backbone of businesses.
Although today’s era of rapid changes is pressuring business and public sector leaders further along the road of digital adoption, the industry leaders in the roundtable stressed the necessity of taking foundational steps to successfully begin reaping the power promised by frontier technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI).
Despite some technical issues, the panel participants, guided by incoming online questions, probed some of the practicalities required by small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to begin unlocking some of AI’s business potentialities.
Participants in the roundtable were: Skymind’s VP of Growth Rafe Asznal; TM ONE’s Head of Internet, Data Centre, & Cloud Mohamad Rejab Sulaiman; MDEC’s Director of Data Ecosystem Development Ir. Dr Karl Ng; SME Association of Malaysia’s National VP Chin Chee Seong; Logistics Worldwide Express CEO Ng Shern Yau; Revenue Group Berhad CFO Ng Puan Horng; EY’s Director of Consulting Ms Tan Chiew Hooi; and Huawei Malaysia’s Head of Huawei Cloud Malaysia, Tan Kuan Thye.
SME Boost: A Reality Check
In today’s digital era, industry realises that society will increasingly be driven by the ‘oil’ of data, which currently exists mostly in a raw, unstructured and variable forms in organisations, regardless of sector or size.
As some of AI’s benefits could include increased revenue and improved cost efficiencies, and in a new move to position Malaysia as the digital heart of ASEAN, Huawei Technologies (Huawei) has recently signed with MDEC to facilitate capacity building for SMEs to embrace digitalisation.
This effort to help SMEs close the digital gap is timely as, according to Cisco’s 2020 Asia Pacific SMB Digital Maturity survey, digitalisation efforts by SMEs are expected to add USD19 billion to US$24 billion (RM79.7 billion to RM100.7 billion) to the country’s GDP by 2024.
SME Association of Malaysia’s Chin Chee Seong admitted the first real step to enhanced digital adoption by SMEs has been somewhat forced by the coronavirus pandemic. “Malaysians are flexible and resilient. Things have changed rapidly in the last few months with the shift to eCommerce”
He said that while encouragement by government towards preparing for 4th Industry Revolution (4IR) in the form of MIDA loans towards the end of last year has proved timely. Although SMEs in Malaysia make up some 98% of the industry, “digital adoption take-up has been slow”.
Education and awareness could also be facing language hurdles, he continued. “We need relevant information and as an SME agency, we are in a position to play a key role in communicating this well to SMEs,” he suggested, citing strong pickup from their own surveys. “We see that SMEs may be reluctant to approach a government agency straight away and may be shy to ask for help on what they can do to operate with digital tools and services.”
SMEs will want to look at easier ways to get on the digitalisation path, said Logistics Worldwide Express CEO Ng Shern Yau, adding that the COVID-19 crisis has made online tools a must in order to survive.
TM ONE’s Rejab highlighted the urgency of survival for businesses in the current era. “The issue for SMEs in Malaysia is mainly one of education and awareness. Adoption of technologies seems complex and can be overwhelming especially with mention of words like AI, etc.”
AI ecosystem pioneer Skymind’s Rafe Azsnal pointed out: “Our SMEs may not be aware of the help, advice and programs that are offered through and by government agencies in Malaysia.”
He also stressed that cloud is the backbone of digitalization: “By enabling innovation, greater flexibility and agility, the cloud opens up new revenue opportunities and drive cost efficiencies – creating value for businesses and the economy as a whole.”
In addition, the panellists at the roundtable agreed that infrastructure alone is insufficient to drive digitalisation among Malaysian SMEs. Other components such as skills, expertise and government support are among key elements to ensure a widespread digital adoption. TM ONE’s Mohamad Rejab Sulaiman meanwhile emphasised “TM’s role as the enabler of Malaysia’s digital economy. The recently launched “Cloud α (pronounced as Cloud Alpha) offers differentiated professional services across Malaysia, providing enterprises with a comprehensive set of advisory and consulting services to ease their journey to the cloud.”
AI as a Transformational Engine
Moving beyond the hype phase, somewhat reminiscent of early days when “cloud ” was viewed as a buzzword on the conference circuit, AI is now undergoing serious consideration by companies and governments, agreed the panellists.
MDEC’S Dr Karl commented many SMEs had already collected a great deal of data, and that this presented immediate opportunities to enhance customer interaction and customer satisfaction levels and boost eCommerce.
Speaking of immediate practical uses of AI and the need for talent, Rafe explained that Skymind’s holistic ecosystem approach is focused on showing AI’s potential to businesses, education and government. “With the stress on education and skills capacity building, we are also active on the hunt for fresh talent with passion.”
“We are placing extra effort in Malaysia, because we believe in the talent in this region, and should develop this talent and nurture the ecosystem right here at home,” he added.
Dr Karl highlighted some Covid-19 related issues. “Service industries have been impacted by the pandemic, which could benefit from AI’s automation potential. Other professional service industries such as law and accountancy would benefit from greater digital adoption,” he continued. “We really need to push digital adoption and that we have an increasing number of avenues for people to adopt digital payment channels in daily life.”
Considering the knowledge and digitalisation gaps, Revenue Group Berhad’s Ng Puan Horng used the retail sector as an example to explore the dilemma for SMEs in general, which centre on the issues of how to reach out for help, concerns about the cost of digital adoption, and so on. “Rather than just focusing on the benefits of AI and digital adoption, can should we focus more on starting to probing the challenges and how to overcome them.”
“The cost associated with cash payments is often overlooked,” he said that having multiple options to handle cash is more important and tied directly to customer experience and retention.
The speakers agreed that SMEs need more straightforward paths to face the hurdles of adoption and to start with the essential foundational step.
SME Association of Malaysia’s Chin reaffirmed the need for a clearer process of gaining grants and advice.
TM ONE’s Rejab explained that the TM Group’s rollout of “the country’s most comprehensive end-to-end cloud services offering – Cloud Alpha – in the early months of the year, which turned out to be very timely and helpful in retrospect with the emergence of the Covid-19 crisis.”
With the emphasis on making the whole process of cloud simple and yet flexible, AI-enabled Cloud Alpha can be customised to each requirement.
“Adopt cloud first, then AI can move forward,” agreed Skymind’s Rafe. “AI is then eventually going to be the backbone of all businesses.”
Huawei Malaysia’s Tan Kuan Thye concluded that exposure to the latest AI possibilities is one aspect of enhancing adoption; the others include facilitation from industry and government.
Much of the forward-looking remarks from the panel could be summarised as: “With talent, we can build our own ‘made in Malaysia’ products for Malaysia and the wider world and a conducive environment for innovation. Lowering the barriers of adoption including cross-border trading are among the key thrusts moving forward for government and the whole of industry.”