Francoys Labonté, CEO of the Montreal Computer Research Center. (Photo: courtesy)
SMEs do not have to face the challenge of digital transformation and data valuation alone. Support exists, both public and private. Here are three types of partners they can turn to, depending on their ambitions, but also their digital maturity.
1. The third-party application developer
This is the fastest and most affordable choice as more and more developers are designing third-party applications to leverage data in various industries. The company Progi, based in Trois-Rivières, has for example developed a set of software allowing auto recyclers to pool their data, including parts inventory, to optimize their operations.
In agriculture, Sollio Groupe coopératif has developed the AgConnexion business intelligence platform for its affiliated producers. It contains the Lactascan applications, a dashboard for the analysis of milk production, as well as Aviscan, a tool for analyzing all the breeding data and operating variables in poultry production.
The advantage of pooling data in this way is to reduce the financial and technical investment required of each actor involved. “It can be expensive to build your own decision-making tools on your own,” acknowledges Daniel Chamberland-Tremblay, co-director of the Strategic and Multidimensional Business Intelligence Research Center (Prism) at the University of Sherbrooke. However, according to him, such pooling makes sense if companies are not in direct competition. In the case of the ProgiCom parts locator, “the software allows recyclers from different regions to help each other,” argues Alexandre Rocheleau, marketing manager at Progi.
The co-director of the Prism is giving a warning to SMEs. “When you turn to an external supplier to enhance your data, you have to make sure you keep a minimum of control over it,” he recalls. Otherwise, we can accumulate technological debt. Depending on the application, data is not always entered in a standard format, he explains. And the optimization algorithms used by the developer may be opaque, making it difficult to extract the data for future use.
2. The consultant
SMEs that have the ambition to enhance their data themselves will undoubtedly need cutting-edge expertise in information technology (IT). “Depending on the sector of activity, and given the shortage of specialized labor, it is unrealistic for an SME to seek to hire all the IT resources it needs internally”, estimates Daniel Chamberland-Tremblay. . A hybrid recruiting approach is probably better suited, he suggests. It would be wise to use consultants for “high level” resources, while developing the digital skills of its internal team.
Several IT firms are in charge of deploying management software such as CRM (customer relationship management) or ERP (enterprise resource planning, integrated management software). Those who are specialized in management can integrate data in a virtual “warehouse”, in order to enhance it with business intelligence tools such as Microsoft’s Power BI.
Other consultants, specializing in applied artificial intelligence, help companies deploy “mature and proven” solutions, as Hugues Foltz, executive vice-president of the firm Vooban, explained in a previous article. The most common example is the use of a “smart” camera system to perform quality control on parts produced in the factory.
3. Universities and research centers
The most avant-garde SMEs have an additional playing field to explore: that of university research and innovation support organizations. Indeed, those who want to create a competitive advantage by using AI in their sector of activity often do so in partnership with researchers.
The Intelligence and Data Institute of Université Laval supports companies that want to “exploit the full potential of their data or improve their capacity for innovation or their skills in relation to AI”, we can read on his website. Other universities have similar research poles, including the Prisme at the University of Sherbrooke and the Institute for Data Valorization (IVADO), co-founded by HEC Montréal and Polytechnique Montréal.
The Computer Research Center of Montreal (CRIM), for its part, supports companies in the development of a personalized artificial intelligence solution. “We help them bridge the gap between their intuition that AI can help them and an application that works in the real world, as well as in a commercial context,” explains its CEO, Françoys Labonté.
He cites the success story of UEAT, a Quebec startup recently bought by the Ontario financial technology company Moneris. UEAT received assistance from CRIM to develop a contextual food recommendation engine for independent restaurants. “The result has been spectacular: total sales have increased five to six times since customers received these recommendations. “