Regardless of whether channel partners or customers remain skeptical about the hype surrounding AI, the market is moving full steam ahead with enhancements to AI and analytics technologies. This is paving the way for new applications, including real-time data analysis. It is also creating an opportunity for channel firms to help small businesses reap the benefits.
The current state of AI and data analytics
MSPs and consultants are heeding the call to automate with AI.
"Everyone wants automated reporting or dashboarding to see 'how is my business performing' and be able to look at key KPIs,'' said Ryan Ries, practice lead for the data, analytics and machine learning practice at consultancy Mission, which launched a machine learning consulting practice a year ago, and also offers AWS data and analytics competency.
The firm has a couple of data scientists on staff who work on computer vision and predictive analytics projects and build custom machine learning models for customers, Ries said.
Jaret Chiles, vice president of consulting services at Mission, said he doesn't believe MSPs must add AI and data analytics managed services to stay competitive -- right now.
"It's a differentiator. It's more vertically focused and a good business strategy depending on what you're tackling,'' Chiles said.
As the data maturity of various industries has evolved over the past year, IT consulting firm Pythian has aligned its data services to both broaden the capability sets and deepen the expertise offered, said CTO Paul Lewis.
"We've added expertise for cognitive services including data exploration, processing, model training, model evaluation, model deployment, online prediction and application of cloud-centric machine learning APIs," Lewis said.
Client challenges for partners with AI and data analytics projects
Partners face challenges when assisting clients on these types of projects. There is still "a giant educational piece on data and analytics. People are bombarded with ads that say 'machine learning will solve all your problems.' That's just not true," Ries said.
He recalled talking to a customer recently who didn't understand the fundamentals of machine learning. Often, boards will push for machine learning projects, but companies haven't thought about the use case for them, Ries said.
"I've walked into meetings where the customer says, 'My board says I need to do this; tell me about other companies that are and why I need to?'" They need to be able to articulate a problem they want to solve and be able to collect the data to solve that problem, he said.
In some instances, companies know the problem they want to solve, but they haven't collected the data. If they want to track historic trends, the data won't be there.
The shortage of AI and analytics professionals to solve real-world business problems remains a big issue in 2022.
"Additionally, IT departments in small and medium businesses typically do not include experts who can employ advanced data strategies such as governance, privacy, mobility and consumption," Lewis said.
Both Ries and Chiles agree that finding talent is a challenge for SMBs and there is huge demand for data analytics managed services now.
"One of the things [the] industry's trying to figure out right now and grappling with, is the shortage of talent and … do I need a full-time person to manage my dashboard solution. On the machine learning side, it's 'Do I have enough work for a full-time person to manage my machine learning ops pipeline, and is my model being kept up to date?'" Ries said.
That prompted Mission to develop a managed ML offering with the ability for clients to purchase a certain number of hours per month.
"Smart MSPs are investing in their existing staff by providing internal training and access to certifications and other credentialing avenues for professional development,'' said Carolyn April, senior director of industry analysis at CompTIA. Vendors also recognize the value of working with MSPs to offer necessary technical training as part of their partner programs. "It's a win-win for both parties in the end."
MSPs cite two primary impediments to adding emerging technologies and other premium services to their offerings: the need for technical training among staff and a difficulty hiring people with the necessary skill sets. According to April, her research showed 44% of surveyed organizations report the need for technical training and 37% report hiring difficulties.
"Skills gaps and hiring hurdles are nothing new in the life of today's technology business owner, but as companies seek to elevate their game with services beyond table stakes, this problem will exacerbate,'' April said. The skills are out there, but it's a jobseeker's market today and MSPs are competing not just with other tech firms for new hires, but companies in every industry, she said.
The ML/analytics market in 2022
As businesses emerge from COVID-19, coupled with the Great Resignation, Pythian clients are looking for help to create new data capabilities and mature their data strategy, Lewis said.
"More mature clients are engaging Pythian with advanced analytics projects, discovering insights through large data sets, building new algorithms for demand forecasting or behavioral modeling, or simply adding scale to their data science practices to create operational technology processes,'' he said.