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Talent and Tech Are How Small Businesses Can Level the Playing Field From finding the right employees to carrying out administrative tasks, startups and small businesses can leverage technology to secure a competitive edge.

By Nancy Harris Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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Businesses of all sizes are under constant pressure to keep pace with innovation -- and ideally, to stay ahead of its trajectory. But many business owners struggle to understand their own pain points and manage operational issues. This negatively affects both current and future business growth.

A recent survey conducted by our company, Sage, found the top challenges for small and medium-sized businesses included domestic competition, new economic policies and regulations, hiring the right talent and finding time to focus on business growth. The people and products needed to overcome these hurdles exist today. Small- and medium-sized businesses just need to know where to start.

Related: How to Keep Up With Technology as a Business Owner

Build trust and an authentic company culture during the hiring process.

The most important thing a small business can do is cultivate a core mission and stay true to those values. Leaders must be comfortable inspiring other people to embrace that core mission. Business owners need to be transparent and open with colleagues about where they want to take the company and how employees will play an important role. It all starts with the initial hiring process.

Our survey found that nearly 60 percent of respondents from small- and medium-sized businesses plan to hire anywhere from two to five positions this year. The biggest challenge: hiring the right people.

Indeed, hiring goes beyond the job description. It's about finding people who fit the company's needs and believe in the company's broader mission. To build trust, business leaders must be honest about the state of the company, where they see the company heading, how they want to get there and which skill sets are needed to round out the team during the early talent-recruitment process.

Related: Why Tech is HR's Friend, Not Its Enemy

Adapt operations to a mobile-first workforce.

Projections from analyst firm IDC suggest increased adoption of mobile technology in the workplace will accompany big data and cloud migration as central short-term technology investments for business around the world. This includes small businesses right here in North America. Our own survey findings back that up. In fact, 62 percent of respondents told Sage that access to digital skills (including the ability to operate mobile tech) would have the most impact on their businesses through the next year.

There's no doubt the use of common, trusted apps in a work context can significantly reduce overhead costs and make businesses more efficient. Consequently, small businesses should embrace staff members' use of mobile devices and apps for business operations. This might include conducting training, recording timesheets or facilitating basic team communication. Business owners should explore relevant, business-focused mobile and web applications that support the activity of mobile-first employees. These workers already use popular apps such as Spotify, Uber and Venmo in their personal lives.

Related: 7 Mobile Trends Every Business Owner Should Follow This Year

Tap into automation to enable growth and innovation.

More than 50 percent of small-business owners who took part in the Sage survey believed artificial intelligence will be a big trend in 2017. Nearly half -- 46 percent -- felt comfortable with AI and bots running elements of their business or professional lives. Surprisingly, the survey also found 41 percent of small-business leaders would be skeptical of artificial intelligence's ability to accurately help with their administrative tasks, even though the majority of them spent two or more hours per day on admin work.

Embracing automation can reduce overhead costs and free up small-business owners to focus on areas that matter most, such as perfecting their craft or spending time with customers. As the auditing firm KPMG points out, automating repetitive administrative tasks has the potential to reduce operational costs by as much as 75 percent.

Related: 7 Parts of the Job Every Entrepreneur Hates (and How to Never Do Them Again)

Small-business owners are keenly aware of the time they devote to such tasks and the availability of new AI solutions to reduce this strain. But a gap exists between awareness and trust. While the onus is on AI builders and developers to create trustworthy technology, small-business owners must also understand and embrace AI's true value, just as many of their competitors already have done.

Looking to 2018 and beyond.

As entrepreneurs head into 2018, they need to connect business goals to current operational approach. Leaders must think critically about how technologies such as AI and mobile enhancements can help them navigate a new regulatory landscape, cut costs, focus on business growth opportunities and hire the right people. As our recent survey confirmed, small-business owners should recruit strong talent and turn to technology with strong potential to decrease the time spent on administrative tasks.

Nancy Harris

EVP of Sage North America

Nancy Harris is executive vice president for Sage North America, a division of Sage Group, the global leader in integrated accounting, payroll and payment systems, supporting the ambition of entrepreneurs and business builders.

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