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New IT skillsets for the digital age

Kenny MacIver — March 2017

To fulfil growing demand for digitalization, IT organizations need to ramp up in-house capabilities and become increasingly integrated with the business groups they serve, argues Shell group CIO Jay Crotts.

The threats and opportunities of digitalization are forcing many organizations to hit the reset button on how they value IT talent. After decades of IT being viewed as a commodity or operational overhead, much of which could be outsourced at a lower cost, the rise of digitally inspired business models has forced a rethink — if not a reversal. CIOs now appreciate that if they are to respond effectively to their company’s rapidly changing digital needs they need to keep expertise in-house and closer to the business.

That is certainly part of the strategy at Royal Dutch Shell, Europe’s largest company, where group CIO Jay Crotts has been insourcing key aspects of IT operations to accelerate and strengthen the oil and gas company’s project delivery capabilities, particularly in areas such as software development, big data analytics and the application of IoT.

“A challenge CIOs always face is where to apply their resources,” says Crotts. “And, today, the focus is on the knowledge you need to retain in-house to be successful.”

Outsourcing or cloud computing approaches can be a good solution to the organization’s basic computing needs, he says. He points to technology partners around the globe that are adept at providing “the guts of IT — day-in, day-out.”

“Insourcing project delivery and our interface with business has been absolutely essential for moving up the digital value chain.”

“But unless you get the basics right — such as operational delivery and security — you can’t start delivering real value.  From that firm foundation, you can move up the digital value chain. And that means you have to have your own people who sit at the intersection of the business and IT, and how the technology is applied.”

At Shell, that need to satisfy the business’s growing digital ambitions has led to an acceleration of insourcing. “The closer to the business value that IT people get the better. With Shell, insourcing our project delivery, our interface with the business and that business value delivery has been absolutely essential for our success.”

Of course, that means having the right people, often with an evolved set of skills. “The only way you can do this is with the right professionals — the ones who are in the room when the business decisions are being taken and who understand the complexity of IT but don’t bring all that complexity and its jargon with them. If you have people who can use their professionalism to get the desired business outcome, you are going to be successful.”
Half-life of skills
What makes that even more challenging for both IT leaders and their teams is the fast-moving nature of the skills required to deliver on digital projects — whether that’s developing for new mobile environments or programming a drone. Crotts relates how Shell recently finished implementing a new curriculum for training its IT professionals, and found that “the half-life of IT knowledge is now down to two years.”

That is a major departure from how expertise was assimilated historically. “When I was hiring some years ago, programmers would get six months of training and then work with the same technology skillset for many years, refining their knowledge,” says Crotts. “Now the pace of change of technology requires IT professionals to be always curious, always looking for the next generation of what’s going to solve business problems. In many ways that’s the biggest challenge we have in my CIO organization.”
Embedded in business

But the changes have not only been within Shell’s IT group of more than 8,000 staff and contractors. As digital technologies have become central to the delivery of business goals, there has been a clear shift in how the rest of the business perceives IT professionals.

“In Shell, the business now sees us as being in partnership with them, working together,” says Crotts. And a key part of that has resulted from the decision to embed IT teams within the business. “I have found it extremely successful to put the IT people facing off to the business on a consistent fashion,” says Crotts — a strategy that has often meant a steep learning curve for IT people. “It’s not easy to learn a business. In oil and gas there are disciplines where it can take 10 years before you’re considered an expert in that field. But having IT professionals focused on those areas means they know the outcomes the business expects — and how those change over time.”

That business understanding can range from the working with the minutiae of invoicing and payments to supporting seismic data exploration and driving customer satisfaction in retail outlets.  “You have to be very focused on what that business is looking for and partner it with your technical knowledge,” says Crotts. “When you can get that balance right and that synergy working, you get the very best outcomes.”

• Photography: Bram Belloni

First published
March 2017
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About: Jay Crotts
Since taking over as EVP and group CIO at Royal Dutch Shell in July 2015, Jay Crotts has made business value delivery the sole purpose for his IT organization of more than 8,000. An engineer at heart, he stresses the need for IT to be an enabler, unlocking new business opportunities while delivering bottom-line impact. Over three decades at Shell, the Texan has been a business unit CIO, run IT strategic relationships and managed technology services and operations worldwide, taking him from Houston to London and, most recently, to Shell’s HQ in The Hague.

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