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The technologies making digitalization a business-wide opportunity

Kenny MacIver — March 2017

Shell’s group CIO Jay Crotts looks to a fast-approaching future when advanced digital innovations will be universally applied across the company — in a human-centric way.

No matter where you look, advanced technologies — from IoT and big data analytics to AI — are driving waves of digital transformation across almost every industry sector. But application of such innovation is not always inspired by a quest for new business models or ultra-efficiency.

At Royal Dutch Shell, a more human-centric factor is front of mind, highlights Jay Crotts, group CIO at the Netherlands-headquartered oil and gas giant. “When we think about the new technologies that come into play with digitalization, the one aspect that drives Shell first is safety. We look at the ways we could apply robotics or drones, for example, to carry out inspections of our assets remotely in more hazardous environments,” he says — to keep people out of danger. “That’s the technology that gets us most excited.”

Such applications show just how creative and universal digital technologies are becoming, he says. “Can we automate an oil field so that it has the ability to [autonomously] produce assets? Absolutely,” he says. Historically, Shell’s use of cutting-edge technologies to create such bespoke solutions has been limited to automating its most valuable assets, such as its largest oil fields. But the rapid evolution of digital technologies has opened up the possibilities for dramatically wider deployments.

“We used to have to build much of our own advanced technologies like sensors, networks and data consolidation,” says Crotts. “Now with the industry moving forward fast we see the Internet of Things allowing us to take tremendous advantage of consistent technology across all of our sensor networks. So no longer do we undertake [that kind of innovation] for only our most valuable or high producing assets: we can do it pervasively for all our assets.”
Decisive machines

Alongside the broad application of IoT, Crotts is starting to exploit the rise of machine learning. “We already see machine learning in areas such as image/character recognition and decision support to process information beyond any human capability, whether that is in drilling wells, producing more assets, engaging with our customers or something seemingly simple like securely paying invoices.”

Outside its own operations Shell is also exploring how intelligent platforms can be used within some of the wider business ecosystems gathering around new business models. “With the rise of connected cars, for example, Shell is partnering with automakers and others to solve many of the hassles motorists have when refuelling and using convenience retailing,” says Crotts. An example of that is Fill Up & Go, a mobile payment service introduced in the UK in 2015. “We want to connect with our customers in new and unique ways — being able to both hear from them and communicate with them,” he says.

But it is not all about new models; the promise of dramatically improved business efficiency is also high on the priorities list. “For me, the whole digital agenda also gives us a platform for standards, allowing us to execute business processes cheaper than we have ever done before,” says Crotts. “So whether it is machine learning, artificial intelligence or data standards, no longer do we have to develop unique, custom systems to deliver business value. We can actually pool processes and standards and actually solve problems that exist pervasively across our entire company.”

• 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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