Digital Implementation for Oil & Gas – Exclusive insights from Shell


The COVID-19 pandemic has been a period of changing old behaviours to fit new situations, and for Ibrahim Al-Syed, Global Digital Implementation Lead at Shell, the next challenge comes from making sure the organisation is on the right path toward digital implementation.

In an exclusive interview, Ibrahim talks about his role at Shell, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the industry, the shape of post-pandemic recovery, and the growing importance of cybersecurity.

Please describe your role at Shell.

In my role as Global Digital Implementation Lead at Shell, I provide guidance on developing central standards, mobilise central and site/refinery resources, and am responsible for the implementation of Digital Twin across Manufacturing Assets.

I represent Downstream Manufacturing Line of Business for Digital Twin and drive decision-making through an empowered delivery team for these business needs. In addition, I am accountable for all Digital Twin deliverables to the business, ensuring that the product meets identified business requirements and achieves the targeted value.

I usually orchestrate the work of our Digital Delivery teams, and other business functions, to achieve product outcomes while remaining accountable for all the work being delivered for the product.

What does a typical day in your role as Global Digital Implementation Lead look like?

A typical day for me would include overseeing Digital Twin design, development and deployment across regions and businesses. This includes steering deployment teams at different assets and running the Business Decision Review Board.

Of course, every role has its challenges, and mine would be to enable a transition to an agile way of working. Changing deeply-rooted work practices is a difficult goal to pull off, and to negotiate agile processes into a waterfall-based project you need to first deal with the conflict that arises due to inherent polarities in methodologies like valuing documentation over working products, valuing sticking to a rigid plan over responding to changes flexibly and creatively and working as a fixed project vs product development.

What do you think is the main driver influencing change across the future of the oil and gas industry?

The main driver has to be digital technology, making our existing operations more effective and efficient. At the same time, digitalisation is helping to expedite the next generation’s progress toward clean energy technology.

What do you think will be the biggest impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the downstream industry, and what do you think the shape of post-pandemic recovery looks like for Shell?

In our operations, we are seeing the accelerated adoption of digital technology through the crisis, as it is a critical enabler for business continuity. Like most of my 83,000 colleagues, I have been working from home, however, we have inspectors completing robot-assisted safety rounds from the comfort of their kitchen tables, and experts assisting technicians by “looking” over their shoulders thanks to augmented reality (AR) technology embedded in their helmets. In fact, remote inspection is eliminating the need for travel!

COVID-19 forced us to change our behaviour, and the constraints of lockdown accelerated the opening of our minds to new technology, and new ways of working. These are more than just initiatives to ensure business continuity through the crisis; they are opportunities to work safer and more efficiently, as well as further build resilient operating models and optimise costs.

Within Shell, the pace of digital adoption is accelerating at an almost exponential rate. Just a couple of years ago, we only had a few robots in the field, drones were relatively novel, and the Real Wear augmented remote support was in its infancy. We only had a few thousand rows of data in our data lake, and just over 10 machine learning models in production.

In 2020, we have 65 AI-powered applications being developed and deployed across Shell’s businesses, with many more in the pipeline. We have reached over 1.3 trillion rows of sensor data in our data lake, and are monitoring over 5700 pieces of equipment using machine learning across 23 assets in upstream, downstream manufacturing and integrated gas.

We have also equipped approximately 5000 front-line workers with mobile devices across 20 assets, flown over 1200 drone missions, and had robots conduct over 100 cleaning and inspection jobs. Since the pandemic began, our use of virtual rooms powered by AR technology has increased tenfold, and now we have over 100 devices being used in 30 locations.

Could you tell us more about Shell’s digital roadmap?

Shell’s global Asset Management digital roadmap provides the overall vision, ambition and value statement, a convergence of essential cross business foundational requirements – connectivity, data platforms, data standards, IT architecture, and an identification of focus areas, with a pathway to deploy and replicate at scale.

As we move forward with implementation, there is a deliberate focus on balancing tension between standardisation and delivering and ongoing local opportunities.

Finally, how important is cybersecurity as a business priority at Shell?

Digitalisation brings challenges as well as opportunities, and Shell takes the threat of cyberattacks very seriously. We regularly review and update our procedures for computer access and focus on safeguarding our critical business systems.

When it comes to digital transformation, you’re talking about data-driven decision making, cloud adoption, mobility and IIoT – but this can also increase the potential attack surface of an organisation. Given the expanded attack surface with new digital platforms and surfaces, as well as sophisticated threats such as polymorphic attacks – which comprises of malware that changes/morphs and is difficult to detect – automating security practices and sharing threat intelligence is of increased importance.

Customers also trust us with their data, and maintaining that trust is of utmost importance to Shell. Consequently, we strictly follow data protection rules and regulations such as GDPR as well as having a sophisticated cyber defence team working to protect our customers and Shell’s data 24/7.

The operation of many of our business processes depends on reliable information technology (IT) systems. Our IT systems are increasingly concentrated in terms of geography, number of systems, and dependent on key contractors supporting the delivery of IT services. Shell is the target of attempts to gain unauthorised access to our IT systems and our data through various channels, including more sophisticated and coordinated attempts often referred to as advanced persistent threats. Where systems, customers’ accounts and data have been compromised, we undertake to notify all relevant regulators and impacted customers, in accordance with countries’ laws and regulations, including privacy requirements. Timely detection is becoming increasingly complex, but we seek to detect and investigate all such security incidents, aiming to prevent their recurrence.

We continuously measure and improve our cyber-security capabilities. To reduce the likelihood of successful cyberattacks our cyber-security capabilities are embedded into our IT systems. Our IT landscape is protected by various detective and protective technologies. The identification and assessment capabilities are built into our IT support processes and adhere to industry best practices. The security of IT services, operated by external IT companies, is managed through contractual clauses and through formal supplier assurance reports. Shell invests constantly in efforts to embed and improve our controls and monitoring activities. In case of breaches, all entities, including the ones not yet fully integrated into Shell’s systems and processes, are required to report and leverage Shell’s information security capabilities.

Therefore, the security function must provide the secure foundation to adopt and integrate digital functions. As more and different types of digital technologies are deployed, they may easily integrate into this secure foundation. In other words, we must ensure that security is built-in upfront, and not added as an afterthought.

Ibrahim has over 12 years of Downstream Manufacturing Asset experience across continents ranging from US, Canada to Singapore. He has a strong passion for business transformation leveraging digital and data. He led the development and implementation of Digitalization Strategy for one of the largest downstream sites for Shell at Singapore (Pulau Bukom Refinery) before joining into a Global Digital Implementation role for Shell to support all manufacturing assets across the globe.

Ibrahim comes with a strong process and relibability engineering background with expertise in leading several work process initiatives at the site including to Reliability Centered Maintenance (RCM) to improve asset availability for sites.