empowering the workforce of the future

Empowering the workforce of the future

We have all learnt many things over 2020, but one lesson strikes me. As our virtual lives get busier and busier, it is vital that we still make time for learning itself. Digitalisation has transformed how we work, it has given us new skills, but how many of us make time to hone those skills? For me, there is great value in this. Digitalisation is not just something that is happening to us, it is something that we can make happen in so many different ways.

By Harry Brekelmans, Projects & Technology Director, on Jan 13, 2021

At Shell, we are honing many digital skills and we want to increase those skills across Shell. For instance, we are building the in house capability to embed artificial intelligence (AI) and digital technologies across every part of our organisation. We want to empower our teams to better understand, develop and use these technologies, making our businesses more effective and efficient. Digitalisation will be a vital element if we are to meet our ambition to be a net-zero energy business by 2050 or sooner, in step with society and our customers.

Shell has led the development and deployment of many digital technologies in the energy sector since the 1970s. Our data sets are getting significantly larger and our ability to process this data in the cloud is getting much more efficient. Each of our physical assets – from refineries to wind turbines - generate hundreds of thousands of measurements per minute. Shell manages real time data from 7.5 million sensors and connected instruments across our assets.

And what makes this data especially valuable are the actionable insights we derive from it. We have over 350 data scientists and over 4000 software engineers developing AI and other digital solutions. We have specialised teams of computational scientists who use physics-based models to predict the behaviour of materials and systems using super computers. On the whole, we are building a global digital capability with centres of excellence in India, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States which are transforming the way Shell operates.

Digitalisation is a significant force for change in society and AI and digital technology develop quickly. Providers such as Udacity are supporting our experts in Shell to deepen their knowledge and keep up with the latest advancements in their field.

AI solutions are not only valuable to our data scientists and software engineers. There is significant value in small, bespoke solutions that are tailored to specific processes or workflows. We are democratising AI, making it more accessible to employees across our businesses. These “citizen data scientists”, as we call them, are often engineers, chemists and scientists. They have a deep understanding of maths and they are often writing code themselves – some have been doing so for many years. We are providing the platforms, training and a protected interface so that they can also use AI and data science to develop solutions for bespoke processes. They are best placed to create DIY (”do it yourself”) local no-code or low-code applications, that means create their own software with very little or no need for coding. This DIY approach helps “citizen data scientists” learn new skills, broaden their talents and do their jobs more effectively.

For example, in the Shell Moerdijk chemical plant, a chemical engineer and an operator built a custom application to optimise furnaces by reducing their energy consumption, increasing their efficiency and reducing their operational greenhouse gas emissions. This kind of optimisation can be replicated by local engineers and operators across other assets.

It is not just the formal learning and additional professional qualification that make it possible to build the in house capability we need to be successful in our digital transformation. What is needed is a change in culture that nurtures new ways of working. We are developing a working culture that empowers staff to learn how technology can help Shell become more efficient.

We established Shell.ai as a change program to bring together a community who share best practices and experiences. We have held over 40 hackathons in the last few years. These are multiple-day learning and problem-solving events during which our digital and data experts train teams in assets and businesses. They work on real business problems by applying agile ways of working rapid prototyping, and they go into deep dives on subjects such as machine learning and advanced analytics. This change in culture is meant to grow a global workforce with a shared pool of digital knowledge and skills. This is why everyone in Shell has access to a one-stop-shop learning space where they can fulfil their learning needs.

There is more to understanding digitalisation than simply having the skills to apply it. We also want our teams to understand the implications of using digital technology. Digital and data literacy campaigns continue to help us increase our teams’ knowledge of digital technology.

So, when I think of learning, I am excited to see the skills of our teams growing stronger by the day. I am excited by the community we are building and the impact our projects are already having. And most of all, I am excited about the potential we have as a future workforce.


As Projects and Technology (P&T) Director, Harry Brekelmans leads the teams that deliver Shell’s major projects, provide support to assets and drive technological and commercial innovation.

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