As the new chief information and digital officer at Abu Dhabi-based Ali & Sons Holding, Shumon A Zaman’s first big job is clear: Lead a digital transformation for the family-owned, 5,000-person conglomerate with holdings in industries including automotive, oil & gas, construction, marine engineering, retail, manufacturing and healthcare. The ultimate goal? Double-digit growth across the region.
That’s a tall order, but Zaman’s background gives him a head start. Before taking the lead tech role at Ali & Sons, Zaman worked for more than seven years as VP of Technology, Optimisation and Digital at Lamprell PLC, a provider of engineering and contracting services to the energy industry. There, he was hired to help turn things around after, among other problems, an unsuccessful ERP implementation (more on that in the Q&A below).
With more than 20 years of experience in ICT, Zaman holds diplomas and certificates in business, finance and technology from universities in the UK and US. Most recently he completed a post-graduate diploma in digital business in collaboration with MIT and Columbia Business School.
Ask him if he always wanted to work in IT, however, and Zaman will say that he was in the Air Cadets in the UK with the goal of becoming an airline pilot. Unfortunately, the recession in the 1990s hit hard and airline scholarships and training programs were cancelled. Now, Zaman does a different sort of piloting — steering the digital transformation journeys of large enterprises.
As with any large project, with digital transformation, the devil is in the details. In an interview last year prior to his joining Ali & Sons, Zaman discussed how AI, digital twins and IoT can help energy companies survive market turmoil.
In this Q&A, Zaman talks about what his goals are at Ali & Sons, and the steps he plans to achieve them.
What are the CEO’s top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT?
Our mission for the next five years is to digitally transform the group to become one of the leading family-owned conglomerates in the region, with double-digit growth. All underpinned by cutting-edge technology and digitalisation.
The Board recognise the disruption that digitalisation is having globally across many industries. We’ve taken the view that we need to be part of this disruption. We see it as an opportunity to change, develop and grow new business and improve the bottom line.
Our Board also recognise the value of data and coupled with our experience in many industries we have a competitive advantage that very few can match — what I would term is ‘our right to win’.
Our immediate plans are to upgrade our current foundation — so we are in the process of moving everything to the cloud. This includes undertaking a comprehensive upgrade of the current ERP system.
Moving to the cloud is in my opinion critical, if we are to leverage innovation and rapid growth. Moving to the cloud will ensure our group can leverage superior processing power, instant storage all underpinned by world class security with the latest innovation. These are the fundamental building blocks for our future growth.
As we introduce and integrate more advance technology, the volume and veracity of data will grow exponentially. Developing our own on-premise data centre to cope with this rapid growth would become uneconomical and would not provide the agility we would need to rapidly scale and grow. This is why moving things to the cloud is fundamental to a digital transformation journey, in my opinion.
What are the main challenges of joining a company amidst a pandemic? Is your workforce WFH?
I think the challenges we are facing are the same across the globe. However, I believe the UAE has done a tremendous job in containing the C19 pandemic; that has now allowed us to safely and gradually bring some form of normality to the workplace.
We are following all the strict safety guidelines recommended by the government and now have a hybrid approach to work – some in office and some at home, at times.
Remote working is now looking the ‘new norm’ especially online meetings and team huddles.
Where does Ali & Sons stores its data?
Our data is stored in UAE data centres – we believe our data is a core asset and should reside within the UAE.
How can your background at Lamprell help Ali & Sons?
I was hired by the Board immediately after the Financial Services Authority (FSA) had fined Lamprell PLC over £2.4M for significant failings in its systems and controls (this is public knowledge). Unfortunately, they were also not successful in their ERP transformation project. So, the stakes were high — however I was part of a new management team that was hired to turn things around.
In order to undertake the transformation in a rapid manner, we needed a ninja team. I was very fortunate to hire a great team and together we managed to turn the situation around and deployed a tier one ERP system within 66 days.
This success ensured we had the appropriate financial systems in place to provide confidence to the market and the FSA. We then continued the transformation to all other parts of the business including setting up a Lean Six Sigma business optimisation organisation. This led to several million dollars in savings that could be re-invested in the digital transformation.
Once the core transformation had been completed, we focused on the digital transformation phase; this is where we looked at developing digital businesses working with some of the world’s best Silicon Valley partners, using the data and knowledge and expertise of our industry.
Examples of some of the initiatives included setting up an industrial robotics unit to undertake welding. This project reduced project related costs by over 50% compared with manual labour, we also worked with partners to develop digital twin technology, etc.
I am honoured to have the same opportunity to undertake a similar strategy at ASH [Ali & Sons Holding]. At ASH there is greater complexity given the multiple industries we operate in, but I also believe even more opportunity to deliver more value from a deep and intense digital transformation. I am now hiring a new ninja team – a team that come with extensive experience in delivering value and are able to work under extreme pressure. They have the mentality and work ethic and know what it takes to win.
Our digital journey has just begun, and we are all excited to transform ASH and create new digital value for the next 40 years!