The Promise of Digital
Speaking to contributing editor Janees Reghelini, Shumon Zaman, Chief Information and Digital Officer, Ali & Sons Holding, elaborates on the company’s vision to become a cloud-native, agile, fully automated and digitally empowered enterprise in the next three years.
Founded in 1979 under the direction of H.E. Ali Bin Khalfan Al Mutawa Al Dhaheri, Ali & Sons was established to serve the oil and gas and power and water sectors. It began its operations in contracting and interiors in 1980 – and from there the business only expanded and flourished to include a number of other sectors as well as its own brands and concepts.
Today, the 41-year-old company has grown into a successful conglomerate that has a strong standing in areas such as automotive, construction, oil & gas, real estate, investments and retail. While the group has gone from strength to strength in its operations, the technology supporting the company’s ambitions and future plans now needs to undergo a major overhaul.
Industry veteran Shumon Zaman joined the company recently as its Chief Information and Digital Officer, to lead the digital and technology transformation for Ali & Sons.
“Digital disruption is taking place across many industries and the board felt it was the right time for us to go through the transformation to ensure we become more agile and develop new digital business models. This will allow us to expand our operations and grow our products and services portfolio,” says Zaman.
Ali & Sons was looking to leverage its experience of operating in many different industries when it comes to developing digital ventures.
“Our immediate priorities include moving everything to the cloud, building our ERP infrastructure and above it all, working on the complete digital transformation layer,” explains Zaman.
As the person leading this mandate, Zaman along with his team have developed the strategy and will soon commence the execution phase of this multi-year program.
The team identified a crucial first step in the transformation journey, which is ensuring that the business processes across the whole group are well-optimised and are as agile as possible.
“In this regard, we’re going to run the Lean Six Sigma methodology to improve performance of all processes by systematically removing waste. This will result in the most optimised processes, which we will then automate using the latest cloud-based ERP. We then aim to add more best of breed business applications for various different types of industries that we’re in. Additionally, we will add layers for analytics and AI,” he says.
According to Zaman, this will help the conglomerate to gain new insights from the data collected and help in enhancing focused decision-making. It will also allow the company to develop new products and services along with new digital business models.
“In terms of technologies, we’re at the moment looking at the top tier one ERP vendors and cloud ERP solutions. We’re also working with Microsoft, Microsoft Azure and M365 along with different applications vendors,” he adds.
Zaman point out the primary challenge in achieving this goal is defining digital transformation and getting everyone to understand what it really means. “Many people understand digital in different ways. For me, it’s all about creating different business models, new ways of generating revenue, using digital tools such as AI, machine learning, big data, cloud and so on.
“However, people tend to think a simple automation of a process counts as digital. But that’s only the very initial stage. Currently, we are working on getting everyone aligned as to where we want to go, how we want to get there and the driving reason for us to achieve digital transformation. This is very important,” he says.
The motivating factor for Ali & Sons to go digital is business continuity, he adds. “We want to be one of the leading family-led conglomerates in the region. We want to achieve double digit growth and disrupt areas that are being transformed so that we are not left behind. It’s all about safeguarding what we do, but also prolonging the life of our business because we need to keep up with what’s happening globally.”
Upon the completion of its digital transformation, apart from being an agile organisation, one of the biggest advantages that Ali & Sons will enjoy is having insights from data at its fingertips. “We are excited to embark on this journey as once we complete it, the potential is infinite. We can create new insights using digital tools such as AI and machine learning. We will be in a better position to understand the trends across the different industries that we operate in and look at ways how we can take advantage of what the data is telling us. This is key to our business continuity in the long-term,” says Zaman.
The past year has further cemented the company’s decision to begin its digital transformation.
“It has made the board realize that unless it’s an agile organisation, it is very difficult to make decisions and take advantage of opportunities that might arise during a crisis like the ongoing pandemic. In order to do this, we need to nurture a digital mindset within the organisation and invest in advanced technologies. Today there is a sense of urgency to become a digital enterprise. Those with digital capabilities were able to make the transitions quickly during the pandemic.”
Zaman expects it to take three to five years for the organisation to grow by double digits. For this to happen, the company will have to create several different digital enterprises, become digitally-enabled and more mature in its digital usage.
“One of the key aspects of my vision is making sure that every employee, no matter where they are and what device they have, should be able to access decision making information powered by AI and do their jobs from wherever they are. Everything should be accessible from the palm of their hands. This is the vision that we want to execute very quickly and this will also give us the agility that we need.
“As an established and well respected business, we want to attract and retain the best talent to come and work with us. In order for that to happen, we need to give them the best tools.”
Zaman explains that attracting the younger generation, especially Emirati nationals, to its workforce is key to the long-term growth and success of the organisation.
“Developing a digital environment will allow that to happen and attract the right kind of talent,” he concludes.