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How Shell’s Global Technology team laid the foundations for speedier product development

A deep dive with Sravani Gullapalli, Shell Technology Manager for Digitalisation

Key Takeaways

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    Many organisations don’t know what data exists across their business. As well as making it inefficient and time consuming to access knowledge, this lack of visibility prevents teams from using data-driven insights to improve their offer to customers.

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    Realising that data could be one of its greatest assets, the Shell Projects and Technology Lubricants, and Fuels Technology team established the Frictionless Data Access (FDA) project within its wider digitalisation programme (known as SPARK).

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    With a vision to drive business strategy through digital technology solutions, SPARK integrates data across the value chain to generate insights, demonstrate product benefits, and democratise sustainability by providing faster and cleaner energy solutions for Shell customers.

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    The Frictionless Data Access project created a single source of truth for all the formulation and testing data held within Shell – helping product developers to deliver more creative solutions to their customers with more speed.

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    With greater access to the information they need, Shell teams are now able to increase their speed to market with new products, and free up employee’s time for more value-added tasks.

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    The Frictionless Data Access project, as part of the SPARK programme, demonstrates the importance of digitalisation across every business area – and how digitally enabled solutions will be the key to meeting the current and future needs of customers.

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Sravani Gullapalli, Technology Manager for Digitalisation, Shell

Sravani Gullapalli is an expert product developer and technology manager, with close to a decade’s experience in lubricants and a PhD in Chemical Engineering. Currently focused on digitalisation within Shell’s Projects and Technology Lubricants and Fuels Technology team, she is playing a pivotal role in the transformation of product development through data-driven insights.

The challenge

Many organisations don’t really know what data exists across their business. Even those that do often find it difficult to access what they need quickly. It’s no surprise, as information is often held in different systems, different structures and even in different locations within global companies.

A recent Deloitte study highlights how workers who handle and develop knowledge and data (such as engineers and product developers) spend 25% of their time looking for the information they need to do their job.1 And that’s before you get to the questions around data quality and accuracy.

The solution

Realising that data could be one of its greatest assets, the Shell Projects and Technology Lubricants and Fuels Technology team established the SPARK programme – to help drive business strategy through data-driven decision making.

SPARK helps Shell to underpin business strategy with digitally enabled solutions, by integrating foundational data throughout the entire value chain. In turn, this makes it simpler for the team to serve their customers, by generating smarter insights, demonstrating clear products benefits, and focusing on important areas like sustainability.

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How to SPARK a data-led transformation

SPARK has quickly made a noticeable impact, with one of the first strategic elements to emerge being Frictionless Data Access. The aim of Frictionless Data Access was to create a single source of truth for all the formulation and testing data held within Shell. This would then make that information more readily available to users and AI solutions, helping people to visualise the data and speed up their decision making.

“By implementing this, the team has already unlocked value from years of product testing and development,” says Sravani Gullapalli, Technology Manager for Digitalisation at Shell. “Where people previously relied on a time-consuming process of consulting with various stakeholders – which was often unknowingly duplicated – they can now develop new products for customers much more efficiently by building on the information that already exists.”

The team realised the potential impact that digitalisation could have on R&D, especially with the emergence of trends such as big data, virtual experimentation, and digital collaboration. From there, they worked closely with their colleagues to understand how to maximise that potential across the business.

“We started with a survey of our organisation that spanned across various job roles, regions, products and areas of experience,” explains Gullapalli. “Essentially, we asked them what their biggest pain points were. And they told us that the biggest strength we have is our data, but it's also our greatest opportunity.”

So, with a strong focus on data, the SPARK programme was created – with Frictionless Data Access acting as a critical pillar for it. In turn, SPARK Frictionless Data Access became the first tool able to consolidate all Shell lubricant, fuels and bitumen formulations and associated performance data into one repository, allowing easy transparent access to data to end users.

Frictionless access to better results

At its core, Frictionless Data Access might not sound like the most exciting of projects. Sourcing, cleaning, and standardising all of Shell’s formulation and testing data over the last 16 years was always likely to be a painstaking task.

However, by putting that work in, the team have laid the foundations for their colleagues to deliver some truly exciting results. As well as unlocking completely new ways of working, it’s encouraging people to solve problems creatively in a way that improves their response to customer needs.

Frictionless Data Access provides users with easy access to clean and trusted data – giving them a bird's-eye view of all the data we have in one place. This means they can see trends and correlate different data sources in creative ways to make better decisions.

Sravani Gullapalli, Technology Manager for Digitalisation, Shell

So, rather than spending time searching for information, product development teams now have:

  • Easily accessible trusted data that saves significant time when identifying target formulations
  • Creative data queries across different product sectors and locations that can deliver unexpected correlations and improvements in performance
  • The ability to enhance product performance by carrying out ad-hoc experimental analysis on an unprecedented scale

And the impact of this has been clear for users to see…

“Imagine if you could increase your speed to market for new product developments. Or respond to customer requests much more rapidly,” says Gullapalli, “With Frictionless Data Access in place, we don’t have to imagine these scenarios anymore. We’re now able to do all of it and more.”

As Gullapalli highlights, Frictionless Data Access delivers a range of benefits to users. For instance, they have greater access to the information they need by being able to extract and integrate information on product performance across all regions and product categories. As well as speeding up the product development process, it frees up their time for other potentially more valuable tasks.

All of it helps Shell to maintain its position as a global leader in lubricants technology, generating deeper insights to create products that better serve customers.

Turning product development on its head

To put the impact of Frictionless Data Access in context, let’s look at how product development worked previously. Due to the challenges around data access, multiple data formats or collating information from multiple systems, the previous process relied heavily on collaboration with a network of subject matter experts and stakeholders.

“The problem with that approach was that it was time consuming and limited you to the knowledge base of the SMEs you interviewed,” says Gullapalli. “The results of those discussions often left you with a wide range of options to consider, making your experimental verification and testing process take even longer.”

With information is one place, Frictionless Data Access enables colleagues to find information within minutes and find solutions which previously would not have been considered. With new options now viable, this helps to reduce product development timelines and increases speed to market. Evidence of its relevance for the Shell business, SPARK Frictionless Data Access recently won the Shell.ai Data Impact Award. After being selected from 72 data impact team nominations and 600 nominations from across Shell, the programme is testament to the digital transformation journey in Shell and in the Lubricants and Fuels Technology organisation.

Three tips for laying successful data foundations

The data foundations that underpin Frictionless Data Access are set to play a vital role in the digitalisation of lubrication development at Shell. They also have the potential to transform operations and drive efficiency across other businesses and sectors.

For any organisation looking to explore data foundations, there are three ways to make the process smoother:

  1. Start with the user
    Starting with the user is critical. You need an understanding of their pain points before beginning to address them. Your users can help you make sure that any solution is built to anticipate and meet the needs of customers.

  2. Work out what the IT requirements are before building
    Before diving straight into the development of your tools, it’s worth spending time clearly translating the user and business needs into IT requirements. It’s the digital equivalent of sharpening the axe before cutting the tree. It’ll also help you identify any existing tools that you can repurpose, instead of starting a new build.

  3. Demonstrate the value of data
    The easiest way to achieve real buy-in from the business is to demonstrate the value of your project with a well-defined use case that requires little investment but delivers huge value. This helps to build leadership confidence with a tangible example that highlights specific business benefits, rather than an abstract idea.

Our ideal vision for a data-centric organisation is one that provides easy access to clean, transparent data and predictive models built on trusted data – all of which informs data-driven decision making to meet the needs of customers.

Sravani Gullapalli, Technology Manager for Digitalisation, Shell

Delivering a future built on data

Shell’s Frictionless Data Access and SPARK story is far from over. Going beyond product development and testing, the team already has a keen focus on how digital technologies and data can help drive decarbonisation.

One such example is how it can make sustainability efforts more traceable – using digital tools to calculate the avoided emissions in a lubricant product. This will give customers a clearer idea of their carbon footprint when selecting and using lubricants as part of their operations. And, with these insights, they can make more informed decisions for their business.

“The current and future vision of the SPARK programme is to ensure we’re continually meeting the needs of our end customers,” says Gullapalli. “It will also continue to support our business strategy through digitally enabled R&D and technology solutions across the entire value chain.”

It is yet another demonstration of the opportunities to drive performance and improve efficiency, that digitalisation can provide. No doubt you’ll be asking yourself what data your business has hiding, and how it can help you deliver more for your customers.


1 Deloitte, “The Digital Workplace Journey.”, deloitte.com, 2001
2 Deloitte, “The new knowledge management: Mining the collective intelligence.”, deloitte.com, 2021
3 Harvard Business Review. “Embracing Data Analytics for More Strategic Value.”, hbr.org, 2021

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