The use of big data and AI will help many industries thrive, says Shalin Naidoo

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The CITO believes data-based decision-making improves operational performance.

Shalin Naidoo is the chief information and technology officer at DRDGold and is accountable for determining the mining company’s information and technology strategic, tactical and operational execution and direction. As a result, he is laying out the company’s five-year IT strategy roadmap, and says his main role is looking internally at the organisation and at incremental innovation, as well as fully utilising what they have, sweating their assets to the best of their abilities.

“We don’t want best of breed,” he says. “What we do want is functional fit.” This, he says, entails using their data and systems to their fullest potential where practically possible.

In his role as CITO, Shalin goes outside the organisation to assess other mining companies and adjacent industries to see what technologies they can use and introduce in their organisation.

His typical day consists of consistent engagement with internal stakeholders at all levels, as well as engagement with strategic, operational, and key business influencers to understand where IT can help or fit in. He is also constantly in touch with the industry and marketplace to find and investigate potential opportunities to enhance DRDGold’s operations through seminars, webinars and various peer groups.

“Essentially, my job is to make our employees’ lives simpler and more efficient through the use of fitting technology. When I’m not doing that, I'm usually engaging with our trusted vendors to find out about what's new in the market or what can help DRDGold,” he says: “Not just new technology, or technology for the sake of technology, but relevant, appropriate and functionally fit technology. Technology that can be used to improve and enhance DRDGold’s operations in a practical way.”

Artificial intelligence in mining

Shalin is very excited about a vendor he has recently met with called Craft Intelligence – Supplier Intelligence Platform. Craft specialises in data and smart algorithms, big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

“We are currently working on a huge project with them, and I’m completely immersed in that,” he says. “What we are starting to see is that once we start developing these smart algorithms, they are actually replicable and reusable in many areas of the business: finance, operations, information technology, HR and property and risk management.”

DRDGold is also paying close attention to big data and artificial intelligence. Shalin says that the organisation’s decisions from here on will be built around quantitative decision-making, based on data.

In the mining industry, mining companies rely on supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, which monitor every single piece of equipment, the throughput of the mine, productivity, and alerts for potential equipment breakdowns.

“Where big data and AI fit in this equation is by analysing all the data that is being generated by the second, something which a human being would be unable to do,” he explains. “But with technology and using processor speed, affordable storage and artificial and robotic processing – that data can be analysed and put into a manageable, readable format, which informs and expedites accurate decision-making.”

Shalin has worked in multiple industries, including healthcare, agriculture, and chemicals. However, he is most excited about the mining industry: he says it has great potential as far as technology is concerned.

“I am critically centred on the mining industry and it is because this industry does not use or exploit technology to its fullest,” he says. “There is a disconnect between miners and technology to some extent; for them, they are just looking to get stuff out of the ground and wonder where technology fits. This can be seen as to where global mining is sitting on the Digital Vortex.

“Mining is placed near the back of this transformational era comparable to other industries; but there definitely are efforts in pockets to improve mining’s IT and digital footprint across the industry. This means the possibilities of exploiting technology within an organisation are endless.”

The selfless CIO

Shalin is passionate about living an active and healthy lifestyle, and in his spare time he enjoys playing squash and golf. He’s been playing since primary school and has never stopped.

His work in healthcare is something he is very passionate about. He reflects on his time working in healthcare, which had a significant impact on him. “My time in healthcare was incredible,” he says. “From an altruistic perspective, I believe that period was the most rewarding in terms of giving back to society and using technology to bring quality healthcare to rural areas, while also improving administrative processes in clinics. Healthcare is a major concern, not only in South Africa, but around the world.”

Shalin has his finger on the pulse of emerging technologies, and is persistent and insistent on continuous learning for both himself and his team. He believes that this is one of the qualities needed to thrive as a CIO. “Resilience is key,” he says. “Particularly in the mining industry; I often engage with people who are comfortable with proceedings and don’t necessarily see the great positive impact of technology. This is a normal and understandable behaviour in successful organisations. I’ve experienced this with our current data project: it was completely pushed aside at the beginning, but we had to constantly and persistently sell it to the business to make the business understand the value that it could ultimately bring.

“I also believe in effective communication; consistent engagement in simple and understandable terms is important, especially when people grapple to see how technology can benefit and assist them in their day-to-day lives,” he adds.

“Another important attribute is the ability to get buy-in, which involves mobilising the people around you as well as the members of your executive committee through effective communication.”

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