As a change management leader working on digital oilfield projects with petrotechnical leaders, engineers, and IM project managers, it is part of my job to look at these projects from two distinct perspectives: (1) the visionary business perspective and (2) the tactical behavioral perspective. And, in general I find that there is a significant gap in design and planning on these kinds of projects, which stems from a lack of translation of the visionary perspective into the redesign of work flows and processes that is required to drive the necessary new collaborative behaviors.

Let’s look at this disconnect a little more closely. One of most often used phrases by vendors of digital oilfield technologies is “cross-disciplinary collaboration.” The leaders and decision-makers who invest in these technologies do so because they recognize the critical need for collaboration to address the following challenges:

  • The energy industry’s retirement boom, also known as “The Big Crew Change:” This trend of retiring petrotechnical experts and corresponding hiring of university graduates requires that leaders find ways to leverage the skills of the remaining experienced experts over a global landscape. The learning curve for this business is steep, and that means teams need to know how and when to collaborate with experts anywhere in the world, often using real-time visualization tools and telepresence technologies.
  • The increased complexity of exploration and production work: Petrotechnical work is more diverse than ever. With new opportunities in unconventional resources, ultra-deep water, and secondary recovery methods, there is a proliferation of new tools and techniques resulting in an associated increase in the number of alternatives to be considered at every stage of a project. In order to mitigate risks associated with doing new kinds of work in new environments with new tools and techniques, it is imperative that our teams collaborate with cross-disciplinary experts and bring in specialists with narrow and deep expertise to make decisions and manage uncertainties.
  • The increased cost of failure: The average cost of drilling and producing wells has doubled since 2008, which means there are significant economic implications for any downtime in upstream operations. Increasingly, leaders are focused on putting collaborative technologies in place to ensure key data, expertise, and lessons learned are shared and that expensive mistakes are not repeated.

So if collaboration is a central theme at the point of project initiation, then what’s the problem?

The primary problem, as I see it, is not the intention or even the skills of the project team. Project teams are often comprised of a combination of information management and experienced petrotechnical experts—with a limited scope, budget, and timeline—who tend to focus on maximizing the usefulness of the features and functionality of the tools. They frequently do consider work processes at least cursorily, but often their scope does not allow for the critical activity of mapping the big-picture processes and cross-disciplinary workflows in order to identify the collaborative process steps the tools are intended to support. In my view, the primary problem seems to be the expectation that people will automatically know when and how to collaborate within their existing processes. And, in fact, a few do. But most do not, and as the demographics continue to shift, more structure and guidance is necessary.

Here are the critical three project activities needed to ensure collaborative digital oilfield technologies are used collaboratively:

  1. Workflows need to be revisited and modified to incorporate critical collaborative engagements. During the design phase, project teams need to examine critical processes and workflows and identify key points where cross-disciplinary or remote collaborations are needed. This piece of work will help the project team target important decisions about visualizations needed, user interface design, and user security profiles in the tools being developed or configured.
  2. Guidance needs to be developed to help practitioners know when to schedule collaborative engagements, whom to include, and the desired outcomes.Redesigned workflows are helpful, but they are only the first step. In the absence of documented “how to” guidance and clear expectations, experienced practitioners will continue to do their work as they always have. And new hires will not be equipped to challenge the status quo. Busy practitioners frequently ignore or avoid using new tools that are not seen as integral to a specific work process. So, as part of the project, ensure your team develops detailed new guidance for recognized workflows or processes incorporating new collaborative interactions, meetings, outcomes, and tools.
  3. New processes need to be trained and supported until embedded. You built it, but that doesn’t mean they’ll come. As has been outlined above, projects to implement digital oilfield technologies require a significant degree of behavior change. An often overextended audience of petrotechnical practitioners is expected to adopt redesigned processes, new tools, and new collaborative ways of working. Make sure your team is adequately resourced to support this change. Your project deployment plan should include, at a minimum, process and scenario-based training activities and on-the-job technical support for a sufficient period of time to ensure the change is embedded in the business.

When we are assigned to work on digital oilfield projects, it’s important to keep in mind that, while it’s possible for us to generate some value by using real-time technologies and virtual collaboration tools to improve the efficiency of existing processes, that is, in most cases, not why our projects have been funded. Whether or not it is clearly articulated, the vision for the digital oilfield generally calls for a disruption of existing processes. And that disruption is about collaboration.

As a team, we need to make sure we advocate for the scope and resources we need to revisit workflows and processes and identify where collaborations must happen and who they should include, to train people on the cross-disciplinary processes as well as the digital oilfield technologies, and to facilitate the storming and norming of virtual cross-disciplinary teams. It is imperative that we integrate our collaboration technologies into our work processes, so people use them in the most critical ways at the most critical points. So we have to pay as much attention to the collaboration as we do to the technologies.