A day in the life of Digital Chris

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A friend of mine runs operations for one of the larger players in the North Sea. He has a chap who works for him, and for the purposes of anonymity, I’ll call him Digital Chris.

Digital Chris is a very valuable person. He’s what’s referred to as a “Barrel Chaser” he’s the trouble shooter, the ideas man, the guy that gets things done. Digital Chris adds thousands of barrels of production each year. Production that would otherwise be locked up due to process constraints, lost through shut-in’s and trips or lost through delays getting things back on-line. Digital Chris probably contributes a few million pounds of cash that drops straight to the bottom line.

It’s odd then that not everyone is like Digital Chris and that people like him are so rare. I remember there was a chap I met who worked at Elf in the 1990’s who I’ll now refer to as “Digital Martyn”. 

Digital Martin worked as a reservoir engineer and seemed to be able to use software tools he had available to construct answers to geological modelling and reservoir production questions in ways that others couldn’t. He could take information from many different disciplines, combine them and use it to solve sub-surface puzzles in new and imaginative ways.

Digital Martyn and Digital Chris are digital pioneers, a different type of digital twin if you will. They may not think of themselves this way, but they are. The problem-solving results they achieve are not only orders of magnitude faster and better than whole departments of people, but I’d go as far as to say that they spot and solve problems to unlock opportunities that would otherwise be lost forever in the fog of bureaucracy.

What’s interesting now is that if you walk into a G&G team they are no longer divided by discipline as they were once: Geology, Petrophysics, Geophysics, Reservoir (with geochemists and bathymetry not knowing where to report); instead they are organised as “Subsurface” and divided by business objective Exploration, Development and Production.  

Computing power and data was the underpinning of this change. All companies now organise their G&G departments and behave in the way that Digital Martyn pioneered 25 years ago. I suspect 25 years from now all operations groups will organise and behave in ways that Digital Chris, and those like him, are pioneering today.

National broadcast channels recently reported that there will be a requirement for 10,000 digital workers in Oil and Gas in the next 20 years. On average that means each of the 50 or so operators need to find 10 Digital Chris clones each year. My friend has only found one in the last 15 years.

If Martyn and Chris are twins separated by 25 years and, if Digital Chris is a pioneer, there are three things the wise oil company executive should do: Learn to spot more digital pioneers; develop and grow them; and help them be successful in their roles.

 To help you spot them, here are the traits of a digital pioneer:

  • Is technically advanced in area of specialty
  • Is a creative problem solver
  • Maintains broad overview of situation
  • Prioritises attention to areas that maximise value
  • Digs into extreme detail when required
  • Tests Hypotheses with data, discarding ideas when necessary
  • Develops networks and creates social and political capital
  • Naturally works across organisational boundaries
  • Can’t stand bureaucracy and form filling

 Once you’ve found them there are various ways to help them develop and grow.  Once you’ve developed the tools to gauge the business impact of decisions, you should create common language to enable discussions on relative value.

The next step is to share strategic vision and what will be considered “good” and reward the identification and quantification of problems.  You can then provide unfiltered access to whatever information is needed, even if only needed for curiosity. Finally, you should look to encourage diversity of approach and non-conforming ideas and ensure that safety is not compromised by new ideas without killing the idea-generation process itself/

As they develop, it’s your responsibility to help them be successful in their roles. This can be achieved by preventing nay-sayers from using trivial detail to thwart progress. You should then align interests by addressing the gap between process-driven functions like finance, procurement and IT and those working in the white-heat of operational time-frames. You’ll then be well positioned to 

deploy technology that reduces information-friction and promotes transparency and  work with the minimum of forms, reports, emails or meetings

It’s going to be a long process to re-equip the whole workforce with digital skills. Some of that will happen naturally as new workers enter the industry. There will be a need for conversion to new ways of working to be established within existing workforces as well.  The challenge is going to be attracting new people with digital skills, embracing those new skills and associated working practices (letting them flourish and keeping work meaningful and not frustrating) then combining them with the know-how from established practices in the industry.

So, the trick is to be more digital - and more like Chris. In the short run we’re going to need to work in teams – and teams with diversity of thought and approach. Not the sort of team I’ve seen (and experienced) where all new digital methods are pooh-poohed. The type of “team” where the old guard try to re-programme the progressive new digital guys to adopt the way it’s done here - and the digital guys are opt out and are replaced with IT people who end up going off on IT projects for their own sake, imposing so many restrictions on technology adoption by the operations teams that the whole thing falls flat and fails.

Gareth Davies, Chief Strategy Officer, Eigen
Image Credit: Bbernard / Shutterstock