Understanding the changing workforce

Tom Franklin

August 1, 2015

Social collaboration brings context to data and helps find experts. Tom Franklin reports.

The pathway to social collaboration for improved productivity.

Global integration in the oil and gas industry is bringing about changes in the nature of its workforce and operations.

With potentially 50% of the workforce likely to retire in the next 5-7 years, there are concerns about losing valuable expertise. Add on top of that the changing nature of work as companies explore more remote and harsh environments to enhance production. This requires advanced technological skills often held by just a few experienced employees. Also, with businesses becoming global, oil and gas companies need to contend with changing government regulations that demand local resources to ensure smooth operations in remote environments.

In a knowledge-intensive industry, all these changes pose big challenges for employee retention, engagement, training and productivity.

There is, however, an answer. By taking a more holistic view of multiple dimensions involving people, processes and technology, it is possible to create a more collaborative and productive work environment.

The consumerization of IT and trends like BYOD (bring your own device), combined with the widespread prevalence of social networking platforms and mobile devices, present opportunities for creating a more connected workplace. Considering that oil and gas projects typically include geographically dispersed stakeholders, a social collaboration platform can help discover, capture and share tacit knowledge more effectively from a dwindling workforce.

As mentioned, studies show 40-60% of current employees (mainly geoscientists and petroleum engineers) are planning to retire in the next 5-10 years. They also show there is a considerable gap in experience between the retiring and the incoming workforce. About 20% of the industry has fewer than five years of experience, and the average age of exploration and production company employees is 50 years. What does this mean for oil and gas companies? The Talent and Technology study from SPE estimates such loss of expertise could result in losses amounting to US$40 billion. Moreover, 20-30% of drilling efficiency could be lost once experienced drillers hand over operations to their replacements.

To further complicate matters, the industry is undergoing changes with regard to locations explored, methods applied and products churned out (conventional oil versus unconventional oil). New and complex techniques, as well as experiential knowledge and best practices, must be understood by new hires and other stakeholders across geographies.

In addition, the need to find new oil reserves has driven companies to explore and operate in harsh, remote and even hostile locations. This shifts the focus to unconventional exploration techniques that require the support of digital technologies and extensive technical expertise. However, finding the talent with experience in new technologies and unconventional production techniques is not a simple task.

Taking a quick look, it is easy to see the current education system does not support the growing need for skilled resources. People graduating as geologists every year, from universities across the globe, form only a minuscule percentage of graduates compared to other disciplines like law, medicine and engineering. Therefore, oil and gas companies should either train new hires or recruit personnel from other countries to bridge this gap. Industry players remain challenged to train these employees quickly to maintain productivity. Effective knowledge management and collaboration is not only critical to bridge these gaps and prevent loss of critical expertise, but it is also necessary to build new competencies.

A more connected workplace that enables an easy exchange of information is a business imperative.

 The key capabilities of an ideal social collaboration platform. Images from Tata Consultancy Services.

Social collaboration

While, it would be easy to say this is just a human resources issue, it is important to address the issue from a business perspective. The solution starts with understanding the needs of “digital natives” entering the organization who are comfortable with social networking tools, and providing an environment that enables experienced employees to share their expertise through this emerging medium.

Driving collaboration through social media and other tools generates significant business value by improving the way knowledge is created, accessed, shared and used. From routine tasks to special projects, social collaboration transcends geographical boundaries. It captures the tacit knowledge of experienced employees by motivating them to contribute through intuitive and easy-to-use platforms. At the same time, it offers a new -generation employees access to collaborative technologies, which allow them to leverage the knowledge ecosystem for faster integration within the enterprise. Such technologies also help to create a network of support through communities of practice and to connect companies with academic institutions to prepare students even before they enter the industry. A key step in adopting social collaboration is to focus on choosing an enabling technology, or building a service line to create the right platform.

In with the new

Timely access to the right data, information and expertise is one of the strongest drivers for social collaboration in the oil and gas industry. The amount of data — which is mostly unstructured in nature — is growing due to the rising complexity of technology. Therefore, a good part of an engineer’s time is spent gathering data and information rather than analyzing it. Downtime ends up largely attributed to the difficulty in finding correct information in a timely manner.

Although typical content management initiatives provide the means to manage data, they do not enable contextualization. They fall short of a comprehensive knowledge management platform. Traditional enterprise content management (ECM) systems are driven by enterprise taxonomy and capture knowledge that is possible to document. These systems are not well equipped to tap into unstructured sources such as emails, instant messaging and other sources of tacit information. Moreover, ECM works within the boundaries of workflows and file management systems, and struggles to gather digital content (like videos and images) created through a series of disparate, unorganized processes.

Existing ECM systems are also mere repositories of processes. More often than not, users built these content management solutions piecemeal for a particular business unit, and focused on providing employees with the knowledge they require for conducting routine tasks. They do not provide an interactive environment where employees can post their queries and get the required support to develop solutions for more specialized projects. Certain components of ECM allow for collaboration and communication. However, since the focus is implicitly on content creation and storage, important documents might not remain “alive” for extended periods of time due to a lack of collaboration.

Social collaboration takes knowledge management beyond the rigid structures of taxonomy and toward “folksonomy,” where the user can categorize content through collaborative tags and annotations. Social collaboration platforms have evolved from the traditional system of records to becoming systems of engagement. While ECM does extend some collaborative features such as simultaneous editing of documents and integration with instant messaging, it is mainly a system of records. Social collaboration platforms aim to overcome the challenges posed by ECM systems by bringing:

As a networking tool that enables collaboration within the enterprise, a social collaboration platform should also encompass the social strategy for an enterprise, along with the associated policies and processes.

An ideal social collaboration platform should be easily accessible through mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, and be available around-the-clock for access anywhere. It should allow users to share information and communicate with each other through instant messaging, blog posts and wikis. Though the information generated through social collaboration platforms is vast, the use of features such as hash tags contextualizes the information. Activity feeds, based on user-specific subscriptions, enable the generation of personalized streams of information to maintain subject relevance.

It can become possible to generate ideas through crowdsourcing, either for specific topics or in response to general industry trends. The platform should also offer discussion boards and polls that help in driving conversations around industry relevant topics. Instant access to the appropriate subject matter experts, through communities and other private and public forums, will enable faster problem resolution. By integrating with a comprehensive content management system, the platform should also enable real-time storage and retrieval of content.

Collaboration success factors

Consider an example with an oil well that goes offline frequently, and with production engineers and operators who are unable to identify the problem. Add in the employees who may have worked on various well components such as lift technology, pumps, and others, may have also moved on.

These types of issues could end up posted to communities on a social collaboration platform to reach the extended workforce – contractors, suppliers, and ex-employees. The social collaboration platform can also provide specific workflows that allow ex-employees to participate in discussions until the problem is resolved.

Building a social collaboration platform is just the beginning. The following key factors will ensure faster adoption and continued success:

Immense potential

Social collaboration tools are changing the way we communicate and exchange information outside and within the workplace. Businesses are already using it to support their marketing efforts and engage their customers.

For the oil and gas industry, social collaboration holds immense potential in capturing and disseminating knowledge sourced from experienced employees. Enterprises will need to think beyond traditional databases or content repositories, and embrace new social tools that drive continuous improvement of knowledge and skills. Building communities of interests and using discussion groups and podcasts could be some ways to connect with the right experts across the organization and accelerate issue resolution and decision making.

While these are important steps in the process, the greatest success lies in a shared vision of social collaboration, as well as rethinking organizational ethos and the ways of working.

The demand for specialized skills and the influx of digitally savvy employees will require tools and technologies that support idea generation and open avenues for continuous innovation. In addition, such collaboration should happen anytime and anywhere to meet the needs of a geographically dispersed workforce. Future success will lie in adopting social media and mobility-enabled collaboration that will pave the way for a more agile, responsive and productive enterprise.

Tom Franklin
is a domain consultant and an industry advisor with the upstream segment of the Energy and Resources business unit at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). He has over 30 years’ experience in the industry. He was a contributor to the Cambridge Energy Research Associates landmark study, “The Quiet Revolution” that assessed the impact of information technology on the petroleum industry.