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Just How Good Are We at the Digital Oilfield?

We live in an age where phrases like ‘Integrated Operations’ and ‘Digital Oilfield’ have become part of our everyday parlance. But what do they really mean?
This article appeared in Vol. 10, No. 6 - 2013

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Real-Time Operating Centre – the heart of the digital oilfield. Source: Baker Hughes

Do these phrases mean the same thing to everyone, or have we created standards of working that only really work in our own discipline or company? How transferable are the elements that make up a digital oilfield implementation – people, process, technology – and just how good are we at managing the change when one of those has to be ‘made to fit’?

The Digital Oilfield

Source: Baker Hughes In recent years there has been acute excitement about the concept of the digital oilfield. Ideas that were previously used in single areas – for example the people, process and technology triangle used in data management – have spread across disciplines and projects, and have had a far-reaching effect. However, changes like this take time and commitment before the real benefits can be felt. It is all too easy to be deterred by the front-heavy costs of a new implementation, not only in terms of technology but in managing the change from one way of working to another, and not see the long-term benefits.

The advantages of real-time technology are easier to comprehend from the outset, with a direct correlation between expenditure and benefit. The availability of high-speed connectivity on a rig allows operators to use various expert systems in labs and offices around the world for real-time analysis of well data, which, combined with audio, video and instant messenger links, provide us with a decision support system for a geographically disparate, multi-disciplinary team – the ‘Digital Oilfield’. Well deployed, this team is able to maximise production, optimise recovery, and vastly improve reservoir management by allowing rapid decision-making and potentially avoiding expensive ‘too late’ interventions.

We all know what we want from our software solutions. We want the right data and we want it now, to improve our decision-making processes. We want better communication, improving health and safety standards and ultimately reaching the bottom line. We also know what we want from our Integrated Operations Centres – a one stop, high-technology centre where everything is provided to us in real-time and we can work collaboratively, across disciplines and across projects, communicating as close to face-to-face as humanly possible – again, ultimately reaching the bottom line.

The real challenge with the digital oilfield is that the fancy technology and smart RTOC’s (Real Time Operating Centres) are easily achievable, constantly improving and easy to get hold of. A digital oilfield implementation may be transformational, but it is also one of the most complex projects that a company can undertake. It is easy for people to think of the digital oilfield as simply adding extra IT technology or a smart looking RTOC, but the reality is that changing the way in which people work has a profound impact across all areas of the business. Drag in the potential ‘crew change’ the industry is concerned about, and without competent planning and ongoing support, you could be looking at an expensive failure.

Round-the-clock monitoring of operations. When a digital oilfield implementation comes together successfully, it is a major enabler for delivering efficiency, improved safety, remote operations and business value, and there are some excellent examples throughout the oil and gas industry. However, these projects can fail due to a lack of project preparation and a failure to understand the magnitude of the task to transform a company focused on more traditional operations. It is easy to launch into significant technology deployment projects without recognising the risks or potential value in advance, and this can cause a number of challenges to the team; indeed, in the worst case scenario, operational performance may actually decrease. The digital oilfield technology may prove to be unreliable and hinder drilling and production operations with a corresponding increase in NPT (non-productive time).

At its basic level, a digital oilfield implementation is just another project that requires a clear definition of scope, schedule and budget and adherence to them, but few people have the experience of managing a project that will influence the entire culture of a large organisation.

There are a number of excellent service providers who are creating products and services designed to guide an organisation through the design, development and implementation of the digital oilfield. Many of them provide Change Management as part of their service, and this is a great start. However, nothing can take the place of good, tailored and inspirational training within the organisation itself, given by professionals who have a thorough understanding of what constitutes success and indeed failure in a long-term transformational project of this type.

Why Conduct Digital Oilfield Training?

The digital oilfield is innovative because it changes the working culture in an organisation and enables people to perform more efficiently and safely – many published case studies attest to this. However, the innovation has come largely through the process and technology streams and there has been very little change in the way that people are developed. Training courses, if they happen at all, are rather dry and are delivered in a ‘lecture style’, with long teaching sessions and infinite numbers of slides. This does not prepare staff at all for what to expect in a digital oilfield adoption project.

No company would think of executing a drilling campaign or designing a process scheme without engaging professional and accredited staff, so why would they embark on a digital oilfield programme that could potentially change key work processes and even the organisational structure, without the same level of experience? Oil and gas personnel need to be professionally trained and given detailed knowledge of what a digital oilfield project looks like.

The situation is complicated further by the complexity of a digital oilfield project, which draws upon a broad range of skills that must all come together, including experience in well planning, drilling and production operations, as well as IT architecture design, not to mention understanding the processes involved in a ‘cradle to grave’ operation, and perhaps most importantly, understand people engagement and change management.

Few people can claim to be experts in all of these disciplines, but the digital oilfield project manager or coach must have a working knowledge of all of them and understand the essential role that each has to play in a successful implementation. The individual also needs credibility within the organisation, which may either be attained through seniority or the direct support of senior management. ‘Bottom up’ adoption projects tend to be very slow and can easily run out of momentum, whereas a ‘top down’ approach usually guarantees a more successful outcome.

The digital oilfield promotes collaboration. Source: Baker Hughes

Innovation in Training

There are a lot of ‘learnings’ that we can take from recent developments in education in schools, colleges and universities. Much of these have not been taken on board in professional training and development courses but they are very relevant to digital oilfield training.

There is little doubt that people learn more effectively if there is an element of enjoyment about the learning process. They have to want to learn or the experience will be very negative; this is particularly true in adult learning. Most of us tend to believe when we are 30+ that we have mastered the essential skills for regular life and we are only willing to learn new skills if there is a particular reason. If the objective is unclear or you do not share the goal then you are unlikely to throw yourself headlong into the learning process. Being told to attend a training course by your boss is probably one of the most negative ways to learn.

Training should be focused and relevant. It is very important to understand the expected audience and their learning requirements and abilities. There is little point in delivering a very technical course to senior managers or business representatives, as they will want to understand the business impacts of the digital oilfield rather than the technicalities. Similarly a business-oriented course has limited value to technical specialists. This may seem obvious, but all too often training courses have a subject title of ‘Digital Oilfield’. It is true that some general background information is helpful for everyone but the primary objective of training is to raise competence in the area where the individual is going to contribute.

Modern education is directed at analysis and decision-making rather than absorption of facts. Students are expected to use the information available to make a reasoned judgement, which is far more appropriate to running a digital oilfield project or working in a collaborative environment. This can create a problem if they have only limited knowledge through a lack of experience, so instead, they must interact effectively with knowledgeable staff. To translate this into digital oilfield training, there should be more direction on how to manage a digital oilfield project rather than on giving a recipe for how it has been done successfully elsewhere. The digital oilfield is definitely a case of where one size does not fit all.

All About Change

Ultimately, the digital oilfield is about change – in the way we work, in the way we deliver on projects and, perhaps most tellingly, in ourselves. It is a daunting task – an elephant which we cannot imagine eating even one spoonful at a time. But with the right preparation and understanding of where the project is going, there is no reason why a digital oilfield implementation should not deliver on every level. 

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