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Too Many Choices


Have you ever gone into a Baskin-Robbins shop wanting an ice cream on a hot day? 31 flavors of ice cream lay before you. Confronted by all this choice, you are overwhelmed and end up ordering vanilla. Or, have you ever had a free evening when all you wanted was to be a couch potato, watch TV and forget about things that are bugging you at work (low oil prices, projects over budget and schedule, budget, etc.)? You collapse into your favorite chair and turn on the TV, the remote giving you command of the on-demand cable. You scan hundreds of choices, but you quickly conclude that, even with so many choices, you cannot find the one that would really appeal to you. So, you settle for a re-run of an old favorite, 'The Big Bang Theory.'

This metaphor can also apply to what is going on in the oil industry. Several years of oil prices over $100 prompted innovation that has increased the number of options to solve our industry's most common problems.  These choices are exciting because they promise to yield better results from all sides of our operations.

In an environment with lots of choices, siloed groups of internal stakeholders select the best solution for their own day-to-day problems.  Some examples we are seeing include:

  • Reservoir teams select innovative ways to produce more resources from the ground;
  • Facilities teams choose a new approach for the remote and challenging operating environment;
  • Operations teams have access to the best available technology to produce high volumes with maximum safety built-in;
  • Drillers have new technology with more real-time data which helps them to drill more complex wells and to enable the drilling factory for unconventional plays; and
  • The design and construction folks can build new facilities in a computer model and turn the model into a billion-dollar marvel

"What's wrong with that?" you say.  "Isn't that the goal of each one of these critical functions?"  Yes, but companies must make all these solutions work together.  Can the production department easily take new drilling information and turn it into a smarter way to operate?  Can the operations and maintenance team take the new facilities information and run a safer and more efficient asset after start-up?

Our problem of "too many choices" has led to complexity.  We have digitized the oil patch, but we have done it in too many different ways.  Implementing new solutions can have budgetary, operational, change management and data challenges if not tightly coordinated and managed, even in the best of times.  We have seen recently that, as the industry looked for new solutions, we threw standards out the window in search of new digital technologies and innovative ways of doing things.  Integration, data and security considerations have been left as an afterthought, which can be costly to rectify.

One complexity of implementing a variety of solution types faces data managers, in particular. They have an extra challenge of deciding where to store critical data.  Here are a few key questions that data managers must ask themselves:

  • How should I structure my data (if at all)? (MDM, structure on load vs structure on query)
  • Where do I put my analytics software? (personal productivity, Analytics platform, standard or custom)
  • Who gets to use the new tools? (governance, data scientists, self-serve BI, analytics COE)
  • What kind of architecture is best? (hybrid, cloud, data appliances)

To add to all the choices, here are a few of the technology options that data managers have:

  • Personal files (Excel, O Drives)
  • BMS (Oracle, IBM)
  • Data Marts (SQLServer by Microsoft)
  • Data Warehouses (Oracle)
  • EDMS (Sharepoint, Documentum, OpenText)
  • Unified Storage (NetApps, EMC)
  • Data appliances (MPP - Teradata, Greenplum, Exadata)
  • In-memory (HANA by SAP)
  • Hadoop (Cloudera, Hortonworks, MapR)
  • NOSQL (Marklogic, MongoDB, Casandra)

One software vendor shockingly declared at a recent conference, 'there are too many apps!'  It is hard to make sense of data that is constantly being changed by apps.  It is a big challenge to manage the workflow continuum.  'We throw people and tools at users. The industry goes up and down, resources come and go. That's the real data challenge!'

Adding new technologies, or just connecting the new platform with existing enterprise solutions, is becoming so expensive that it has become a real barrier to adoption.  When you add up the costs of the solutions, including the facility customization and the time to construct new facilities, often taking significantly longer than planned, the bill for transformation can often be far more than the original estimate, even in the best of times.  In the oil industry, when prices quickly fall to $45+, as they have recently, the problem is exacerbated.  Decisions to design and build facilities around new, innovative options can lead the industry to have a portfolio of an estimated $1.5 Trillion (yes, with a "T") in planned capital spend that is uneconomic until oil and gas prices rise.

The answer often is not what you want or what you can afford.  We have had a lot of choices, and we have picked the ones we wanted; and now, we have realized that we can no longer afford the tab.  So, it's no wonder that we are hearing similar calls for modular and standard designs, greater coordination between design and construction partners and better project management at the conferences that focus on new projects.

I have been a technology guy for most of my career so it comes as a hard realization that too many choices are often the problem when it comes to operating efficiently. The current low oil prices are pointing out the hidden costs of all these choices. Many IT budgets are so committed to current solutions there is little, if any, room for anything new, especially after recent budget and staff cuts.

Consultants can help with a balanced, but proven, approach for optimal technology selection for your company and guide you through "soft issues" like data governance, master data and standard information object definitions, data catalogs, information architecture for hybrid environments and role for data stewards.  These issues are often overlooked, but experience shows us that without a strong framework and discipline, your technology choices may not be sustainable, or lead to real business value.

Could we actually get along with less, with standard ways of doing things, with standard data and common tool sets?  It sounds radical to suggest that all our choices are a part of the current high-cost environments. It sounds even more radical to suggest that a return to standards might be a solution to making a profit again.  It sounds radical, but if you have a better solution I would love to hear it.  To survive and prosper in a world of $45 oil and $3 gas, maybe fewer, more common solutions, maybe more standard designs, maybe more disciplined technology selection are all part of the solution.

This may not sound fun at all but wouldn't you really like to find your favorite TV show without having to search so hard and remember how to operate all those remotes in front of you (wait, there is a new app for that)?

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