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The Big Crew has left the building, where do we go for help now?

 

I can remember, in the early part of my career, the value of a mentor.  Bruce was great.  I can't tell you how much I learned from that guy.  From technology that I didn't see in college, to how to use the file room, to how to prepare for a presentation to management, his guiding hand set me on a road for a successful career.  I tried to "pay forward" that gift when I became the old white-haired veteran and the next generation had become the ones asking all the questions.

Turnover from one generation to the next is a normal part of any workforce planning scheme.  It shouldn't be a surprise, or a crisis.  These generational turnovers, however, are exacerbated in the oil and gas industry due to the unfortunate alignment of recruiting and oil prices.

 

The Oil & Gas generation gap

 

The commodity nature of oil & gas prices creates periods of growth when prices are high and money flows to many projects including recruiting, training and the adoption of new technology.  Everyone rides the rising price curve up, from prospective employees who pick up on these signals and want to join the industry to academics who pick up the signal and increase their student enrollment.  Then, falling prices cause the house of cards to collapse; companies cut costs, including recruiting, training and the adoption of new technology.

These price-related decisions make their mark on the demographics of the industry.  The low-price cycle over the past several years is happening at a time when the Big Crew -- those like me who entered the industry on a high price note in the 1970s and 1980s -- are reaching retirement.  Just behind them is a gap in the workforce demographics left by lower hiring in the low oil price era of the 1990s, leaving a significant hole between the 30 year+ veteran planning his retirement party and the ten-year (or less) professional getting ready to take his place.  A well-ordered transition, it is not.  On the horizon is yet another gap that has already started to emerge with lower recruiting targets being set today by most companies worrying more about operating and G&A costs than future workforce requirements.

 

Where will the new professionals of today go for answers when the experienced domain experts have left the building?

 

Continuity of knowledge becomes challenging as the Big Crew takes with it not only power in numbers but also years' worth of expertise.  Companies can bring back their old experts as consultants or they can fill in specific gaps with other contractors or oilfield service company hands.  But many times, the external consultants really don't have the expertise or context they need, and the oilfield service companies have the same Big Crew Change problem that the operators have.

The experts of my generation are more than willing to mentor young professionals, but often there is a communication style gap.  My generation learned either from the classroom model (which always favors the instructor over the student) or from the one-on-one mentor model, where you have to pin down the expert (often in a bar at a professional conference) and ask the right questions.  They also built expertise over time and through trial-and-error, which lets them synthesize data from various sources to fully analyze a situation.

 

Can technology fill this "expertise" and "experience" gap?

 

A number of Oil & Gas companies have experimented with knowledge management tools to help "capture" best practices and make them available to the next generation of workers.  Largely, these efforts have been less than successful.  The problem of documenting a best practice into a structured database has proven to be a difficult one, as well.

The same experts who would readily mentor an up-and-coming engineer or operator see their willingness turn to hostility or frustration when asked to document his or her career-spanning learnings for input into some kind of new technology.  Other interviewing or storytelling techniques are easier on the old expert, but are more difficult to parse out of the next-generation audience.

 

Can technology replace human learning?

 

For me, the problem is this: how to "document" expertise and, then, how to make it easy to access in a form that fits the needs of the next generation. If I were asked to participate in the design thinking session for a new knowledge management system, I would frame the problem in three parts:

1) Definition of the knowledge problem scope

2) Description of the best practice process

3) Capture of the results (to demonstrated superior results) and share in a format that can easily be consumed (like a virtual game or a YouTube like video)

Here is one example to illustrate:

1) The problem statement: Identifying zones where drilling might encounter a stuck pipe risk in drilling a complex well

2) What data do you need: What mud weights were used, where was the last casing set, what is the drill string size, what as the weight on bit, what kind of bit was used, what was the differential pressure between the formation and mud weight, was this pressure event predicted by seismic attribute analysis, etc.

3) What was the superior result that makes this a best practice candidate: The drilling contractor drilled through the under/over pressured zone without getting stuck and with little NPT (non-productive time).  

 

How do you embed this knowledge event "pattern" in the well design and well control technology and in the training material for new drilling engineers?

 

One critical issue is where the information is stored that makes up this "knowledge event."  It will probably be in many sources.  Defining the "meta" data from the "knowledge event" is key to creating an algorithm that would be scalable to other problems.  Drilling systems, production systems, subsurface systems will all contribute, so the knowledge event algorithm has to "crawl" these systems looking for the right events, assemble the data, identify the patterns (including the poor practices that lead to poor results, e.g. getting the bit or drill string stuck) and develop that knowledge asset.  Then, you need to find the "broadcast" mechanism to alert others the next time this situation shows up (both in the design on the next well, and in drilling the next well).

 

Is emerging technology the solution?

 

Maybe emerging technology and automation will reduce the workforce requirements for oil and gas operators and service companies in the future. But, for my money, expertise and best practices will always be valuable, even if it only supervises learning for the new AI algorithm or robot. Understanding how to capture knowledge and distribute it effectively is a critical challenge, especially as the current experienced workforce leaves. The industry has probably started a little late to face this challenge but there is no better time to start than now.

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