News Article 23/06/2008

Why should collaboration be held back by people? (Digital Energy Journal, June/July 2008, Issue13, p.18-20)

The oil and gas industry frequently complains that its efforts to introduce collaborative working tools a being held back by people. Is something going wrong here? By Dimitris Lyras*

This year's Intelligent Energy conference (February 25-27, Amsterdam) started out with impressive technology implementations by oil companies.
The main panel of speakers from Statoil, Saudi Aramco, BT, Shell and Schlumberger each illustrated huge progress in intelligent field technology since the last conference in Amsterdam in 2006.
British Telecom CEO Ben Verwaayen emphasized his full collaboration with major oil companies to bring their operations into a small number of integrated virtual spaces each spanning huge distances.
Bringing expertise from around the globe to each problem no matter where it is became the prominent theme on the first day.
This was despite stiff competition for delegates' attention from new technologies such as using nano technology for well monitoring presented among other multi billion developments by Saudi Aramco.
But no matter how elaborate and ambitious the hardware and software developments, all the speakers emphasized the question on the human factor, the changes in processes, the need for even more competence cultures, the struggle to manage change, the human element.
Mr Verwaayen of BT more than anyone emphasized the need to engage people in the management of change.
Having experienced disruptive change in the telecoms industry he warned that such disruptive elements will sooner or later hit the oil industry.
In an example he described an internal seminar at BT promoting innovation.
In this seminar he told of a question he put to his audience; to think of the most prevalent obstacle to innovation. One obviously confident young attendee stood up and said told him that it was he who was the greatest obstacle to innovation.
"All innovative ideas must be approved by you," he said. "How can you expect to understand a person my age?"
So we could safely add generation gap or perhaps differing embedded mentalities to the obstacles to change.

What is changing, actually?
I would like to ask the question, how much is really changing?
In the history of time are we really experiencing disruptive change today?
Are we really being asked to change our skills, our values, our way of life so much these days simply by adopting modem technology?
Does prospect of meeting people in virtual space, the opportunity to slice a problem into increments of specialisation and distribute them to experts, the need to get used to new hardware and software really change our working lives so much?
How can any of this compare to the disruption caused by the last two world wars or the disruption experienced by our distant ancestors as they struggled to understand the physical world around them?
Disruptive change is certainly nothing new. In fact change is probably less disruptive than it ever was historically.
So why is there such prominent pain associated with people adapting to change?
Adaptation to change is really nothing new except that in the past organizations and people who were not a part of the change, often died. Today only the enterprise dies and fortunately the people in the enterprise rarely take change so badly.
Mr. Lund of Statoil emphasized the need for more leadership in opening up com¬munication barriers and the need for even greater competence in/oil company staff. No doubt Statoil has recent achievements that justify his suggestion.
And of course competence is the answer. It is the easiest and the most difficult solution all at the same time.
Better people solve the people problem and certainly the oil industry has recently en¬joyed enough profits to attract the best people.

But what happens later? Disruptive change can certainly change profitability.
Why is there a people problem?
Have we ever really tried to solve the people problem? Why do people not understand the reason for change? Can we not break this down to its constituents?
Is it not plausible that resistance to change comes from insufficient explanation?
From internal politics; or more precisely poor goal structures in the enterprise? From solutions that need more tailoring to the circumstances?
If modem software is the primary cause for change, then could it not be the tool by which change is made easier?

When a questioner asked the CEO panel at the Intelligent Energy conference to state what they perceived as the greatest agent of change, each panelist had a list of two or three items.
Not so with Mr. Gould of Schlumberger; his response was a laconic "China!"
Few will argue that the human element in the oil industry has any misgivings about China. Rather the opposite. China is the gift that keeps on giving to the oil industry and no doubt the one single greatest contributor to change.

So back to software and hardware as the cul¬prits for change of the disruptive kind.
Thirty years ago there was a lot of work done in Artificial Intelligence (AI) to get computers to read a newspaper.
Those who were involved found tremendous obstacles in getting computers to do what we humans find elementary and somewhat relaxing on our morning commute.
Why so? Why has such a prosaic activity perplexed computers irrevocably, when a set of servers and protocols, in short the world wide web, has driven half of us to change our lives?
Most of those AI gurus would tell us quite simply that computers are not the part we fail to understand.
On the contrary, it is our own behavior patterns that we have trouble understanding and abstracting into rules.
Why is this? Why after at least 5000 years of contemplation of our own behavior by famous philosophers can we not apply rules to how we understand things, how communicate, how we solve problems, how we explain things, how we remember things.
The short answer from your AI guru that corporations did not want to invest in this work. They had people and people not want to be replaced by machines.
Our ancestors such as Socrates and many others did actually shed a lot of light on how we think and learn but the difference is that they had far less need for a scalable way to get peoples minds to all work together. Remember in those days most of the corporate staff were pulling oars or swinging ice picks.

It is precisely the need for collaboration across the globe in problems solving processes, in development of ideas and in innovation that makes the discipline of understanding how we think and learn so much more essential.
Above all it is the idea of coordinating a huge organization of dispersed brains that makes the breakdown of how problems solved in the enterprise the item of our age.
The human factor is not the obstacle is the key undiscovered resource, that is until 30 years ago. Now it is simply the one resource getting the least return on investment.
Perhaps the changes that technology has brought in recent years will not longer be unpredictable even for those entrenched in the previous technological paradigm when, the understanding of how people really think and work is more widespread.
On a more practical level it is the only way to scale expertise in the enterprise.

Dimitris Lyras is a consultant writer to Digital Energy Journal. He is director of Lyras Shipping, a tanker and dry bulk shipping company; a member of the executive committee of Intertanko, the independent tanker owners' association; founder of Ulysses Learning, which produces software to train staff who work in call centers; and founder of Ulysses Systems, which produces software to help staff in the shipping and offshore industry manage vessel operations related processes.