Forum

Social Networking and Online Collaboration in the Oil and Gas Industry

Anton Andreev, Per Olav Eide Svendsen, Josh Etkind, Carlos Chalbaud

“HE, WHO OWNS THE INFORMATION, OWNS THE WORLD.” This famous phrase by Winston Churchill might sound like a cliché, but it is particularly relevant today.

“The most important, and indeed the truly unique, contribution of management in the 20th century was the 50-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing. The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and the knowledge worker,” said author Peter Drucker back in 1959. This was when the term “knowledge worker” was defined.  Also, the third wave of human socioeconomic development is described in the book The Fifth Generation Management (Savage, 1996) as the Age of Knowledge.

Web 2.0 and social networking platforms have revolutionized the way we collaborate and communicate with others. One prominent example of a social network service is, of course, Facebook, which boasts some 350 million users. To put that community size in perspective, if Facebook were a country, it would be the world’s third largest, superseded only by China and India. In addition, online forums allow hundreds and thousands of people to unify their efforts to discuss and solve problems. Video snippets are recorded and uploaded to YouTube. Groups are formed on Facebook unifying people with similar interests across the world. Wikipedia is growing by the minute and contains more than 15 million articles in 270 languages, with all of the content written collaboratively by unpaid Internet volunteers.

It is critical not to think that the tools are the answer. And this is the key for all knowledge management. The people are in the center and the tools surround them as aids. If we come to rely only on online tools and forget the people and their connections and interactions, then the knowledge and information will die. Susan Rosenbaum, Knowledge Management Director, Schlumberger

In this article, we explore whether the E&P industry has taken full advantage of the Web 2.0 revolution or if there is still a significant opportunity to exploit social networking potential. 

In October 2009, Microsoft and Accenture funded an “Oil & Gas Collaboration Survey.”  This online survey of 275 oil and gas industry professionals, including engineers, geoscientists, mid-level and executive managers, business unit heads, and project managers from a cross-segment of the industry, aimed to define the key trends in the online collaboration and social media space. For this survey, “collaboration” was defined as interaction with colleagues both inside and outside an organization either in person, by phone, using computers, or other electronic means to get their daily work accomplished, whereas “social media” was linked to the tools that contribute to compelling and effective social interactions, which is often associated with blogs, wikis, social networks, instant messaging, and micro-blogging (Twitter).

The survey showed that professionals are seeking new ways to collaborate through social media and collaboration technology, and 73% of respondents see business value in it. Improved productivity and work performance, work flexibility, and completing projects on time and within budget are at the top of the stated benefits of social media tools. Most are using social media to build and strengthen professional relationships (29%) and document and transfer knowledge (25%).

Despite the fact that most surveyed are onboard with social media for business use, corporatewide adoption still lags: only 18% of respondents agreed that the corporate culture of their companies is well aligned with the tools already implemented. Security is the most often cited factor in delaying company adoption. Almost 40% of those surveyed expressed concern about social media’s ability to control or secure collaborative environments. In the survey, 74% mentioned that their companies have security policies in place for using social media. Very often existing company policies are impeding mainstream adoption. Half of those surveyed noted that their companies prohibit employees from using external sites such as YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace. E&P professionals cite examples such as complex projects requiring varied inputs, the need to access and share knowledge, and the need to share points of view as the key workplace factors driving the need to collaborate.

A perfect internal knowledge-management system is one that provides tons of content on an intuitive map of context, so that one can easily find different views on an issue and multiple solutions to a problem. It should have the depth of a university and the transparency of a modern supermarket. Hans Horikx, Chief Reservoir Engineer, Maersk Oil

A recent SPE survey shows that young professionals (YPs) frequently use social media and social networking services, but only rarely in relation to their work. In short, tools built on social technologies are considered something we do in our spare time—not part of our job tasks (Fig. 1). This might be a symptom of the fact that the industry has yet to implement such technology to its full extent, and about half of the responding YPs state that the industry should in fact make better use of such tools. But is it straightforward to implement social technologies in an established industry like ours? Well, the results from other types of industries suggest that it is not only possible, but also beneficial.

Fig. 1a—Do you ever use online social media such as LinkedIn or Facebook?
Fig. 1b—Do you agree or disagree with the following with regards to social networking sites,
such as Facebook or LinkedIn, that are public (external to your company): I often post or respond to
public social networking technical discussions in my job?

Although several E&P companies do use some social technologies, the real challenge is to implement such tools where collaboration really occurs. For effective knowledge sharing and dissemination, the challenge is to take all those formal and informal conversations—by the coffee machine, as well as telephone and email discussions—and move them onto a common platform for communication and collaboration that will make that content searchable and enable sharing that knowledge with the rest of the disciplinary network in that particular company. This raises a lot of challenges. First, one must separate the different types of tools available. Although they all build on social technology, there are many different types of social media and social network services. Perhaps if a tool were developed that adequately accomplished the full spectrum of social media and networking needs in a professional environment, E&P industry uptake would be accelerated. Second, a tool must be gradually implemented and adapted, from the bottom up. The Microsoft/Accenture survey found that successful social media initiatives are adopted more often “from the bottom up” by teams and individuals, and seldom deployed “from the top down” by company management through task forces or projects.

Where would social technologies be of use in the E&P industry? It is now becoming even more obvious that leading E&P organizations can survive only if they retain the relevant knowledge their employees have obtained and use it efficiently to improve corporate performance for the future. In the past 10–15 years, knowledge management has played a role in making oil and gas operations more efficient, reliable, and cost effective in a challenging environment. The result of ineffective knowledge retention is something that is often called “corporate amnesia.” The cardinal symptoms of this are reinventing the wheel, unnecessary repeats of mistakes, losing the ability to carry out operations reliably that were previously considered routine, as well as overreliance on former employees to provide expertise that is needed, but no longer present in the company.

Currently, the intracompany tools show more progress than intercompany communication via online tools—except email, which is well entrenched. This is mainly due to the absence of federation standards that can guarantee security for the enterprise/companies without a need for costly manual security solutions. Vasu Guruswamy, Global IT Operations Manager, Schlumberger

So what is the cause of the slow uptake and implementation of online tools at a corporate scale in our industry? Common arguments against using social media for internal knowledge sharing is that social media, where the content is generated by the users, is built by the most enthusiastic members, not necessarily by the most experienced and knowledgeable. As such, there is a shared concern regarding the quality control of the content. This point strikes straight to the core of the most common concerns with social media and open-source development concepts. With so much on the line in large, integrated E&P projects and operations, quality control, and official vetting of best practices and technical information can be critical. One possible solution comes from the world of traditional media, such as online versions of published content including magazines or newspapers. The article itself is reviewed by the editor(s), and delivered to the reader as unchangeable content. Readers can make comments in an open forum regarding their views of that content. E&P companies have thousands of pages of best practices and regulations for every part of their business. These documents are read by hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of both experts and novices. Could the use of social networking discussion forums around this content increase the value of the content or even improve the content itself? Could user tags and comments add valuable context and real-world examples to the corporate document store? Could the loop be closed by instituting regular reviews of those corporate best practices, regulations, and standards that take those comments into consideration?

Online Cooperation in the Oil and Gas Industry

When one considers the macro trends that have transpired in our industry over the past 3 decades, it is no surprise that effective knowledge transfer has been a challenge. SPE statistics show that between 1980 and 1998, the upstream industry shrunk from 700,000 to 300,000 people. Companies have addressed the knowledge-management challenge from a variety of different angles, but very few companies have found effective ways to enable knowledge sharing, networking, access to information, and a transcendence of cultural and geographic boundaries. Will industry efforts manage to mitigate “corporate amnesia” and more effectively connect their employees to the knowledge they need to optimally and safely perform their jobs?

SPE can play a role by helping members connect online to exchange knowledge. SPE has nearly 30 Technical Interest Groups (TIGs) and Professional Networks that provide platforms for members to seek answers to technical and professional development questions. A multilanguage Wiki-Glossary of oilfield terms enables members to find translations of oilfield terms and contribute definitions. SPE offers e-collaboration communities for committees and Technical Sections to ease document versioning and control, scheduling, discussions, and blogging. The recent introduction of My SPE Network offers members a social network similar to Facebook and LinkedIn in a members-only, professional environment. Members can create profiles, form groups and invite others, post documents, and blog. SPE’s eMentoring program connects students and YPs with mentors. Videos of selected sessions form conferences and several Distinguished Lectures can be viewed online.

Additional improvements are scheduled to be rolled out this year. An enhanced search capability on SPE.org will allow a search from any page of all SPE content, including communities, TIGs, and My SPE Network. An upgrade to My SPE Network will allow new capabilities, including the ability to post status updates and organize all your favorite SPE online resources. TIG users will be able to manage all online community memberships and update alert frequency from one location, and to reply to postings directly from the alert email without logging in. An Online Communities Task Force is looking 10 years into the future at SPE’s online collaboration and communities needs, recognizing that social media and social networking will be essential in carrying out SPE’s mission of technical knowledge exchange and lifelong learning for members.

Acknowledgments: The TWA Forum team would like to thank Griet Johannsen, Knowledge Sharing Manager, Shell, for her valuable input to the article.

Examples of Some Company Social Networking Programs

Schlumberger

The Schlumberger Knowledge system called InTouch (a knowledge hub) is entirely online and can be used in an offline mode by engineers based in remote field sites. InTouch is used by an average of 14,000 engineers every day, and at least 40,000 transactions per day occur where knowledge is shared among different parts of the organization.

A technical communities program called Eureka is another online tool that enables the entire technical community to communicate, collaborate, and find each other as needed. It is driven by a series of underlying technologies (e.g., the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, Active Directory, bulletin boards, blogs, networking profile, and competency-management tools).

Shell

Shell Wiki, the global encyclopedia of Shell based on the design and technology of the Wikipedia, plays a central role in the knowledge sharing and informal learning approach of Shell. In April 2010, the Shell Wiki had around 70,000 users, with more than 37,000 articles online. Shell Wiki is mainly used for encyclopedic business and learning content, but also to outline good practices that need to be highly accessible and easy to find. Content is organized by subject matter, and can be collaboratively written by teams and global communities. All edits and changes, as well as the names of the authors, are recorded.

The online discussion forums are called SIGN (Shell International Global Networks). They are global Web-based communities of practice with more than 38,000 members, connecting technical and nontechnical groups across the company. Purpose and areas of usage include asking advice, getting second opinions, learning from peers, tracking down expert and community support for urgent problems, collaboration, peer reviews, innovation, and the creation of new knowledge.