HR Discussion

Phil Williams, Executive Director, RPS Group

Tricia Stephens, TWA HR Advice Editor

In the HR interview, Phil Williams, executive director of RPS Group, gives us a quick perspective on how the industry is building on its foundation of old-school values and technical expertise. He shares his vision of how professional and industry development are responding to new pressures and changing to reflect new values.—Tricia Stephens, TWA HR Advice Editor


The theme of this issue is “old school” vs. “new school” and getting back to basics. What do old school and new school mean to you?

Old-school thinking was an oil industry generally viewed as dirty. New-school thinking is of broad-based energy companies well aware of the importance of environmental issues and doing everything they can to undertake their business in a way that mitigates environmental impact. Industry business models have also changed, with many operators focusing heavily on commercial management supported by in-house technical teams. Thus, consultancies such as RPS have become an integral part of the industry structure.

Should universities focus strictly on teaching fundamentals or also teach advanced technologies, recognizing that the students will be with them only a few years?

Twenty years ago, the major operators offered a huge amount of training, but the whole industry has become a lot leaner. Young professionals are going into environments where they will be heavily reliant on their own skills and intelligence from the start because there are fewer mentors with less time available. So a good technical grounding is absolutely vital for young professionals. They also have to be good communicators; the need for soft skills is really important. Universities do not often prepare graduates in this way as they are entering strong commercial environments.

Will corporations preferentially employ students from programs emphasizing fundamentals, but with less exposure to advanced technologies?

It is a lot more complex than that. A fair amount comes down to personality, a good grounding, and knowing that they are prepared to learn. There are a host of opportunities in the industry today for young professionals to accelerate their careers, but the industry is stretched thin, so they are expected to hit the ground running. You need individuals who are intelligent, keen, motivated, and are forward thinkers.

Is the industry effective in developing core competencies in professionals? What is RPS’s corporate strategy for continuing education and knowledge transfer from senior to younger professionals?

This is a huge challenge, given present work levels. Within RPS, we have a formal Continuous Personnel Development program involving internal and external training and awareness in technical, commercial, and communication skills. We are keen to give our personnel experiences in our offices in other parts of the world for a different type of development, the diversity of geographical experience. There are common objectives. Both the company and the individual wish to see development.

Do you see differences between professionals who entered the industry in the past 5 to 10 years vs. those from the 1970s and 1980s?

I don’t really see different attitudes, although there is a different skill set as a result of the emergence of computer technology in general. Young professionals we hire are hardworking and pretty focused, and if I see one difference, it is that they are a bit more ambitious and want things to happen more quickly. Given the way the industry is today and the amount of opportunity, that is great.

There is a perception that the petroleum industry has not undergone major revolutions in the last 50 years. Do you agree?

I disagree. The industry has changed significantly. There have been huge technical advances in areas such as directional drilling, 3D-seismic imaging, and the use of advanced graphics and visualization. These advances have helped reduce the technical risks associated with hydrocarbon exploration. Also, the petroleum industry is developing a truly globalized business model, with exploration and production established in dozens of petroleum provinces around the world.

The business model has changed significantly in other ways, too. Twenty years ago, the industry was run with a technical bias, often failing to deliver returns to shareholders comparable to other industries. Today, thought processes and analyses have tightened up, and the business is more commercially driven, with outsourcing being a key element.

Another factor is the emergence of national oil companies on the international stage. These companies are going head to head with multinationals.

One change in the industry is its expanding role in society beyond major financial contributions. Is the way we conduct business changing in response?

Absolutely. The trigger for change is coming from the operators, with huge awareness of social responsibility and the environmental aspects of their activities. These considerations are being embedded in business operations. A parallel is the approach to health and safety. Once viewed as an independent stream, it is now an integral part of line-management responsibility and core to everything companies do.


Phil Williams graduated from Bath University in 1975 and earned a PhD degree in geophysics from the University of Wales in 1978. He worked for the marine survey arm of BP and then joined Hydrosearch in 1981, becoming managing director by age 30. Over the next 20 years, Williams helped Hydrosearch develop into one of the largest energy-consulting groups in the world. He joined RPS in 2003 through its acquisition of Hydrosearch and was appointed executive director of RPS Group in 2005.