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We need more generalists

Thursday, July 18, 2013

We all know the oil and gas industry needs specialists - but perhaps it also needs to value ''generalists'' more - people with the skills of quickly understanding a wide range of different subjects, writes Glen Burridge

A couple of years into my career, I was taken aback when one of my former university professors told me he admired the generalist approach I’d taken to my career.

A lot later, hearing exactly the same thing from the course director of my Masters programme consequently came as less of a shock.

These experienced industry insiders meant their comments as positive, but the term is frequently used in a less complimentary light.

Despite what anyone, including your friendly university professors, tells you, this is not an industry that (apart from some glaring exceptions) encourages a wide-ranging career path.

Which is a shame, since this is a competency it will be requiring of its managers.

In an upstream oil and gas asset it is often the support staff and external consultants who range the widest and see most easily what works and what doesn’t in the team’s operations.

Speaking as a consultant, if I was only allowed, I could probably give a précis of the team’s effectiveness in a couple of days, it’s usually so obvious.

So why has the “generalist” becomes such a dirty concept?

Deep divers

As subject areas become more and more laden with specialist knowledge, technique and technology, the engines of asset teams are seen to be the experience-laden deep-divers, who can be relied upon to execute the risky and complex tasks that are central to E&P activities.

You don’t learn to become an autonomous geophysicist running a 3D seismic exploration programme or a reservoir engineer carrying out critical history matches overnight. You’ll often hear “5 years is no experience at all” in response to a CV.

This is an industry that requires probably 10 years for most people to be taken seriously, and nearly 20 to consult on technical matters.

You have to have seen enough to create your own encyclopaedia of examples and case studies. Only then can you create your insight and make your own connections with new things presented before you.

Definitions of knowledge

Ultimately we require a concept that talks about the ability to collate and apply knowledge across an organisation.

In English, we have but one word – ‘knowledge’ to which we append whatever action we wish to do with it, e.g. knowledge capture, knowledge management, knowledge governance.

In most Latin languages, there are two, e.g. the different French concepts of connaissance and savoir.

The ancient Greeks had seven concepts of knowledge.

The simplest of the Greek’s list was gnosis, meaning “simple facts” (which our word ‘knowledge’ is derived from). At the top of the Greek list were the concepts of epignosis (all-encompassing collation of gnosis) and sophia (true global utilisation and internalisation of epignosis).

Here is my plea to the industry: Should we not see the integrators fulfilling, call it pollinating, this corporate epignosis as a critical competence within any organisation?

Should we be nurturing these people as a function in themselves, since they are not only people who can reach right across your teams and co-ordinate, inform and liaise, but these can form the basis of future managers fully wired into your organisation?

Establishing knowledge

Knowledge has a tortuous route in becoming established and validated in the upstream oil and gas industry.

The landscape it forms is as complicated as any created by nature, with mountains, valleys and deserts, conduits and depocentres, not to mention varying density and heterogeneity.

Its creation and subsequent dispersal is dependent on many behavioural and organisational factors, not all of which are positive.

From an organisational point of view, it experiences many barriers in establishing itself in the DNA of the body it is derived from.

It can frequently be lost on a grand scale and rapid timescale. This is shocking considering the efforts and expenditures expended in acquiring the raw data on which it is derived.

Knowledge governance

The knowledge governance and connectedness of many E&P operations leaves much to be desired.

Whether it is the complex suite of software required to examine the prospectivity of a new permit, the workflow needed to describe it and map it, or the team structure required to work it, the principles are the same.

The systems need to continually match the asset you’re working on.

They need to be as simple as they can be while still fulfilling the above.

They need to describe everything that’s going on in a way understandable to all stakeholders.

They need to perform optimally.

If you were to benchmark the projects you’ve worked on in your career, how would each of them score and how many would stand up to an acceptability test on these criteria?

Every time a reservoir engineer discards a geophysicist’s faults, or a manager does not read the full technical report, or a frustrated geologist does not fully explain their conceptual model, these are non-integrated behaviours that diminish much of the benefit drawn from establishing higher-level decision-making protocols and spending millions on “kit”.

Time to optimise knowledge

As the industry sails full frontal into the perfect storm of the Big Crew Change, more technically difficult targets, faster information streams, data overload and increasing decision scrutiny, this is, I would argue, the time to finally take seriously, question and reconsider how we structure ourselves organisationally to optimise the knowledge landscape we are creating and basing high-impact decisions upon.

To do this, we perhaps ought to be encouraging a corps of integrators, who will not need the deep-and-thin qualities of your technical gurus, but will be specialists in “thinking sideways”, pulling in insight, ideas, developments, mistakes and lessons from wherever they arise in a company.

Some of these people will be knowledge managers; some will be technical inquisitors, innovators, technology advisors and workflow experts. This team will be the bloodstream that flows to attack whatever the organisation needs to operate optimally.

And this will not be their only value; you may also be creating a cadre of some of your most prepared managers for the future.

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