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OPINION: Combining digitalisation with expertise - a business opportunity?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The two big themes of Offshore Europe in Aberdeen last week were expertise and digitalisation. But hardly anyone is putting them together. Is this a big business opportunity?

On the expertise side, both Bob Dudley, CEO of BP, and Catherine Macgregor, president of Schlumberger's drilling group, talked about how important a period working in Aberdeen had been to their own professional development. They talked about how expertise developed in Aberdeen is respected all over the world.

Perhaps Aberdeen's ability to nurture oil and gas experts is more important than its oil.

We develop expertise when we have goals we want to reach and need to figure out how to get there. And Aberdeen has offered (and continues to offer) plenty of really hard challenges.

The oil and gas industry's professional goals could be loosely described as being successful at finding hydrocarbons, drilling, constructing, producing, operating and decommissioning, and managing external relationships.

Meanwhile, on the digitalisation side, Janeen Judah, president of the Society of Petroleum Engineers and general manager for Chevron's southern Africa business unit, said she can see that, as she attends conferences around the world, "The biggest topic in the oilfield right now without a doubt is big data."

The question which intrigues me - and may represent a big business opportunity - is how these ideas can be put together - so 'big data' - or digitisation and software in general - can better support expertise. Lots of people talk about using big data to make decisions - but that is not the same thing.

As an example of when it doesn't work - consider all the virtual reality tools which so many companies have on their exhibition stands these days. It is fun and something new. But if the virtual reality worlds are not constructed so that we have to figure out how to reach a goal, they are not teaching anybody anything.

But as a positive example - consider all the great rock physics software made by Ikon Science. It has helped countless geophysicists better use rock physics to find oil and gas - yes - and also driven an enormous amount of learning about how rock physics can work.

Also bear in mind that the information presented by software needs to feel very solid and trustworthy in order for someone to learn from it - not just a bunch of probabilistic analysis where no-one understands how it was generated. I like software by ABB (which has a heritage making software for control systems), and software from Think Tank Maths, which supports steerable drilling by using analysis with mathematical equations, rather than probabilities.

I asked many people at Offshore Europe how they thought digital technology could better support expertise, and why more people weren't thinking about it. Some people told me that digitalisation will drive a change to many roles, and so the required expertise will be different. In other words the expertise should follow digitisation, not the other way around.

That may be a fair point. But also, the oil and gas industry's professional goals are not going to change in the coming decades. Being successful at finding hydrocarbons, drilling, constructing, producing, operating and decommissioning, and managing external relationships. Computers can help to do this, but they can't actually do any of it. Not now, and perhaps not ever.

NB if anybody has any technology or ideas about better ways digitalisation can support expertise development please let me know - we may be able to do a conference or an interview for Digital Energy Journal on it.

Karl Jeffery (jeffery@d-e-j.com)



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