As work force ages, big oil use tech to retain knowledge



by Isabel Ordonez

Major oil companies are looking for the solution to the work force crunch in their employees’ electronic trail.

ConocoPhillips, Chevron Corp. and BP PLC are encouraging employees to use handheld computers, interactive Web pages, blogs, social networks and other media to store information on how they make crucial decisions or resolve problems at the office and in the field.

This new generation of options allows companies to partially solve one of their biggest challenges: the retirement of half of their workforce over the next 10 years. The shift allows employees to more efficiently communicate on a large scale, as well as archive knowledge and reduce training costs, the companies said.

San Ramon, Calif.-based Chevron is already seeing the benefits of a 2005 move in which it swapped the pencils, clipboards and spreadsheets that refinery field operators used to record the performance of mechanical equipment for mobile devices in which workers digitally capture data.

BP rolled out a similar system last year and said it expects the new technology will result in $150 million in annual savings for its refining and chemicals businesses, including training costs.

The Houston-based ConocoPhillips has developed about 100 online knowledge sharing networks, which are used by about 9,500, or 28% of its worldwide employees to post questions and find answers from colleagues.

“What we have done is to work on a system behind the scenes to capture their experiences,” said Dan Ranta, director of knowledge sharing for ConocoPhillips. “We are literally taking the knowledge from their heads and putting it out there for people to go back and rediscover.” 


Slow-Changing Culture 

The U.S. energy industry’s fortunes are increasingly tied to companies’ abilities to bridge the gap between new employees and graying generations retiring at a fast pace.

These companies laid off millions when oil prices plunged in the 1980s, scaring a whole generation away from the oil patch only to find themselves with a reduced, aging workforce in the midst on a new oil boom.

Neither the recent drop in oil prices, which have fallen from all-time highs above $147 to about $50 a barrel recently, nor the economic downturn’s havoc on retirement plans, are significantly affecting the decision by veterans to leave the industry, according to a recent survey by consultancy Accenture.

Thus, oil companies, and large producers – which despite the current crisis will need a slew of new workers in the long-term -are resorting to initiatives ranging from energy-focused high schools to lure young talent to using new technology to hold off the demographic time bomb.

But the effort requires cultural change that is hard to achieve quickly in a conservative industry, said Claire Markwardt, a Houston-based partner with Accenture.

Accenture’s survey shows that face-to-face, phone and e-mail are still the most common forms of collaboration in the energy industry and traditional tools like physical documents are the most prevalent means of knowledge capture.

“Most oil corporate cultures are generally accepting but not yet giving priority to adopting new social media tools,” said Markwardt. 


Knowledge Flowing from Houston to Offshore UK 

Paul Muir, a young chemical engineer working for ConocoPhillips in Aberdeen, U.K., could be a poster child for solving pressing problems with social networking tools.

He needed to gather detailed information on combustion equipment used at a company platform in the North Sea in order to obtain a permit to operate. Equipment vendors were slow to respond so Muir decided to post the question in one of ConocoPhillips’ online business networks. Within a few days he received many replies – including one from Ron LeTard, a Houston-based engineer with 37 years of experience. LeTard’s advice ensured the permit was submitted successfully and on time, Muir said.

This happened in 2007, but technical professionals faced with similar problems around the world can seek information and expertise from their peers the same day or start an online discussion on the topic through a network and make quicker, more informed decisions, ConocoPhillips’s Knowledge Sharing Director Ranta said.

“One way to amplify the impact of workers is to break down the information silos that impede collaboration,” said Craig Hodges, the U.S. energy and chemicals industry solutions director at Microsoft Corp.’s, which provides knowledge sharing software to oil and gas companies.

“In essence, creating an oil and gas world without walls,” he said.  

Copyright (c) 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.