Oil & Gas Workers Embrace Collaboration

HOUSTON — Jan. 21, 2010 — Oil and gas industry giant Shell employs more than 150,000 workers scattered around the globe. These professionals work at upstream exploration and production sites, downstream refineries, trading offices, and support facilities in more than 110 countries.

Oil and gas workers are embracing new ways to boost their productivity through collaboration with colleagues anytime, anywhere, and on any device.

For the company to succeed in today’s tough energy market, it is crucial for these workers to communicate quickly and efficiently anywhere, anytime. That is no easy proposition.

“Eighty percent of our teams are global teams, with members in multiple locations around the world,” says Johan Krebbers, Shell’s group IT architect. “We must offer world-class collaboration capabilities so that our people can work at a global level.”

That’s why Shell, along with other savvy oil and gas firms, looked beyond the traditional mix of communications systems and user interfaces in pursuit of a more unified approach to business collaboration. Shell adopted a single, transparent communications environment where an employee in Nigeria, for example, can know instantly if a co-worker in Siberia or the Netherlands is available and the best way to contact that person.

Surveying the Sector

That new approach comes just in time for an industry that has some of the biggest management problems on the planet. Wild swings in supply and demand, volatile prices and shifting worldwide energy policies have made exploration and production more complex than ever. And like companies in virtually every industry, energy firms are struggling with a global recession.

To gain a clearer understanding of how oil and gas companies can use technology to tackle those problems, Microsoft and Accenture recently surveyed 275 industry professionals about the importance of collaboration, how effectively they’re working together today, and what communications tools they find most useful. That study, unveiled at Microsoft’s 2010 Global Energy Forum in Houston today, shows that energy professionals want more effective ways to share and communicate. And they want to adopt social media and collaboration tools to help them do so.

But the study also found that internal barriers often inhibit effective collaboration.

“The survey findings were an eye-opener,” said Craig Hodges, Microsoft general manager, Manufacturing & Resources Sector. “More than three-quarters of the respondents said they spend up to four hours a day collaborating with co-workers. Half said they need improved communications to coordinate multinational activities, to meet increasingly stringent regulatory requirements, and to better manage their changing work forces. Yet company policies actually stand in the way of the adoption of social media, a source of new collaboration tools our survey shows to be in strong demand.”

Many of those polled complained about institutional resistance to new forms of collaboration, including social networking sites, alternative messaging (instant messaging, for instance), Internet discussion boards, and more. The study found that social media is adopted more often “from the bottom up” by teams and individuals, and seldom deployed “from the top down” by company management. Moreover, many oil and gas firms actually restrict the use of sharing and social networking technologies. Almost three-quarters of survey respondents say company security policies limit or prohibit the use of these emerging social media sites.

“The good news? There is clearly room for adoption of next-generation collaboration tools that can help oil and gas companies overcome many of the business and operational hurdles that are thrown their way,” added Hodges. “Help is on the way.”

Collaborative Choices

So how can oil and gas organizations achieve higher levels of collaboration?

“Microsoft believes that energy professionals need greater choice and flexibility in how they communicate,” says Hodges. “At the same time, they need strong assurance that vital company information is shared and delivered in a secure environment. In today’s world, that means fully exploiting both traditional means of collaboration and the new generation of social media.”

At Shell, managers are embracing collaborative communication to create more secure, reliable connectivity for their global work teams.

The company deployed Microsoft unified communications solutions for e-mail, instant messaging (IM) and presence. It is currently testing an integrated platform for voice, video, IM and webconferencing for users around the world. When this approach is fully implemented, Shell expects to consolidate approximately 200 PBX phone systems and multiple audio- and videoconferencing services into a single solution.

“The challenge we have with exploration is that we have people positioned globally to explore for oil and gas,” says Shell IT architect Krebbers, “so we need to provide them with an effective and flexible means of working.”

Some oil and gas firms are hesitant to open their organizations to the possibilities of social media. But by adopting an approach that includes enterprise-class security for access and data, companies can strike a balance between transparency and privacy.

In fact, today’s next-generation IT operating systems have been retooled specifically to extend core security features from the datacenter, across the desktop and out into the mobile environment. Companies can now maintain robust, fine-grained control over what content is shared, where that information can be accessed, and who can send or see specific information.

The new protections allow oil and gas firms to harness the collaborative power of social media in an open, yet secure, business environment. Thus, social media becomes business communications.

Good collaboration also must span the worlds of business and personal communication to enable energy professionals to create, communicate and collaborate at any time and from any location. Speaking at the Global Energy Forum, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer spoke of the “multiple screens and a cloud,” vision for collaborating and sharing data seamlessly across company boundaries, countries, continents, devices and people in a secure environment.

In oil and gas, this new approach to collaboration plays out in three key areas.

Office PC. Any collaborative solution must allow engineers and others to find the right data at the right time from a desktop PC. A well-integrated workflow enabling seamless search and knowledge transfer drives faster and smarter business decisions. It supports more accurate predictive models that outline economic scenarios as well as down-hole data, thereby reducing business uncertainty and enhancing recovery rates. That can translate into reduced risk, lower costs and more efficient operations.

Mobile. In the field, mobile devices that provide secure, yet convenient, connectivity for energy professionals can keep a driller in touch with engineers in the home office, enable remote inspection of hard-to-reach equipment and assets, and deliver health, safety and environmental alerts in real time. That requires seamless and reliable access to corporate networks. By extending the enterprise reach, unified communications instantly makes the energy work force accessible, connected and more productive.

Operations center. In an energy firm’s enterprise computing center, geophysicists and petroleum engineers use high-performance computing (HPC), business intelligence systems, and large-screen monitors to manage crucial exploration, drilling and production operations. To make and share visual translations of data and calculations, these specialists need a rich, full, real-time picture of operations — whether that means a 3-D subsurface model or a map-based interface of offshore assets. This becomes the nerve center for multibillion dollar operations that cover the four corners of the world.

Making It Work

Finally, energy firms should have seamless access to software experiences across multiple screens and connected by cloud-based services. Microsoft’s new Windows Azure platform incorporates a cloud services operating system, a Web-based relational database, and robust connectivity and interoperability solutions.

Those capabilities support the shift toward a hybrid combination of online services and on-premises software. This approach incorporates a set of development tools that span the client, server and Web. It offers the convenience of automated service management, the economy of pay-as-you-go pricing, and the security of service-level agreements and support. And it creates a cloud that can scale — easily and automatically, up or down — to meet the fast-changing business needs of the energy marketplace.

Today, companies across the oil and gas sector — including both energy firms and technology suppliers — are leveraging collaboration technology to address the challenges of complexity and constraint.

ConocoPhillips, for example, is using intranet-based discussion forums and advanced content management to share knowledge across its diverse global work force. The world’s largest oilfield services company, Schlumberger, has leveraged unified communication technology to integrate shared user experiences into its Petrel seismic-to-simulation application.

iStore (the Information Store) recently introduced the industry’s first digital oilfield visualization solution across a public cloud, paving the way for new dimensions of exploration computing delivered on-premises or over the Internet.

In each case, energy firms are reaping the benefits of integrated, unified communications.

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