Pandemic opening doors to digital implementation, says executive roundtable

If there is any positive effect of the business disruption resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that it forced many long-standing digital plans forward at a faster pace, business leaders told a recent roundtable on digitalization that is part of the Daily Oil Bulletin’s 2020 Digital Oilfield Outlook Report.

Digital oilfield technologies have risen in priority, digital budgets have been spared the deep cuts or freezes seen elsewhere, and workers at all levels have gained a newfound appreciation for the benefits digital technology can provide, the executives said.

Asked how their companies reacted to the massive changes in the industry in recent months, executives spoke of an immediate pause in several areas as companies “hit the brakes on a lot of projects” and all spending was put up for review. But having already proven their ability to increase efficiency and reduce costs, digitalization initiatives have largely continued apace.

“The digital transformation has continued, if not accelerated, through the pandemic,” said one executive who leads a digital implementation team, noting his was the only team at his company still hiring.

A recurring theme of the roundtable was the new appreciation for digital connectivity brought to the forefront by the pandemic. As workers were forced out of downtown and field offices by lockdowns instituted in March, they became immediately reliant on digital technologies that would allow them to continue to work remotely.

In many cases, executives were learning about technologies they didn’t know they had. In other cases, employees were keen to learn how to use the very systems their IT teams had struggled in the past to educate them to use.

“Back in February, we had managers who did not know how to set up a Skype meeting. That's certainly not the case anymore,” said one participant. “That has changed dramatically.”

Many executive said see the pandemic crisis as an unprecedented opportunity to implement a systems change organization-wide that they have previously struggled to bring about. “It’s exciting because we’ve gone through several years worth of change in a couple of months. People’s attitudes have changed rapidly; things that were out of the question before, all of a sudden it became like, ‘Why are we not doing this already?’”

But priorities have shifted in other ways. For example, the appetite for experimentation and risk-taking has diminished for most. “I think the acceleration piece of it is, on digital, you have to be ready to fail. And our appetite to fail has gone super low. So we will only bet money on things we have already done or things which are a sure bet.”

However, some saw it as an opportunity to actually increase experimentation, at least within some level of budgetary restraint. “We started looking for ways to experiment a little bit more, within budget and capacity, of course. We looked at it as an opportunity to do things that we haven’t done before. We saw everything accelerate. Our five-year plan became a six-month to a 12-month plan. We ended up doing validation and verification of systems, and we actually brought in external auditors to go through our systems and figure out how we could lean the processes and improve the software.”

The pandemic recession has also had an impact on technology needs as companies back away from large capital projects, and the large digital implementations that go along with them, to concentrate on smaller, less complex developments, with a more fluid and flexible approach to digital implementation.

Customers that before had struggled to embrace an agile methodology and the concept of the one-week sprints to focus on continuous improvement and reprioritization are now enthusiastic about such concepts, one executive said. “They can see that they can build support within the organization for getting some results immediately and then go from there.”

The response to the pandemic also exposed some of the limits of digital transition, at least as far as social interactions go. While workers in oil and gas, as in other industries, have quickly taken to online meetings and conferences, some personal interactions are not so easily replaced in a virtual world.

Secondary encounters — impromptu meetings and chance encounters that are commonplace in the downtown office environment for example — which often spark new ideas and insights are missed. And while remote interactions might work well among teams that have been established for some time, they might not work as well for new employees learning the ropes in a new workplace, or be a replacement for more random assemblies.

While no one knows what the future will hold as the effects of the pandemic continue to ripple through the economy, executives generally agreed, as one said, “the future is going to look much different than the past.”

For more executive views, the Daily Oil Bulletin’s 2020 Digital Oilfield Outlook Report, sponsored by Amazon Web Services and Rackspace Technology, is available for download here: https://www2.jwnenergy.com/DigitalTransformation_2020.

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