Geoscientists coping with more work, less training, more software, less help

Industry stressed and greying

Oct 1st, 1999
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Knowledge capture and management will be critical in preserving the expertise of senior analysts and interpreters before they are lost.
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The professionals in the oil industry are keenly aware of the collective changes they've had to endure since the end of the last major oil boom in the early 1980s. Com panies have merged to form mega-giants, yet the responsibility for many deci sions, includ ing budget-related issues, have been shifted to smal ler business units within those large companies.

Oil price uncertainties have led to massive downsizing and the dismissal of large numbers of employees, mostly in the more senior ranks, in the interest of cost reduction. As a result, the demographics of the oil industry are radically different than at any other time in history.

According to Robert Peebler, President and CEO of Landmark Graphics, the combined staff of all of the oil industry has fallen from a peak in the early 1980s to the present, where staffing is about the same level as it was in 1970. At the same time, the productivity of each individual, in terms of BOE produced per employee, is nearly six times greater today than it was then.

Productivity leap

This tremendous leap in individual productivity can be attributed primarily to the use of computer technology and to innovative methods, like the application of interdisciplinary asset teams. Yet, as our industry had downsized, the geoscientist is being asked to do more and to be much more than merely a single-discipline professional. Oil companies provide tools and set goals, but what about the working professional in this environment?

Each year, as a part of industry research, we speak with hundreds of individuals in oil companies of all sizes, around the world. As part of our 1999 research, we have looked at the issue of productivity and capability. While we have no quick and easy solutions to the potential problems we have identified, we think that you will find the following to be somewhat surprising.

Training disappears

We are expecting a great deal from geoscience professionals, particularly within asset teams. We expect them to be expert in their own discipline and specific job tasks. Now we are expecting them to gain sufficient mastery of the professional specialties of their teammates to be able to:

  • Understand their data
  • Comprehend their procedures and analytical techniques
  • Cogently discuss and evaluate projects.

This combines the elements of geology, geophysics, reservoir engineering, production engineering, drilling, and more.

At the same time, we have reduced staff and have cut out much of the training, both formal and informal, that used to be the normal method for career broadening. For example, according to our sources in the oil companies, in 1985 the average training staff within a major multinational oil and gas company totaled well over 100 individuals.

Some companies have reported that their dedicated training staff numbered over 300. In 1985, each geoscientist was expected to accumulate an average of at least 100 hours of training per year, either through in-house classes, specialty training courses, videotaped courses, or field experience.

As of 1999, the average company size is approximately 60% of 1985 levels, but training staff numbers have shrunk to an average of 15-20 per company. Expected training time per individual has dropped to less than 20 hours per year. Ergo, the training we offer and provide to our professionals has been cut, on average, three times more than the average of overall staff reduction.

Individual proficiency

At the same time, each individual is being asked to do more and to be capable of doing more. The total number of computer programs available to professionals has increased by a factor of two over the intervening 15 years. The power and sophistication of the systems is now far greater than it was in 1985. Still, the average number of software packages a geoscientist is expected to know has increased more than six-fold.

In 1985, the professional interpreting geoscientist was expected to know how to effectively use an average of six different software packages. Our survey figures show that today, the geoscientist must have working knowledge of an average of 37 different programs and analytical software packages.

Often these program functions are bundled into integrated systems, but the number of

individual elements is what we have attempted to measure here. An accompanying chart shows a breakdown of program knowledge requirements by discipline.

Also at issue is how fluent or comfortable the end users are with the computer tools they rely upon to find and produce hydrocarbons. The explosive growth in the number of products individuals are expected to use has led to a decline in familiarity and expertise. Peebler's research shows that the average user becomes familiar enough with a product to be able to use the fundamental capabilities it offers, but then is too busy to learn further. Improvements in the effective use of software, which is already in place, represent the single area with the greatest potential for increases in productivity at a minimum of cost. Our data reinforces this statement.

Reduced expertise

Another accompanying table compares the years 1985 and 1999 in terms of the percentage of individuals who rate themselves in terms of expertise with the software they use. We examined two categories of software: (1) products used most frequently which are central to job function and (2) products which are used less frequently or are considered utilities. We also examined familiarity with operating systems and with hardware.

Of course, familiarity with hardware and operating systems is lower now since the products are better and more reliable, thereby taking less experience on the part of the user to make them work correctly. This is not necessarily a bad development. However, the percentage of individuals who do not really understand the underpinnings of their fundamental tools is exceptionally high.

Work load

Another aspect of the ability of our professionals to function in today's environment is the demands we place upon them. In another accompanying chart we examined how hard professionals now work and their involvement in their jobs.

Finally, we incorporated some data we were able to acquire from the insurance industry. We found this quite revealing, in that as the health of employees has a tremendous impact on productivity.

The petroleum industry, in general, is a "greying" industry with a mean age greater than the mean age of the population in general. The average age of an employee in the oil industry is now over 46, and for geoscience professionals it is a bit older. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be able to attract too many young people into our business.

The professionals we have are talented, experienced, and work hard. However, we are expecting them to work in new ways with new tools without a lot of help. Yet, the vaunted productivity, and thus the profitability, of our industry absolutely depends upon these individuals. The productivity gains of the future will be as critically dependant upon technology as those of the past 15 years.

These gains can be achieved through better understanding and therefore more effective use of the computer tools upon which we rely. Knowledge capture and management will be critical in preserving the expertise of senior analysts and interpreters before they are lost. The industry is in the unique position of controlling its' destiny.

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