How can the cloud boost institutional knowledge

New ways to keep hold of employee experience.

Workers check oil pipes

The baby boomer generation is retiring. Replacing this knowledge base will be difficult for future industry leaders, even with access to the best university graduate talent, because sometimes there's just no substitute for on-the-job experience.

This is hitting some sectors more than others. In the oil and gas industry, by some estimates, as much as 50% of the workforce will be retiring by 2025, taking years and even decades of domain knowledge with them.

Is there a technology solution to passing on workplace experience?

“There’s a lot of knowledge in people’s heads that has not been digitized, documented, and built into practice,” says Brad Smith, business leader for General Electric’s Oil & Gas Intelligent Pipeline business unit. He says some companies with multimillion-dollar operations are dependent upon too few individuals whose domain knowledge can be very difficult to replace, which will challenge the industry to maintain or improve workforce productivity.

 

The retirement brain drain arrives

In the oil and gas industry, the retirement problem is most visible upstream, during the exploration process and at the oil wells themselves. Ron Holsey, Digital Commercial Leader, Surface, GE Oil & Gas, offers a vivid illustration of the problem:

“As we bring a well into production, the natural pressure of the reservoir makes the oil flow to the surface. Over time, that pressure subsides and operators need artificial lift to pull the oil out of the ground. The engineers in the field have 20, 30, 40 years of experience – they’re like pumping-unit whisperers. They can walk up to a unit, and they can hear it creak and groan and grind and understand the stress points. Today, if you’re at a university studying to be a petroleum engineer, you get maybe one textbook chapter, during your four years, on artificial lift. We just don’t have the next wave of engineers coming up.”

To tackle the retirement brain drain seen over the past few years, many companies have been forced to hire back retiring workers to serve as consultants – an unsustainable practice.

 

Meeting the needs of the next generation

It’s not just about capturing and codifying retirees’ knowledge, warns Dan Brennan, executive director for the Industrial Internet for GE Oil & Gas. “There’s also got to be a refresh, so that you can attract new talent and arm them with tools, technology, and the capability to get their work done efficiently,” he says.

What works for one generation may not work for the next. Millennials expect that cutting-edge analytics and tools will be available in the workplace. “When I entered the workforce, I had better tools at work than I’d ever had access to at home,” says Brennan, “but most of the employees we bring into GE have access to better technology than we allow them here, and we’ve been playing catch-up.” What’s more, “The same thing is happening with our customers.”

 

How the cloud can help store and spread human knowledge

The challenge of an aging workforce, and the need to support the next generation, is already upon many companies in developed countries. In some countries, businesses face chronic shortages of engineering talent, due to the demographics of a static or shrinking pool of trained engineers entering the workforce to replace retiring baby boomers. Larger, more internationally diversified businesses also face demographic challenges due to their bigger, and more geographically diverse, workforce requirements. They need to spread their in-house expertise and experience globally, across cultures.

GE hopes its cloud-based platform, Predix, will be part of the solution. With its ability to record and store workflow for future use, Predix is intended to enable tomorrow's engineers to consider the real-time analytical data and responses of previous generations and apply them to new situations. In this way, it can help future engineers take advantage of colleagues’ past experiences, even after they’ve retired.

 

Building trust in technology

While GE hopes to use Predix to help its oil and gas customers fill the industry’s talent and knowledge gap, there are challenges associated with essentially trying to replace human experience with analytics.

A key issue is getting engineers to trust the data. For example, GE has oil well analysis software that could determine if a pump is operating at its optimal range, and adjust its speed to run faster or slower to optimize production. Despite several case studies, and a pilot on 30 wells showing an incremental gain of one million barrels of oil over two years, GE’s industry customers are still reluctant to allow the software to change pump speeds on its own.

“We still have to have human intervention. Why? The customer and the industry are reluctant to adopt the new technology,” says Holsey.

Yet this is not about supplanting human decision-making with automated analytical decisions. Instead – as argued in the EY-sponsored Forbes Insight report Analytics: don’t forget the human element – it’s helping to change

mindsets about how to make those decisions by taking advantage of the insights technology can help provide.

Much as a worker may previously have sought out a more experienced colleague for their opinion on next steps, this kind of software can today provide advice and suggestions, leading to better outcomes. It is about using technology to collate the experience of thousands of engineers, and sifting through that to offer advice to the next generation.

 

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