Here are five trends in the use of digital technologies in oil and gas that will continue unabated in 2022. Number four is my favorite.
This year marks the ninth anniversary of my first blog article about the oil and gas industry. In all that time, I’ve learned one important lesson: do not try to predict the future of the oil and gas industry. My accuracy is terrible, and I systematically fail to anticipate the really big events that impact energy, like the pandemic, wars, and recessions. Let others try to come up with price and volume forecasts. After all, they get paid for such things.
Instead, I prefer to highlight the handful of trend lines that I see shaping the future to some degree, and draw attention to their impacts on the industry. Readers can then decide how they might want to react to the trends, if at all, since even trend lines are hard to measure with any degree of certainty and hard evidence.
The social media world has co-opted the very word ‘trending’ to flag search terms and hashtags that are being used by large numbers of people at a given moment. But these aren’t the trends that I’m interested in. The energy industry does not invest in trending in this way. Our timelines are much longer.
Here’s the 5 digital oil and gas trends that I’m watching unfold and trying to anticipate their effects.
The supply of, and the demand for, software developers have been misaligned now for years. All industries are digitalizing at the same time because digital tools are democratically adopted by all comers, pushing up demand for coding skills. The traditional learning pathway to become a software developer has been long and costly, and places of learning (universities, colleges) are trapped in an unresponsive lethargic business model that fails to react promptly to demand signals.
Fortunately, some in the software industry recognize the opportunity to disrupt the coding sector. This has given rise to new classes of tools that enable non-traditional coders develop their own sophisticated digital solutions without having to change careers and become coders themselves.
The hashtag for this trend is no-code/low-code, and it’s having such success, and the demand is so strong, that it will continue unabated for some time.
In the new land of no-code, the best engineers become tool builders for others. The user interface for working with software becomes as easy to use as the interface for Google and Uber. The tools yield code that is self-documenting, open to the world, and secure.
No-code and low-code technologies are already appearing in domains that used to be strictly reserved for highly paid developers, in such areas as machine learning, blockchain, mobile workers, website construction, e-commerce, device programming, 3D printing, and design.
Oil and gas is a ready market for NoCodeatopia. The industry is unattractive to young people, so enabling the existing workforce is the only way forward. The incumbent technologies of the industry tend to trap workers into mindless routine, which makes for ample opportunity to deploy no-code solutions that digitally transform the work.
In my first book, I shared an anecdote from a CIO of an oil company about cloud computing. In his telling, cloud computing for enabling business change is akin to fossil fuels for enabling flight. Avgas is a fuel of the right density to drive a sufficiently powerful motor to generate thrust for an aircraft. Cloud computing similarly provides enough data and compute density to allow many other digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence, collaboration, the metaverse, and blockchain, to “take off.”
The adoption of cloud computing in oil and gas is still very much a work in process. The industry has been slow to adopt because of concerns about the security over their data. CIOs worry about the lack of an exit strategy if cloud does not work out. Without any underlying business change, cloud computing doesn’t appear to be more cost effective than traditional on-premise data centers. Traditional software products for oil and gas embed data silos that are not set up for cloud access. Devices that generate millisecond control data traditionally reside on closed expensive SCADA networks.
The trend towards more cloud based business is unstoppable as the pandemic has highlighted. Security worries about cloud are overblown, and are on par with on-premise technologies. At least, your security woes are shared with your cloud provider. Competition in the cloud world among the big players has helped sidestep the possibility of monopolistic behaviour. More and more traditional technology solutions are becoming cloud enabled, including SCADA technologies (gasp). Oil and gas consortiums are looking at better ways to access and monetize their immense data holdings, and cloud holds the key.
Any business investment in digital oil and gas that is not cloud enabled now looks very much like folly to me.
A noisy story this past year features Facebook’s corporate rebranding to Meta, a reflection of their belief in the future of a blended digital and non-digital world. I don’t recall the same level of media attention when Google rebranded corporately to create Alphabet in 2015, but then Google was worth ~US500B (today Alphabet is ~US1.9T. Rebranding appears to have paid off).
The metaverse trend has been playing out in the consumer world for many years, but they call it video games. The games platforms have long been growing a fervent following among the next generation workers who are now dramatically more comfortable immersing themselves in virtual worlds of make believe. They are adept at using the devices of this world (consoles, game mice, controllers, and headsets) navigating terrains, working in virtual teams, setting strategies and deploying tactics.
Games are big business. The independent games companies like Activision and Epic are valued in the $30-50B range. Their models are proven. But for the digital giants, $30b is nothing. The real money lies not in pure virtual games, but in blending features of the virtual world with the now pandemic constrained and transformed real world. In oil and gas we call this the digital twin.
Oil and gas has been developing digital twins of physical infrastructure since the dawn of computers. Indeed, it’s not possible to build new energy without digital tools. During the pandemic it became necessary to advance these digital manifestations of physical assets to protect the workforce. The next iteration is to move beyond the digital twin of an asset towards the value chain level, and to the integrated economy.
Conveniently, with the trillion dollar companies now investing heroically to bring their version of the consumer metaverse to life, and with next generation workers fully conversant with meta thinking, the stage for metaverse and digital twin convergence is now set. The big winners will be those with feet in both the virtual and the real worlds.
Carbon, or more appropriately, decarbonization, is finally getting the attention it deserves. Whether you believe in climate science or not doesn’t matter—capital markets have simply collared the flow of funds to companies that do not have a tale to tell about their carbon agenda.
We are now fully embarking on the greatest reallocation of capital in human history as we rethink and retool energy supply lines from one end to the other. Battery cars are just the start. We also have to confront all our buildings and their energy usage, our food supply lines (all those tractors and food processing plants) our building products (construction, and specifically cement, are huge carbon sources), and our entire transportation model (planes, ships, ports, trucking, rail).
Vast fortunes are going to be amassed through the transition.
What doesn’t get much attention but is certainly underway is the application of digital tools in ways that assist the decarbonization gameplan, and at the same time, recast the oil and gas industry as digitally switched on. You can see this playing out in annual reports that speak to both ideas, but frankly, decarbonization is driving the diesel bus. Applying digital to carbon was flagged by the IEA back in 2017, but it’s still very much in play.
The fastest way oil and gas can tackle its carbon footprint is through digital. Using data and analytics to optimize plant and equipment, track carbon usage, and streamline work processes is far faster than retrofitting equipment on what are declining assets in the face of an uncertain future market.
The final trend to highlight is the rise of the digitally enabled worker.
The technology available to support the front line oil and gas worker, the drilling supervisor, the plant operator, the maintenance technician, and the supply chain worker is unprecedented. Mobility apps deliver mission data directly to them at the time and place needed. Clever phone cameras bring augmented reality directly to the field. Cloud-based algorithms provide real time decision support to help the worker prioritize their time, collect and synthesize data, and make complex decisions. These same technologies are available in any industry.
NoCodeatopia lets the front line worker automate their work and simplify their routines. Metaversia allows for remote support of assets, social distancing, and plant optimization and simulation. Cloudifia supports collaboration up and down the energy value chain. Digicarbonica reduces road miles, the least safe part of the energy worker job.
There are two interrelated challenges. The first is the mismatch in the pace of change of digital technologies with the ability of the workforce to embrace change. As one executive put it, 20% of the workers are swift to embrace change (they are early adopters), 60% will do as they’re told (they comply), 10% will resist change (they need a lot of persuasion to comply with a new order), and 10% will actively obstruct change efforts. Speeding up change management is the solution.
The second challenge is the mismatch between company digital ambition and the next generation worker expectation. The next generation workforce has no tolerance to work in an industrial museum of 1970’s technologies. The pace of digital change cannot be set by the pace of change resistors.
The trend is clearly towards fewer, more digitally switched on workers who are able to use these digital tools with dexterity. It does not necessarily mean a younger workforce, although demographics and retirements are forcing the issue.
The best of luck to you in 2022 as you surf these trends and hopefully emerge successfully with a more nimble, agile and future proof digital oil and gas company.
Check out my book, ‘Bits, Bytes, and Barrels: The Digital Transformation of Oil and Gas’, coming soon in Russian, and available on Amazon and other on-line bookshops.
Sign up for my next book, ‘Carbon, Capital, and the Cloud: A Playbook for Digital Oil and Gas’, coming next year.
Take Digital Oil and Gas, the one-day on-line digital oil and gas awareness course.
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