As the older generation of trained energy specialists approach retirement age, firms must look at attracting younger replacements. But, says MARTIN RICHARDS, Senior Director for Energy Industry Solutions, OpenText, that is not so easy with more enticing companies looking for the same talent.
The ‘Great Crew Change’ taking place in today’s energy sector creates numerous challenges. As an older generation of highly trained specialists approaches retirement age en masse, energy firms must attract and train large numbers of talented young replacements. That’s not easy when ‘hotter’ companies such as Facebook, Google and Uber want to recruit the same talent.
Forty years ago, running a nuclear power plant or exploring for oil and gas offered high-tech career appeal to many young engineers and PhDs. Today’s bright new graduates, though, have other cutting-edge options. So what’s an energy company to do when it faces the loss of many decades’ worth of knowledge and experience all at once?
One solution – digitalization – might not seem obvious at first. But by updating and digitalizing how they manage, store and share information, energy companies can preserve the knowledge of soon-to-be retirees and improve their ability to recruit a new generation of skilled employees. At the same time, such transformation can also help those organizations become more efficient, effective and ready for future change.
New ideas about data
While every business in the energy industry is unique, many have long relied on old-fashioned, paper-based documentation. In quite a few companies, this information is also distributed across various silos, with different teams or departments jealously guarding ‘their’ information from other groups. Such attitudes, however, are alien to today’s up-and-coming generation of professionals.
One story I heard recently clearly illustrates this divide: A senior engineer in his 50s recounted discussing a technical problem with a much younger co-worker, whose response was to promptly go to WhatsApp to ask former classmates for help. Within minutes, one of his friends had come back with an answer to the problem.
This is a far cry from how many energy companies are used to managing information. Up until recently, for instance, many firms employed teams of document controllers who were in charge of managing requests for records. If you needed a printed report or maintenance guide, you would turn over a written request to one of these controllers, who would then disappear into a maze of filing cabinets to retrieve the document.
That’s hardly an efficient system for a mobile, digital age, is it? So bringing in a new generation of employees who grew up with iPads, smartphones, tablets and WiFi will require companies to adopt new ways of working as well.
Preserving knowledge digitally
As they move into new digital working practices, energy firms must also work to preserve the knowledge of older employees approaching retirement. This means digitalizing large volumes of information from a wide array of sources – paper reports, books, memos, handwritten notes and more – and then bringing order to that information so it can be more easily searched, shared and kept up to date.
Technology can help with much of this. For example, advanced scanning devices and character recognition software can quickly and efficiently transform printed materials into digital data. Sometimes, though, hands-on human help is also needed.
Consider one company OpenText worked with that had acquired an oil platform from a large energy firm selling off aging assets. Before taking over, the company received all of the documentation it needed to operate the platform… in the form of 16 pallets of paper delivered to its parking lot. The business ended up having to employ a team of people from the original energy firm who understood how to make sense of those records.
Preserving old knowledge for a new digital era can be even more challenging in the nuclear energy sector, which has traditionally disaggregated critical information into multiple documents for security purposes. In many cases, one document won’t make sense unless it is read alongside several other related documents. It’s a system the older generation understands that won’t make sense to younger incoming employees.
Transformation in action
So how does a company make the transition from paper to digital?
OpenText has found the process is best managed in four stages. First, content must be brought under control. This means bringing information into a single, digital repository and eliminating silos. Along the way, files and metadata are standardized so content will be searchable, sharable and usable in a variety of formats.
The next step involves optimizing the newly digital content for accessibility. This requires adding advanced search capabilities, as well as security controls for sensitive documents, version control and support for mobile.
After that, additional changes are made to build in processes for content reviews, approvals and audit trails. This stage also involves enabling automatic notifications to be distributed whenever information is revised or updated.
Finally, in the last stage of transformation, content is integrated with other systems for operations, maintenance, project management and more. This process, for instance, could enable an employee reading an SAP work order on an iPad to also receive location-based information about where a particular piece of equipment is located and get temperature data to know whether the equipment in question is cool enough to be safely touched.
For one nuclear power provider that OpenText has worked with, such a staged transformation enabled the company to add built-in support for industry-standard regulatory compliance, making information management easier and more efficient for thousands of employees.
Building for the future
In addition to the dramatic generational shift in their workforces, many companies in the energy sector today are also confronting the need to replace aging infrastructure. Here, again, the right technology can help them accomplish this faster, more efficiently and more cost-effectively.
For example, one mining company in South America recently faced a difficult challenge: how to quickly bring online several new mines to replace those that were nearing depletion. It hadn’t developed a new mine in 20 years or so, which meant all of those past development processes had been paper-based and not designed for today’s needs and modern efficiency. To ensure faster results this time around, the company engaged OpenText to help it deploy a new system that provided hundreds of suppliers with centralized, online access to project information. By enabling orders, changes and other information to be managed digitally, this system allowed the company to reduce errors, improve communication and speed up every stage of new mine development.
Improvements like these not only help businesses move faster and become more efficient – they also make them more attractive to young employees who expect to work this way. Look, for example, at the utility sector, which is undergoing rapid change with the introduction of things like smart meters, rooftop solar and net metering. To enable their customers to manage such new services, utility companies are deploying new information technologies and advanced capabilities such as smart mobile apps and Big Data analytics. This will also help them recruit new generations of professionals to take over when the older generations hit retirement.
Managing change is always challenging and when changes are large and sweeping, there are plenty of opportunities to fall down and fail to meet those challenges. That’s especially the case in the energy sector, which has traditionally had a reputation of being resistant to change. Energy companies that are serious about successfully navigating the Great Crew Change will need to embrace new technologies and new processes, ideally with help from experienced partners who know how to manage and deliver transformation.
Those that can reinvent themselves in this way will be better positioned to deal with future challenges too. We’re already seeing new kinds of energy businesses emerging – smaller, more nimble businesses that are cloud-based digital natives from Day One. Legacy companies will have to adopt similar ways of thinking, working and managing information if they wish to remain competitive in the years ahead.