Column: Is oil and gas slow to adopt state-of-the-art information technology?

Image courtesy of SpaceX

Between the two of us, a friend and I have spent almost an entire career in the oil and gas industry even though we’re not engineers or geologists or lawyers or accountants. We’re information technology (IT) guys. We discovered early, and were reminded often, that IT is not a core function of oil and gas companies. They are largely driven by geology and engineering with everything else more-or-less tied for last. When starting, you make your bundle by finding the black, shiny stuff and bringing it to market as efficiently as possible. You do not make your bundle any bigger by adding the numbers up better or having better HR policies or a better mailroom. Among these corporate functions, also tied for last, is IT. It’s almost always considered an expense to be reduced mercilessly at every turn.

Perhaps surprisingly, we get it.

If the two of us were starting an oil and gas company, we wouldn’t hire us first, either. Or second. Or even third. We would wait, as many companies do, until we had our first IT train wreck at which point we would call our high school age, super smart, step-nephew who ‘knows all about this computer stuff.’ But he would be restricted to working on everybody’s no name brand PCs getting some version of Excel working and setting up a shared drive for all those spreadsheets. But hands off the geological workstation or the reservoir simulator, junior. Those machines are strictly for adults.

Both of us left oil and gas to work in other industries ages ago. As a result of both our time spent inside the oil and gas industry, and then an extended period of time outside of it, we think we now have some objectivity when it comes to where oil and gas sits on the technology adoption curve when compared with other industries.

To be blunt: not so great.

Now, we’re not talking about bespoke, industry-specific applications such as reservoir simulation or economic evaluation or frac analysis. Those are big, hairy problems which truly reflect the decades of development which has gone into them. Rather, we are talking about the garden variety, off-the-shelf tech products which are almost old news in other industries. In oil and gas, they’re either not used at all or to a small faction of their potential.

There are two examples which just leap off the page for us:

First, we still overhear conversations at any oilpatch Starbucks where the chronically exasperated bemoan the lack of an integrated well file or the lamentable state of interdepartmental communications. We’re stunned by that. We assert pretty much all of that could be dealt with using Slack*.

“What is this Slack of which you speak” you ask? Think of it this way: massive, multiuser text messaging. In fact, do you know how to send and receive a text message with your kid? Then you pretty much know how to use Slack. Oh, yes, one more thing: it organizes all those messages into what Slack calls channels which are probably what you think they are: messages grouped by subject.

How much does that cost? Well the good news—actually the great news in an era of seemingly eternal $75 oil—is that Slack starts at the low, low price of FREE. Sure, as your use of Slack ramps up, so does the cost but by that time it’s proving its value, right? If it’s not then, y’know, just stop using it. So, for the princely sum of ZERO, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.

The second example which is equally compelling is the non-use of current spreadsheet capabilities. Seriously, we still come across situations where workgroups are going through the mind-bending exercise of how to merge changes from a given spreadsheet which has been broken up and distributed among team members. They all make changes to their chunk of the data and then move heaven and earth trying to put Humpty back together again. This involves endless cutting and pasting between the various versions of the spreadsheet likely combined with dodgy use of VLOOKUPs to try and figure out what’s what. I know, we can’t believe it either.

We really want to be nice about this but, to be candid, you have to be INSANE to do it this way.

For quite a few years now, Google Sheets** (that’s Google’s version of Excel) has had the ability to have multiple people working on the same spreadsheet at the same time. You see multiple cursors each with a unique colour assigned to each person making changes. So instead of the horror show described above, everybody just edits the one copy of the spreadsheet and Google sorts out all the merging of data automatically. It does that on Google’s cloud so all you need is a browser and bandwidth to access all that magic. By the way, that browser and bandwidth can be in a field office—or (hint hint) a home office—just as easily as HQ, so your remote update problem is solved as part of the same bargain. Once again, how much does this all cost?


So, without even trying hard, we have found two great examples which if employed by virtually any size of oil and gas producer or service company will result in improved operations at reduced cost. Does it get any better than that?

What’s our angle? We don’t have one. Well, maybe just one, tiny one: we were so confounded by this state of affairs we decided to start an online publication which features articles on the use of these technologies in more traditional industries. Our first series of articles covers, not surprisingly, Slack for oil and gas. Check out Ignition Sequence Start on Medium. The price?


So please buckle in and hold on for what we hope is an educational and entertaining ride through what’s sort of new in IT and how to apply it to the oil and gas industry. With a bit of luck we can help you ride the rocket to improved performance and reduced cost by helping you catch up with where the rest of the world was a couple of years ago.

*Or the whole host of workalike products like Microsoft Teams, Zoho’s Cliq, Facebook’s Workplace and many, many others. They all do pretty much the same thing.

**Our first-hand experience is with Google Sheets, but I think it’s safe to say that this type of functionality is already in its competitors products or will be very soon.

Terence C. Gannon was an information technology professional for 36 years, 27 of those in the Calgary oil and gas industry at companies such as NCO, Sceptre, Fracmaster and Trican. He is currently writer, producer and host of The WorkNotWork Show and the Not There Yet podcasts, both on iTunes

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