posted 20 Nov 2001 in Volume 5 Issue 4
A pipeline for collaboration
Leveraging knowledge through storytelling at SIEP
Shell International Exploration and Production’s programme for managing its technical and business knowledge is focused on gathering and effectively leveraging expertise within the company’s geographically fragmented, multi-disciplinary framework. Enda Logan, in association with Andy Boyd and Brad Vigers, explains how the use of storytelling has helped the organisation overcome the barriers it has encountered and circulate employee expertise to the places it is most needed.
The transmission of knowledge in the modern corporation sometimes focuses too much on the benefits yielded by IT systems. Knowledge officers can obsess about capturing, codifying, storing and exploiting knowledge through software, invariably advocating the use of intelligent search engines to connect knowledge with the people who need it at any given time. While such technology-driven approaches are a valid and complementary contribution to knowledge optimisation, they deal mainly with the management of the knowledge repository, which is significantly less than half of the real issue.
The greater challenge involves developing non-technical strategies for liberating the ‘deposits’ of knowledge from either people who have information you require but are unaware you are looking for it, or from those who would typically hoard knowledge. Motivating people to ask and to reply has been at the heart of Shell’s knowledge management programme from the beginning, along with a recognition that mobilising individual experts is as important as the capturing and transmitting of knowledge itself. This overt acknowledgement of the individual’s role in having and sharing knowledge is sometimes lost on IT-centric organisations.
The well known Shell Exploration and Production brand actually represents a complex network of operating units based in many countries and incorporating the myriad technical, engineering and scientific disciplines necessary for finding and exploiting hydrocarbon resources. The Organisational Performance and Learning (OPAL) team, based in Rijswjik in the Netherlands, has worked closely with each operating unit to establish appropriate knowledge systems and facilities to leverage expertise and to limit ‘wheel reinvention’, a syndrome all too common within large enterprises.
The KM programme itself, extending over the last three years, has all the elements necessary for both technology and human resource breakthroughs:
- Global networks – these are communities utilising online networks, moderated by global facilitators based in every major Shell operating unit around the world, providing peer group advice, practical assistance and an ideas exchange forum for specific technical disciplines. Several thousand professionals participate daily;
- Centres of excellence – these formally established teams of specialist EP experts, drawn from various Shell locations, have the remit to consolidate global, expert knowledge in niche areas, before applying it wherever it is needed throughout the Shell EP global business. They provide scope of work services, transfer expertise and act as focal points for the strategic areas they serve;
- Global consultants – drawn from a team of world-class ‘niche’ practitioners working within Shell EP’s various business units and typically validated by their peers, the consultants are available to any other part of the business for short specialist assignments, creating a de facto market for people-based knowledge.
An overarching portal based on the Shell Wide Web intranet, called the Expertise Directory, acts as a clearing-house and signpost for both knowledge seekers and givers. But identifying the real in-house ‘gurus’ of Shell’s business sector and making their niche expertise widely available for strategic interventions or practical problem solving has been core to the company’s wider perspective on the management of knowledge.
According to OPAL’s Brad Vigers, this multi-layered KM approach reflects a simple reality: “Our networks can synthesise and store tremendous amounts of knowledge for widespread use by active members, in an asynchronous manner. But some of our most productive expertise is best applied by the individual practitioner for the immediate benefit of others, so we’ve shaped our KM model to enable this fact of life. Our centres of excellence and global consultants have generated a busy marketplace for the utilisation of know-how and we’ve spent a lot of time making that possible.”
Such knowledge sharing devices, enviable though they are, are not immediately embraced in multinational companies like Shell EP until someone makes a strong case for their use through internal marketing. OPAL understood the need for engagement techniques that resonated with people’s experiences and carried a high degree of credibility.
According to OPAL team member Andy Boyd, the storytelling approach provided an immediate appeal with which most Shell EP technical professionals could identify: “Campfire stories have been around in Shell since its birth and throughout its development as a geographically disparate company. Our initiative to promote new ways of working needed a simple yet credible way of developing the essential mindset for sharing, so the formalisation of storytelling in the service of knowledge management seemed logical. Its success guarantees its status as a permanent feature of our KM culture.”
Research for the stories in Shell’s rich technical environment was relatively easy, due to the many electronic and virtual collaboration tools freely used throughout the organisation. Before seeking contributions, OPAL established and publicised a set of fixed criteria that would predefine and validate a ‘good’ story:
- It must involve knowledge sharing between operating units across geographical boundaries, where the act of sharing has broken through invisible yet very real barriers to easy communication;
- The story must have a specific measurable monetary value in cost savings or opportunity realisation;
- Contributors must be willing to support each story, providing their contact information along with publishable text.
This latter was to set content apart from other centralised information dissemination efforts of the past, creating an air of credibility and the ability to further research stories for the highly discriminating and perceptive audience within Shell. Members of the OPAL team felt that anything less would not have worked as well.
Sources for finalised content were many and varied. Almost every operating unit from around the Shell world quickly supplied stories of various length and complexity. The response was impressive, providing a clear indication that expectations surrounding Shell’s KM efforts were possibly more ambitious than even OPAL’s own original vision. As one contributor put it: “People are relentlessly pushing for the need to share knowledge and nurturing an environment where it is acceptable to abandon local beliefs, ask questions and provoke debate.”
In 2000, a total of $237m was saved across the 11 global networks by the question and answer focus alone. The Shell company, Pecten Cameroon, for example, shared its techniques for improving production from a single gas lifting well by reducing viscosity: by extending the same approach across 17 other wells, confirmed savings of $9m per year were made. Similarly, in the Benchmarking Network, analysis and dissemination of results from a series of exploration and production benchmarking studies helped close $200m worth of identified performance gaps, mainly because 60 best/better business practices were shared throughout the operating unit network.
Global consultants, of which Shell EP now boasts 250 world-class experts in disciplines ranging from reservoir engineering to production chemistry, have found that being the ‘giver’ of knowledge leads to new professional challenges in other parts of the world. Equally, the company as a whole benefits enormously from the aggregation of their collective efforts. One consultant reported requests for intervention in well performance through the Expertise Directory from Turkmenistan, from Oman regarding electrical submersible pumps and from Iran for production engineering advice. Another Nigeria-based reservoir consultant was invited to Petroleum Development Oman to present his methods for constructing sub-surface models for reservoir simulation through seismic inversion, learnt from his days in Shell Expro in the UK. On his way home to Nigeria, he stopped off to commission a stochastic inversion pilot in Dubai, quickly demonstrating the anticipated demand for personalised consulting in the field.
Shell EP’s KM programme extends to difficult technical areas, often characterised by regional conditions, where a local operating unit has cornered the internal market in a given expertise or experience. For example, the centre of excellence in ‘subsidence compaction’ from the Netherlands offers a unique service to the greater Shell network, because truly world-class knowledge exists in a country with a coastline that brokers an uneasy balance between naturally subsiding land and sea levels that have varied over thousands of years. In Petroleum Development Oman, another centre of excellence offers knowledge of ‘land seismic acquisition and processing of desert areas’ to other businesses with similar prevailing conditions. Other excellence centres simply combine high-powered computer resources from one business with technical expertise from another, such as the Pre-Stack Depth Migration centre, which links Shell Geoscience Services with Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschppij in the Netherlands
The new Shell EP culture has ratified, operationalised and publicised knowledge through genuinely ground breaking structures, expert individuals and information managing systems – frankly, whatever it takes to get the people and expertise moving towards a cost-saving or value-adding opportunity. Occasionally, a dynamic linking of both people and systems is required to compress the time and distances involved in transferring knowledge effectively to its optimal site of use. Storytellers from Abu Dhabi, Gabon and Venezuela, where Shell EP faces tough technical challenges over and above their location, have reported favourably on the tactical development of distributed (or virtual) teams for project execution. In these documented cases, professional groups have been assembled from many operating units over a short or extended period of time to bring to bear the total knowledgebase of Shell EP on complex problems facing a particular operating unit, especially where specific time and cost pressures apply.
OPAL has developed a consulting practice to help local teams marshal knowledge resources from the many time zones and regions where Shell EP operates, and to help focus the required expertise through facilitation and technologies, including online data-sharing, videoconferencing and ‘live’ virtual collaboration. In these instances, the simple need for knowledge requires substantial augmentation through improved behaviour and effective interaction through virtual means. One participant from Shell Gabon was enthusiastic about the approach but realistic about the personal challenges that were presented: “Virtual team-working proved to be very demanding, with communication and organisational issues adding to the normal challenges associated with the project itself. Nevertheless, these disadvantages were more than outweighed by the benefits of accessing global know-how. However, the approach adopted needs to be carefully tailored to the nature of the problem at hand. Our experiences and suggestions for improvement have been taken up by the OPAL team and will be used in future consultancy, guidelines and best practice material.”
Storytelling, it seems, works in both directions. What remains unchallenged throughout the introduction of this practice over the three years of Shell EP’s KM programme is the inherent value and credibility attached to sharing stories between diverse, disparate and historically independent businesses around the world. Whether the knowledge Shell seeks to nurture to enhance its competitive edge lies in a database within a server farm, or within the natural gifts of a particular individual, the company’s determination to liberate expertise and allow it to flow around the company’s traditionally federal businesses to where it is most needed remains strong.
A public domain copy of Stories from the Edge can be obtained by contacting Andy Boyd or Brad Vigers of the Organisational Performance and Learning team in the Netherlands at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org respectively.
Enda Logan is [title] at The Fifth Business. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Stories from the Edge
“The tradition of an oral narrative history that records and hands down learning, insight and collective revelation still thrives in communities bound together by common purpose and shared labour. We are the knowledge we nurture.
Our Shell business culture is not so different; with the power of a good story inspiring innovation, personal challenge and professional breakthrough... our staff is rapidly learning how to tap into the enormous knowledgebase Shell fosters, as it constantly reaches for performance improvement in a fiercely competitive EP global business.
Flexibly deploying people and knowledge comes naturally to those with the vision to share or the humility to seek.
Excerpt from the foreword of Stories from the Edge (March 2000)