Most of the organizational research I presented on my literature review focus on developments in the Norwegian oil industry where the concept of IO was initially implemented and is regarded to be in advanced stage of consolidation. However, the case that I analyze here is located in another country and different types of evidence suggest that the very concept of integration has different meanings and implications than in the Norwegian context. The qualitative data was gathered over 6 weeks throughout observations of everyday practices in a large oil and gas company.
In 2009, the company launched a strategic program aiming at integrating operations in Exploration and Production. The expressed aims of the program included increased efficiency, lower operational costs and faster flow of information contributing to effective decision-making. However, its implementation presents itself in varying stages of consolidation in different operational units of the company. The observations were conducted in a facility from where operations in eleven offshore platforms were remotely controlled. This was located in the oldest operational unit of this company that historically generated much of the know-how that was later transferred to other units. Some middle managers informally described this unit as one in which changes usually encounter resistance and happen in a slow pace. The implementation of the IO concept here implied in the gradual movement of platform operators to an onshore facility. While in most companies, the IO facility is called collaboration or operation room, in this unit the IO room is called operational control center.
Oil platforms are complex structures where different processes such as drilling, extraction, processing and storing take place. In large platforms, the structure provides accommodation for over two hundred people and helicopter traffic is constant (Booth & Butler, 1992). The platforms located in the geographical area of this case studied varied in size, production and level of complexity. While some performed all the above processes, others only extracted the natural resource and directed it to other platforms, which initially processed the raw material before it could be transported onshore for refining. Besides oil production, Gas Oil Separation Plants (GOSP) include utility systems that provide energy, water and air to be used in the platform (Devold, 2013). Some platforms provide gas to other platforms in the same area. In this sense, there was a complex network of interdependence and intense information flow among the platforms. In offshore production platforms, the local control room is the central space for monitoring and controlling production processes and safety procedures (Walker et al., 2014). Platform operators are professionals monitoring production processes, storage and assisting oil production teams. In many companies, the concept of integration brought changes to the role of the platform operator by demanding them to be part of distributed teams (Walker et al., 2014).
It was difficult to create conditions for classical interview situations due to the long working shifts and the fast-paced routine of the operational control center. Therefore, the methodological choice here was to observe the work routine maintaining dialogues with participants as they conducted and described their own activities in day and night shifts. Data-gathering was characterized by periods when the researcher observed the daily interactions and periods when descriptions of practices were gathered in a dialogical manner with participants (Bryman & Bell, 2015). Dialogues were transcribed and observations were noted in memos. Recurrent themes were identified and analyzed in an interpretive manner. Observations, field notes, extracts from dialogues and meetings were coded and categorized under two clusters of findings: interactions and local adaptations. Local adaptations were thereafter divided in exploitation and exploration. Data associated with restriction of variation were associated with exploitation while data which were interpreted opening for the possibility novelty was grouped under exploration. The choice of structuring findings in such clusters were theory-driven informed by the conceptual framework of complex systems (the focus on interactions as units of analysis) and conceptualization of units of adaptations by March (exploration and exploitation in local adaptations). This study has thus a qualitative character applying the framework of complexity in an interpretive manner giving space for contextuality and the experience of participants (Tsoukas & Hatch, 2001). Working with different kinds of evidence (observational and dialogical) contribute to bring objectivity to the interpretive character of this study. In this respect, gathering personal experiences from participants and observing practices as they were being conducted provided the opportunity to compare and to some extent cross-check different kinds of data. I present here extracts of data that are conceptually representative of overall findings. The following figure (Fig. 1) illustrates the research rationale and presentation of findings:
In order to protect the anonymity of the company and participants, the country where this study was conducted is not mentioned here. At times, the researcher’s lack of technical knowledge of oil production limited the understanding of some processes. This can be regarded as a limitation of this study. However, this limitation was to some extent compensated by the effort to learn about oil production by reading a technical handbook (Devold, 2013) and maintaining a collaborative communication with the company’s research and development center in order to clarify the professional language of participants. This helped me to refine the analysis and interpretation of observational data. The data reveals emerging exploratory practices that were not always verbalized as learning in the language spoken by the participants and that could not be anticipated by looking only into the highly exploitative character in which the IO concept was implemented in this company.
Understanding changes in the activity of oil platform operators is particularly interesting as it takes place in a context where two dimensions of complexity coexist. First, there is the complexity of production itself in which different processes are interrelated. The operator is in important position in terms overviewing such processes and responding to incidents that might occur. Second, there is the complexity of dynamic processes of interactions and interdependence among different platforms. The observation of changes in interactions patterns brought the integration process brings important implications for exploitation and exploitation in organizational learning. The concept of integration did not assume in this context the character of multidisciplinarity and teleconferencing communication with offshore staff as in other settings, but of a tighter communication and cooperation among operators with diverse previous experiences.
Changes in interactions
In each shift, twelve operators shared the facility in a rather noisy environment with intense communication with platforms by radio and phone, and alarms ringing indicating potential problems in offshore facilities. There is an intense exchange of information and constant problem-solving between offshore personnel and the operator in the onshore facility.
Operators described the transition from the platform to the onshore facility as a trade-off. First, there were descriptions of gains in life quality by moving from the stressful confinement environments of the platforms and having more contact with their own families. The second gain was described in terms of proximity and a more direct interaction with operators responsible for other platforms. Operators described increasing and facilitated communication with operators responsible for other platforms due to physical proximity. It was possible to observe that operators in the control room would regularly walk to each other’s desk to discuss ongoing issues and were therefore less dependent on radio or phone. This was regarded as particularly positive in critical situations such as recovery from platform shutdowns in which fast communication is often decisive. For instance, the operators of platform that was recovering from a shutdown could walk to the desk of another operator and ask for more gas in order to restart operations. Other operators in the room followed attentively such situations. They could anticipate possible consequences to their own platforms facilitating decision-making and therefore responding faster to unexpected events. As operators described, small incidents can lead to major outcomes to platforms in the same area. In such cases, only the operator has the local knowledge can operate his/her platform, but rapid information exchange with other operators was seen as highly decisive.
The tasks of operators consisted mainly of oil production surveillance, monitoring different processes and safety tests conducted in the platform. Such activities required prior technical knowledge of oil production and regulations from the national oil agency. The normal work shift had a rather cyclical routine starting with receiving a report and discussing possible problems and sometimes unexpected events with operators from the previous shift. In the words of one operator, the normal workday was a “routine that is not really a routine” in which the ongoing standard practices were punctuated by unexpected events, problem-solving and fast decision-making. The physical proximity changed interactions in other ways indicating another important trade-off. There were gains in terms of consolidating relations of trust and friendship with operators in the same operational unit but also losses in terms of interpersonal relations with offshore colleagues. Physical proximity and consolidation of trust relation created the condition for the emergence of exploration of new possibilities in the operational control center.
Local adaptations and knowledge: A complex interplay between exploitation and exploration
In the initial stage of the data gathering period, operators readily described their activities in terms of routines, procedures and standards indicating an exploitative character. At this stage, initial conversations with operators revealed accounts of learning in terms of acquiring pre-established technical knowledge, procedures and regulations. Furthermore, most participants described experiencing an increasing standardization of practices in recent years in the form of a steady increase in norms, standard procedures and in both internal and external auditing by government agencies. In the words of one operator, “now we have more noes than yeses”. In this initial period that lasted for a week, learning beyond the acquisition of already existing technical knowledge about written norms and procedures was rarely verbalized by participants .
The non-verbalization of exploration can be exemplified the case of risk analysis meetings that anticipate the transference of operational control from an oil platform to the offshore facility. These meetings usually lasts for two days and follow a “what-if” rationale in which operators, managers and external consultants analyze a list of operational practices and discuss possibilities and potential problems of transferring processes from the platform to the operational control center. I observed a risk analysis meeting with operators that would later be relocated onshore from a relatively large and complex platform, which performs not only oil production but also provides gas to other platforms in the same geographical area. The main risk mentioned by operators both during the analysis meeting and in the room was a possible loss in terms of tacit knowledge acquired with their experience in the platform. One operator explained this dimension of knowledge in the following terms: “you have to learn to feel the platform and that’s something you only develop when you are there”. On the other hand, learning or knowledge sharing was not mentioned neither by the four operators, the two managers and the two external consultants present in the meeting. In the words of an external consultant that attended the risk analysis meeting, integrated operations “look sometimes very unstructured. We need to make things more uniform. We need to standardize”.
However, observations of everyday patterns of interactions and practices show likewise an important exploratory dimension that it is not always described as learning or even as knowledge sharing in the language used by oil platform operators. This took often the form of everyday adaptations and improvements that were locally initiated rather than externally designed. I present three examples of emergent exploratory processes that were observed.
Developing a new practice
Changes in registration and storage of pressure and temperature of oil reservoirs is one of such changes. In the end of work shift, operators are responsible for producing a spreadsheet showing hourly variations in the temperature and pressure of oil reservoirs. Storing such information is important for safety reasons. During the initial period of implementation of the operational control center, operators would manually take notes and transfer such information from the measurement device program to a spreadsheet. This procedure was regarded as time-consuming and susceptible to errors. By comparing their own practices, operators of different platforms identified the need to develop faster and more reliable forms of storing such data and worked on a program that automatically produced the spreadsheet using data from the measurement device program. As they described such innovative and exploratory process were facilitated by the proximity they experienced in integrated environments where problems were identified, different practices were compared and new possibilities were assessed. A common expression used by operators in the room in relation to such processes was “if it works, I want to use it too”.
Exploration emerging from problem-solving
The activity of the platform operator involves a great amount of unexpected problem-solving. As described by participants, such unexpected events represent important situations in which they developed an understanding of the interrelation between different production processes. For instance, in the first days of observations, the sudden extinguishment of gas flare in one platform was the subject of a conversation marked by an intense flow of information between the remote and the local operators. The flare stack is a combustion means used for burning flammable gas and is a protection against the risk of over-pressurizing production devices. Understanding the problem and re-igniting the flare demanded exploring and eliminating possible causes throughout a process of deduction exchanging information with local operators. At a later stage, this episode generated an informal conversation among operators in the operational control center in which they compared similar situations in their own platforms and discussed changes in practices.
Interpreting and comparing the use of standards and regulations
The work routine in oil platforms involves conducting equipment tests which often demands inhibition of instruments and safety systems. Such processes are described in an internal document with guidelines for inhibition and control of security systems. Operators in the operational control center were expected to keep a physical copy of this document on their desks. The document states that it is the responsibility of the platform manager and operators in the local and in remote control rooms to follow the guidelines, analyze risks, register processes and suggest improvements. Furthermore, this documents states a hierarchy of responsibility in authorizing equipment inhibition according to equipment or system being controlled and the length of inhibition period. Operators in the control room played central role by gathering necessary documents to authorize inhibitions. In some moments, the communication between remote and local operators assumed a conflictual tone as offshore staff argued that the authorization process was rather time-consuming often unnecessarily delaying processes. In the same way, operators in the control center described mismatches between the “real life” of oil production and standards that they had to comply with as described in the guidelines document. On the other hand, an important dimension of integration is the physical proximity opening for the possibility of comparing how the standards are used in other platforms. The integration in the form of physical proximity among operators of different platforms provided the space for interpretation in such guidelines and in different moments, operators would discuss and compare procedures.
Norms and regulations: Restricting variation
The standardization of the activities in the integrated remote control room raises questions regarding organizational exploration and exploitation. Standard procedures usually have an explicit concern with operational safety and are regarded as safeguards and legal protections in case of accidents. In other words, strictly following regulatory norms reduces the legal liability of the company and its employees in case of major accidents. The initial implication is an increase in internal and external auditing assessing how they comply with regulatory norms. Standards are either introduced by national regulatory agencies or developed internally in the company.
The operational control center remained in many ways little connected to other departments in its operational unit indicating limited access to networks of diffusion in the company. Although it was possible to observe an intense communication with offshore platforms, the same cannot be said about communication beyond auditing and reporting between the control room and the overall operational unit. The guidelines for inhibition and control of security is an example of that. This documented goes through yearly cycles of revisions during which operators may suggest changes but do not participate in the revisions. Such findings suggest that local adaptations in the integrated control room remained largely isolated from other adaptive processes in the company.