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Knowledge Management & Intranet Solutions - Conference & Exhibition

 Cover Story

The oil industry has long been recognised as one of the leaders in the field of KM, with companies spending millions of oil dollars on promising initiatives. Campbell McCracken looks at what is in the pipeline.
Sometimes crude, sometimes

Much money has been spent by oil companies creating 'best practice' databases. "A lot of these are what we call a storehouse model," says Sopheon's CEO Andy Michuda, "which means ‘let's go capture everything we know about our processes, our policies, regulatory law, etc, and put it in a database.’"

The idea is that once the information is captured, people can just go to the database to find out how to solve particular problems instead of re-inventing the wheel each time.

But these solutions have their drawbacks. "What you find constantly when you investigate," explains Michuda, "is that these databases generally are not kept current, and they're not actually engaged by the user community, as they are a one-off and are hard to find."

Eric Lesser, executive consultant at IBM agrees: "A repository needs to be moderated in some way because otherwise it becomes like a garden that is allowed to grow wild. If it's not seeded properly no-one will look at it. If it's got too much information in there no-one can determine what kind of value it has."

Ageing demographic
However, the oil industry is facing an even greater challenge over the next five or ten years, because of the demographic profile of its workforce. "The problem is that most of these people are in their mid-fifties," says Sopheon's Michuda. "The organisations know they're facing a knowledge drain, so they're getting companies like us to work with their team of people to start capturing their know-how and their understanding." (See Box: Sopheon at GTS-Geotech.)

"A lot of senior experienced people are going to be retiring in the next ten years," says IBM's Lesser. "Plus you also have fewer and fewer young people who are interested in pursuing these careers, so the number of petroleum engineers graduating is a tiny fraction of the overall demand from the industry."

The threat of losing experts has meant that companies have to capture the knowledge before it goes out the door. At the other end of the workforce chain, companies face significant cost pressures to accelerate the training of new recruits to make them become productive more quickly. "When you look at all these demographic factors, it's frankly quite frightening for some of the oil companies." says Lesser.

Mergers and acquisitions
Recent mergers within the oil industry, such as those between Texaco and Chevron and between Exxon and Mobil have also created problems. When companies merge, how do employees know where to find information such as best practices and company policies? One of the side effects of a merger is to increase the number of disparate database systems within a company, making it very difficult for the IT people to be able to present a unified view across all systems.

"The biggest problem these guys have is deploying federated search across the enterprise," says Hummingbird's VP of US marketing Peter Auditore. Federated search includes searching structured databases, such as online transaction systems, data warehouses, in addition to unstructured data. "One of the other biggest layers under this is indexing and categorisation of all of your stuff. That’s a big, big component."

"This problem is simply too large for basic search engines to address satisfactorily," says Inxight Software's sales manager Mike Tarttelin. Inxight's automatic categorisation software works in conjunction with a company-defined set of key concepts. These can be arranged either as a full hierarchical taxonomy or as a flat set of key concepts to define a classification system for all information.

"The Inxight stuff has built in intelligent agents that tell you when your categorisation has extended beyond your set nomenclature or taxonomy," continues Auditore. "If something new comes up it will send you a message saying 'Hey ­ you might want to create another category in the index for this particular area that is new to the system.'"

  Box 1
Sopheon at GTS-Geotech

GTS-Geotech is an IT services and consultancy company operating in four continents, sometime is remote locations. With almost its entire staff of 100 consultants scattered around the world at any time, it was difficult for someone in the field to find answers when they came across problems.

"As in most organisations, there are some senior people with an awful lot of knowledge," says GTS-Geotech's senior consultant Steve Kaye, "and there are some lesser skilled individuals who are training up. But they're still on-site and everybody comes across the same problems, typically. We were finding it very difficult to get people to communicate to support each other. But we could see that Sopheon's Organik could help us there."

Organik builds communities of interest and captures questions presented to the community and the resulting responses. If a question is not answered satisfactorily it can be escalated to a human expert. One of the other benefits of Organik is that it provided a single point of reference for the consultants scattered around the world. "The consultants didn't have to think about 'who should I ask and where should I ask'," says Sopheon's solutions marketing director Dave Gibb. "They had a central point to go to where they could ask their question. If a similar problem had been raised by a consultant somewhere else in the world and had been answered then the knowledge base would kick in and would give them the answer."

In addition to facilitating the reuse of information, Organik also gives access to all of the other consultants that an individual may not even know existed, what skills they had, and so on. "You can ask questions, find people, or you could just go in and find someone who could help you solve your problem and ask them directly."

Another problem GTS-Geotech had was that, with a small staff of highly skilled individuals, every time someone left the company valuable knowledge left with them. It needed some way of capturing tacit knowledge. "We knew that there was an awful lot of exchange of information in the background via e-mail systems, but we weren't getting that, we weren't seeing that," says Kaye.

"But if you deploy something like Organik, you've captured it, it's visible. You can see the results within the system itself - the questions are there, the answers are there, so your engineers feel better about exchanging information, not having to repeat answers."

GTS-Geotech also detected that when Organik was deployed, its consultants felt less insecure and isolated on the remote site. "Organik gives them a better feeling for the support they're getting from the whole organisation so they know that if they run into a problem out there, no matter what the time is, they can get on to the web, get on to Organik, on to our portal site, and fire off a question," says Steve Kaye. "And nine times out of ten somebody's awake somewhere in the world, somebody with the knowledge and it'll come firing back."

Inxight also generates meta-data to define how each piece of content has been classified. This means that it can be automatically routed to the people who need to access it or it can be automatically indexed in a database to enhance future queries on the database.

Finding Experts

Mergers not only make it difficult to find information, they make it difficult to know where the new experts are. "Many of the KM problems specific to oil companies centre around being able to rapidly locate specific engineering knowledge and employees and subcontractors' related skills and certifications," says Mike Tarttelin.

"If you've bought a large company or you're merging with another company, being able to help people make those connections quickly can have a very important role in the productivity of the merger," says IBM's Eric Lesser. "You've got to help people make the introductions to one another."

One company that provides a solution to this problem is Tacit Knowledge Systems. "Tacit has a special suite of algorithms that enables you to go out and profile everyone's e-mail and all their documents," says Peter Auditore. "It looks at what you're working on and automates the building of a knowledge management system." In other words, a community of interest.

"Texaco is automating the building of communities of interest," explains Auditore, "because a lot of people won't tell you what they're working on. But if you can point the Tacit algorithms at an e-mail repository, whether it's Notes or Exchange or whatever, and you can look at everyone in there and get a feeling for what people are working on, and automate the building of a profile of what you work on on a daily basis, then you're automating the building of a community of interest. You don't have to ask people."

Time frame
It's clear that the oil industry will be facing some difficult organisational challenges over the next few years, from mergers, ageing experts and geographic remoteness. The problem is not whether or not these challenges can be met and how, but will the industry be able to roll out the KM solutions in time.




© 2001 Bizmedia Ltd under licence from Learned Information Europe Ltd

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