Got $250 million to spare? Buy yourself a Digital Nervous System. (November 1998)

BP have gone for an 'all Microsoft'solution to their distributed computing requirements with the Common Operating Environment(COE). This allows BP executives to work from any location in the world as if they weresitting at their desk, and has brought other benefits in terms of improved informationsharing and knowledge work.

In BP’s brave new world of downsized and outsourced functions, the happy(?) few who are still actually working for BP are receiving special attention from the IT department. John Browne, BP’s aggressive CEO likes IT. He also likes knowledge. IT is good because "it makes rich exchange possible without formal structure" while knowledge "is wonderful because it is relatively inexpensive to replicate, if you can capture it". BP has therefore embarked on a $250 million re-tooling of its IT system – dubbed the Common Operating Environment AKA the Digital Nervous System.

Macs off!

The COE initiative is an all-Microsoft, all-PC environment, which created some dissent with many of BP’s Macintosh aficionados. Server Side Windows NT machines support Microsoft Exchange and Internet Information Server. The client side has been standardized on a Windows 95 system running Microsoft Office and Explorer. BP’s E&P unit was the first to deploy the new system, and global travelers report with satisfaction on the ease with which they can work from different offices, at home or even in a hotel at a remote location. The Knowledge Work aspect of the COE is achieved with Microsoft Exchange Public Folders. Already these are used to federate users with common interests.

Green teams

Examples of such groups are the Green Operations, and Produced Water Networks. Virtual Teamwork Videoconferencing has been deployed to link on and off-shore workers in BP’s Gulf of Mexico operations. A spin-off of the system is that instead of hiring a consultant to research an obscure topic, the full-text searching capability on the corporate knowledge base often comes up with the answer. An element of the solution, BP-Connect, allows individuals to submit a personalized CV with details of interests and skills. This can be searched across the organization, and has been used to form the virtual teams. The monetary rewards attached to the $250 million investment are "conservatively" estimated as around $25 million per year. We are not sure whether such an ROR would pass muster with BP’s investors, but in any case, BP argue that there is more than an immediate monetary return on this investment. The real reward will be in the cultural changes and enhanced learning environment, as teams form and work across cultural and geographical boundaries.

It works!

One BP source told PDM "It works! COE brought uniformity to BP from a certain degree of chaos, which included a mixed Mac/PC environment, different software, and different versions of even the basic Office programs. There was a certain amount of misery for some Mac users, including me, who wondered if we couldn't have achieved Mac/PC interchange and compatibility instead, and at rather less cost than full-scale re-equipment, but in retrospect COE was definitely the right way to go. The other great benefit has been portability. You can step into Melbourne, log on to an unused computer, and access your own servers in London. With some degree of preparation, you can take your own lap-top and simply plug it into a docking station in any BP office, and work as though you were at home with your own servers, printers, mail and files. You can dial in to the system with your lap-top if you're not at a BP office, or work off-line and subsequently plug in and "re-equilibrate" between your machine and your home server." Yet another BP source told PDM "The money BP spent going to COE was the best value for money IT investment BP ever made. It gave us real worldwide connectivity for the first time".

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