Oil IT and the butterfly effect (December 1999)

PDM’s attendance at the Plant Information Management ‘99 conference led Neil McNaughton to reflect on why IT is so different on the ‘other side of the fence.’ He concludes that rather than having a basis in a fundamental domain difference, the different IT styles may have grown up arbitrarily, amplifying early choices.

In the short story "The Sound of Thunder", Ray Bradbury anticipated both Westworld, Chaos theory and, I will argue, IT developments in the oil industry. Sound of Thunder has a group of time tourists visiting the Creataceous and walking along a system of raised walkways looking at the vegetation. Everywhere are the strictest instructions not to ‘walk on the fernidae’ with dire warnings of the possible consequences.

butterfly effect

Of course in the tale, Bradbury has a time-traveler break the rule. Running from an irate Tyrannosaurus Rex, he accidentally leaves the walkway and steps on a butterfly. Back in ‘today’ – actually around 2100 – the traveler observes major changes to the universe caused by his mistake. Bradbury’s ‘butterfly effect’ (20 years before meteorologist Conrad Lorenz showed the futility of weather ‘forecasting’) is thus a poetic forerunner of chaos theory where a small perturbation can have a large effect.

PIM ‘99

Now what I hear you ask has that to do with Oil IT? I hear you ask. Our attendance at the Plant Information Management (PIM) ’99 conference – where our engineer friends debate IT as applied to the construction of oil and gas production facilities - made me wonder if the parallel-universe of PIM IT was different by design or by accident. Putting it another way: that the starting points for both subsurface and facilities IT involve a degree of arbitrariness which has indelibly marked subsequent events.


Lets first look at the underlying ‘objects’ which are handled by the different disciplines. For E&P these are cores, well logs, seismic sections and so on. For facilities, they would be pumps, pipes and parts. Now while these objects are all different, there is, or rather was, a significant commonality between all objects in both camps. This commonality is that universal object used to describe a pump, a core, or a seismic interpretation is – the document.

Document management

So my thesis is that the butterfly that got trampled on at some critical time in the separate development of upstream and facilities IT is the document. Or rather, it got trampled on by upstream data modelers who were hell bent on deconstructing everything from a core to a business partner. And who have left a legacy of bottom-up design which has neglected such top level trivia as the results of an interpretation or their own contract of employment.


Meanwhile, facilities engineers have stuck doggedly with their top - down objects such as Computer Aided Design and Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) documents, specification sheets and equipment tags.


However, while this top down style has a lot to be said for it, there is a dark underside to facilities IT. Their secret? Beneath the surface they are harder-core data modelers than their upstream colleagues. The POSC/CAESAR data model knocks even the esoteric Epicentre into a cocked hat when it comes to complexity, abstraction and general non implementability.


So facilities IT is more pragmatic than upstream from one viewpoint - and more complex from another. With the move to integrated systems that cross traditional frontiers there is increasing need for mutual comprehension. I believe that PDM has a lot to contribute here, and that our expansion of coverage to the facilities arena will become a permanent fixture of the newsletter.

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