Mogul Oil, The Troubleshooters and KM

Oil IT Journal editor Neil McNaughton finds echoes of a 1960’s TV series ‘The Troubleshooters’ in many knowledge management (KM) case histories. Is KM as old as the hills? Yes, if it has ‘nothing to do with technology.’ Not at all once you realize that KM is at the cutting edge between IT technology and the learning organization.

Every time I go to a conference on knowledge management I amuse myself by asking – what exactly is knowledge management? Attending the IQPC Advanced Knowledge Management in Oil and Gas Conference last month (you’ll have to wait until the July-August issue to read our report on this excellent show), I wondered as usual what was the commonality between the diverse presentations. I also wondered what differentiates a lot of what passes as knowledge management (KM) from management per se, sometimes KM and ‘M’ just seem to blend together.

Not technology!

Some proponents insist that KM ‘is not about technology.’ A bold, and I think misleading claim. OK if yours is a hierarchical and secretive organization, then you might as well forget about freely sharing knowledge, whether by KM-enabling technology or just by talking to each other. But for all but the most benighted corporations today, flat organizations, empowerment and communicating with employees are all facets of good management - and are all only incidentally attributes of KM.

Not KM!

Differentiating M and KM is made harder now that KM is maturing and K-managers no longer feel they have to explain themselves. Some have even discovered that turning their backs on KM is a better strategy for getting the message (whatever it is) across. Such K-managers ‘do’ KM but avoid speaking its name! Shell is a notable proponent of the softly-softly approach to KM propagation. The booklet ‘Stories from the edge,’ written to entice graduates away from jobs with the consultants, is about Shell’s efforts ‘to make knowledge and the people who possess it flow more easily around a global organization.’


The ‘Stories’ tell how Shell’s Cameroon subsidiary leveraged gas lift techniques developed elsewhere in the company to increase production. In Brazil, best practices for fishing challenges developed in Brunei and Oman helped Petrobras save $1 million per well. Brunei Shell leveraged Expro and NAM’s knowledge of aluminum-sheathed tubing for major savings. Other tales tell of tweaks to submersible pumping operations, negotiating off peak electricity rates with the local utility company and the use of ‘V-belt tension gauges’ for real-time maintenance.


The booklet tells many other tales of how experience gained in one subsidiary was successfully applied to other unit’s problems and makes a compelling case for the application of - well the application of whatever KM really is I suppose. And this is where my personal take diverges from that of the booklet and of many KM exponents.


Shell’s case histories and indeed just about every other KM tale I’ve heard over the last couple of years stirred some very old memories. While I may not share the same success with the ladies as ‘Dream On’s’ Martin Tupper, I sure put in my time in front of what we then called affectionately the goggle-box!

The Troubleshooters

One of my favorite shows in the late sixties was the BBC drama ‘The Troubleshooters’ - which went out as ‘Mogul’ in the US. In this show, various dapper, sophisticated types gallivanted around the world fixing things for Mogul Oil Corp. As a matter of fact, I think that one of their projects revolved around the application of aluminum-sheathed tubing for something or other. I’m sure that one episode was based on V-belt tension gauges. Or perhaps not, it’s a long time ago.


Musing on those old episodes of The Troubleshooters I wondered how much the TV series influenced me into going to work in the oil business. A lot I suspect. I also wondered how come, when I did get into a major oil company I never actually met a ‘troubleshooter’. We did have one voluble geologist who used to travel the world driving colleagues to distraction applying the latest concepts gleaned from AAPG conferences. While the local geologists may have found this activity more of a trouble-making rather than shooting function, the truth of the matter was that knowledge sharing was rife. You only have to look at the attendance figures for the tradeshows to see how much education we all got in the halcyon days of $40 oil! We were trained up with procedures, courses and conferences. And if we came across something which was beyond our competence - well we worked in a matrix organization with domain specialists at head office there to help out.


So I personally have a lot of problems listening through longwinded explanations of what was commonplace to me about 25 years ago - and what already been the subject of a sixties TV show! The reality is that either KM is just a rehash of a plethora of management concepts which are as old as the hills - or it is all about technology.


If KM is anything, it is about applying new technologies - like groupware, Lotus Notes and the intranet to the kind of troubleshooting and information sharing that well-managed corporations have been doing for the last quarter century or more. Seen in this light, the applications of full text searching technology, communities of practice and portal technologies kind of fit into place. Once KM’s ancestry is acknowledged, building virtual teams of troubleshooters becomes less of a hard sell.


Technology-based KM is not a new discipline, it is where the technology action is! KM is the interface between IT and the enterprise. Pretending that it is not about technology, or that it is in some way new and subversive is ducking the issue. KM is the business. We are all troubleshooters!

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