Guest column

Sustaining a culture of innovation is key to driving the energy industry, says this Houston expert

While most corporations should be optimizing their company cultures, energy companies specifically need to move the needle on driving forward innovative culture for its employees. Getty Images

The prevailing economic environment has made innovation essential to gaining a competitive edge in the oil and gas industry.

Global economic shifts and the unstable oil market have been considerable factors inhibiting the advancement of innovation in the oil and gas sector. Oil prices have not significantly increased in the past four to five years, while investors and Wall Street hold corporate executives accountable for capital discipline.

In light of these trends, corporate culture and innovation are key factors that hold the potential to drive novelty in the next upcycle. To bring value to shareholders, the oil and gas industry needs to nurture an environment that fosters a radically innovative culture to create new product lines and markets, unique ecosystems, product content, and processes.

Culture from the top down

Organizational culture is one of the essential dynamics that drive innovation. Employee behavior helps influence and promote the acceptance of innovation as a fundamental corporate value. Organizations are therefore admonished to concentrate on fostering an innovative culture that allows the growth of new ideas.

This culture needs to be created by deliberate action on the part of leaders of industry or by indirect measures such as composition and institutional policy directions. A model of innovative culture which translates into cultural transformation emerges as a result of this deliberate action and institutional policy directions.

Various studies over the years have examined innovative culture models focused on cultural characteristics or factors. A comprehensive, innovative culture model that incorporates cultural traits and their determinants is reviewed in this contemplative piece.

Execution  culture vs. innovative culture

In her book, "The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business," Erin Meyer explains that "ambidextrous culture" is the concurrent search of flexibility and alignment at a business unit/sector which is linked to several organizational outcomes including improved performance and innovation.

This ambidextrous culture can be divided into two broad categories: Execution culture and innovative culture. Execution culture is a working environment that is more process- and task-driven to get things done. The oil and gas industry has typically favored the execution culture, where there is a central decision-maker at the head of the table. Research and recommendations on pertinent matters are typically presented to decision-makers who sit through a PowerPoint presentation. Subsequently, a decision is made based on the facts presented via PowerPoint presentation.

One critical demerit of this setup is that it usually leans towards low-risk conservative judgment. The executive lifestyle has worked in the past in the oil and gas industry due to the high fixed cost, and the "failure is unacceptable" approach in the industry.

With new technologies such as 3D printing, predictive analytics, machine learning, and deep learning, one can test some ideas or thoughts through rapid prototyping in a lab setting to test their hypothesis. Therefore, this type of culture as a sole approach to decision-making in the industry may need to be reconsidered.

Meanwhile, innovative culture is a work environment where leaders encourage and nurture unorthodox thinking in approaching problem solutions and applications. If the energy industry leaned more toward this style of culture, it would help foster innovation and accelerate the innovation landscape in the industry.

Innovative culture is a more design-oriented approach that generates a large pool of options and also incorporates a visual thinking framework. It enhances a creative mode for the audience, and everybody in the company ends up being a decision-maker. This type of culture fosters open innovation, eliminates the fear of expression, and pushes for more collaboration and creativity in the ecosystem.

According to a recent survey done by Accenture Strategy, 76 percent of leaders say they regularly empower employees to be innovative, while only 42 percent of employees agree. This shows an apparent disparity in more than the perceptions of employers versus employees and the belief that innovative culture is not promoted by middle management. This barrier can be broken down by instituting and enforcing an innovative culture.

Staying agile in a transforming world

The world has changed, and it will continue to transform. Various factors are disrupting traditional methods of business management across the globe, and organizational behavior is being impacted significantly. For an organization to be competitive globally, it requires innovation and creativity.

The rate at which businesses are facing competition requires agility. Employees are pressured to give their best and to come up with new ideas at a level even beyond some of history's greatest minds. For many, uncertainty and insecurity abounds. The fear of being made redundant and a resulting lack of trust prevents creativity among employees.

Trust, productive gameplay, and fun — critical components of an innovative culture — can spark creativity and increase global competitiveness. Due to the recent downturn, most teams are burdened with the same amount of work, which was meant for double or tripled their workforce and are still expected to perform at their peak capability. They need the right conducive environment to function.

Implementing action

While the energy industry should avoid trying to copy innovative practices from technology companies, oil and gas companies should review possible case studies that can be incorporated in fostering an acceptable culture for millennials to be attracted to the industry.

Presentation is important

Take a look at your marketing materials, for instance. Skip the stereotypical image of the macho oil guy on a rig operating the brake handle and showcase how the industry is adapting open innovation across sectors such as using predictive analytics and rapid prototyping to help design a safe working environment. Showcasing the conducive culture we experience in oil and gas, which challenges us to think outside the box and solve the world's energy problems will be an excellent way to create opportunities internally in companies and also attract and retain talent from different backgrounds and industries to help solve the world's energy problems.

Consider flexible work initiatives

To help establish and foster an innovative culture in oil and gas, the industry needs to embrace virtual and remote working environments, retraining and refresher courses to keep employees' skills relevant to solving problems, leaders setting a positive example on work-life balance and cutting down or avoiding long-distance travel via virtual meetings. Others essential pointers to consider are, giving employees the freedom to be themselves at work, leadership or management having a positive attitude towards failure, allowing remote work on days on which employees have personal commitments, networking events with company leaders scheduled during office hours, having an open channel for the report of sexual discrimination/harassment incident(s) to the company, among others.


I'd like to close with a quote from another influential book, "The Innovator's Dilemma," by Harvard Professor Clay Christensen. He writes, "When an organization's capabilities reside primarily in its people, changing to address new problems is relatively simple. However, when the capabilities have come to live in processes and values and especially when they have become embedded in culture, change has become extraordinarily complicated."

Establishing a uniquely innovative culture within the energy industry will be a great foundation going forward, for spurring progress in the oil and gas sector.

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Nii A. Nunoo is senior associate and management consultant within Strategy and Energy Core Operations at KPMG.

The oil and gas industry has been hit by a trifecta of challenges. This local expert has some of his observations. Getty Images

In the matter of a few weeks, COVID-19 disrupted life across the globe, but the oil and gas industry was hit especially hard with the triple impact.

First, there was the direct impact of COVID-19 on the workforce. Next, there was a dramatic drop in global demand as countries and cities around the world issues travel restrictions. Finally, there was a global increase in oil supply as OPEC cooperation disintegrated.

As energy companies raced to set up response teams to address all three concurrent issues, something that no one was quite prepared for was the speed at which all direct lines of communication for the industry were shutoff. Seemingly overnight, industry conferences and events ground to a halt, corporate offices were reduced to ghost towns, and handshakes were replaced with virtual high fives.

To fill this inability to interact, connect, and collaborate as we used to, my company, Darcy Partners, stood up a series of executive roundtables for the exploration and production community to come together and share ideas on how to approach this unprecedented series of events.

Each week, over 25 executives from various oil and gas operators (and growing) gather virtually to share best practices around COVID-19 response plans, discuss the broader impacts of the turmoil on the industry and learn about innovative technology and process solutions others are implementing to help mitigate the impact of the virus and associated commodity price volatility.

We've seen the priorities of these executives shift and evolve with each phase of COVID-19 and the market impact. In early discussions, the main focus was on taking care of their workforce and what plans were being instituted to help minimize the disruption to operations while also ensuring that no one was exposed to any unnecessary risks. Participants shared best practices and policies they had in place for communication both internally and externally as well as their transition to work-from-home.

At later roundtables, the discussion turned to commodity prices and market response. Although this industry is quite accustomed to the inevitable ups and downs, this time is notably different. The market dynamics during this cycle are far more pronounced than in past downturns – largely due to the concurrent supply and demand imbalances coupled with the broader economic uncertainty. Most operators are taking action by making cuts, and some have already decided to shut-in production. Additionally, the importance of technology and innovation came to the forefront, whether discussing tools to facilitate working from home or remote operations to ensure the continued safe operations in the field.

The future is largely unknown; all of the information and analytics and millions of outcomes being modeled do not create the full picture needed for leaders to make the difficult decisions that are necessary. But there are a few things we know for sure. First, there will be an oil and gas industry on the other side of the current turmoil. Secondly, technology will play an increasingly important role going forward. And, finally, the complex issues the industry is dealing with today can be more effectively understood and managed by coming together to share ideas and best practices.

Nearly 5 years ago, Darcy Partners was founded on the premise that there was a missing link in the oil and gas Industry for the adoption of new technologies. Today, there is a missing link for an entirely different reason. Darcy Partners has rapidly mobilized our vast network of operators, technology innovators, investors, and thought leaders to come together and create a shared level of certainty, in an entirely uncertain world. To help leaders make the decisions that must be made and prepare for a new future, one that might not have been expected, but one that the industry will evolve to succeed in.

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David Wishnow is the head of energy technology identification and relationship management at Houston-based Darcy Partners.