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.

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Houston energy tech investment group rebrands to address sustainability

Seeing green

As the pandemic took its hold on the economy and the energy industry's commodity crisis did its damage, Patrick Lewis understandably assumed that maybe sustainability initiatives might be on the back burner for his network of energy companies.

"We thought we would hear that sustainability in this environment may have slipped down the priority list, but it was the exact opposite," Lewis says. "Pretty consistently across all the operators, sustainability, reducing emissions, and greenhouse gases — those are all even more important today."

This confirmation that the energy industry is committed to innovative sustainability projects led Lewis to rebrand his energy tech investment group from BBL Ventures to Sustainability Ventures Group, or SVG. The investment team focuses on reverse engineering the startup innovation process by sourcing the concerns and goals of the energy companies, then finding solutions from the startup world through reverse pitch competitions and challenges.

"We're not fundamentally changing our business model or investment strategy, but we just wanted to make sure our messaging was crystal clear," Lewis tells InnovationMap.

Lewis says he and his team really thought through the definition of sustainability, and he specifies that, "we're not doing this to go chase solar or wind power — those are on the table — but we think there are two primary opportunities: Digital transformation and emerging technologies in the existing fossil fuel industry," Lewis says.

He adds that oil and gas is going to be around for a long time still, and he cites that by 2040, it's predicted that 40 percent of energy will still come from fossil fuels. It's the big energy companies and providers — which he's working with — that have the power to move the needle on these changes.

"We think there's a real opportunity to pursue efficiencies and reduce emissions and footprint in that existing traditional oil and gas sector," he says.

Earlier this year, Lewis was addressing these concerns by working on standing up a group of industry experts for regular meetings to discuss innovation needs. What started as a call with a handful of people, now hosts 40 people across 14 energy operator and major tech platforms.

"The whole purpose of this group is to share best practices, collaborate on common pain points, risk manage pilots," Lewis says. "We continue to build that group — it's going to be a nonprofit governed by a steering committee."

While SVG has held off on its reverse pitch events, the organization along with the University of Houston Center for Carbon Management submitted a proposal to host the National Science Foundation's Convergence Acceleratoronvergence Accelerator virtual conference at the end of September.

"The goal is to bring together multidisciplinary stakeholders — industry, nonprofit, academics, NGOs, public policy experts — to solve big problems," Lewis says. "Sustainability is a problem they really want to address."

Rice University's data-focused lab presents unique opportunity for startups and small businesses

data to knowlege

A data-focused lab a Rice University is training the next generation of data scientists. However, the students at the Rice D2K Lab are doing more than just learning about the significance of data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence — they're working as data scientists now.

Businesses — large and small — can come into the lab and have Rice students and staff work on data projects in both short-term and long-term capacity. One semester, a group of students worked with 311 call data for the city of Houston so that officials can figure out what parts of town were in the most need of support, says Jennifer Sanders, program administrator at the Rice D2K lab.

"They were able to show on a Houston map the areas where most of these 311 calls were coming from," Sanders tells InnovationMap. "That allowed the city to focus on those areas."

Lately, the lab has been focused on a several COVID-19 Houston Response Projects, which addressed issues ranging from homelessness in the time of a pandemic, ventilator distribution, and more. One team even made a recommendation to the city after a data project determined that adding five ambulances to southwest neighborhoods served by the Houston Fire Department Emergency Medical Services program would optimize response times.

The lab has two avenues to help businesses: a semester-long capstone course and a clinic for one-time sessions. This upcoming semester, the capstone course has 60 students signed up to work on 10 to 12 projects from corporate sponsors. These lab members — which support the program monetarily — are selected based on their fit within the program.

The D2K Consulting Clinic also offers free one-hour sessions on campus. At the clinic, students look at the data and assess the possibilities and advise on how to use that data for business gain or growth.

"The consulting clinic can be a starting point if a business is not sure what to do with their data," says Shanna Jin, communications and marketing specialist at the D2K Lab.

The clinic also presents a special opportunity for small businesses and startups, a niche Sanders says they haven't tapped into enough yet. She says most of the companies they've worked with are larger organizations, usually in the energy industry.

"We really want to broaden the scope to smaller startups, tech companies, and nonprofits," Sanders says. "We really don't have to limit ourselves. I would really love to expand our reach."

Membership dues for companies, which provides a more structured, long-term access to data consulting, range from $25,000 to $75,000 a year. However, Sanders says the lab is willing to work with startups on a cost that's more accessible.

Ultimately, the goal of the program is to connect the dots for businesses that have data and don't know how to use it.

"To realize the potential of big data, we need people — people who can transform data to knowledge," says the lab's founder, Genevera Allen, in a promotional video. "That's what we're doing with the Rice D2K Lab."

UH: How biotech companies are withstanding the pandemic

Houston voices

At a time when the business world is reeling, biotech companies are still hanging on. Many biotech startups have successfully pivoted their entire platforms to focus on coronavirus-related work.

Of course, these companies aren't without their struggles. Clinical trials have come to a pause, finding investors has become more difficult and financing rounds have been surceased.

Even then, there are many biotech startups that have managed to snag government loans via the Paycheck Protection Program among other financial assistance. According to Vivian Doelling, the vice president of emerging company development at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, COVID-19 has not impacted the bio science industry as much as it has others.

"Some of the smaller biotech companies have pivoted research to be more COVID-centric. This is also true particularly for companies with open platforms or who were developing products in the antiviral space," Doelling told BioSpace, an online biotech publication.

"To add to that, there are research organizations that are receiving more pandemic-centric business from biotech. And that includes clinical trial work," she continued.

Ongoing biotech challenges

It's no surprise that there have been some concerns regarding the delay of clinical trials for products that have nothing to do with coronavirus. It is feared that the delays might create product pipeline problems in the long run. See, companies usually file patent applications before trials even start. So, delays in clinical trials, according to Doelling, "could take up a big chunk of the time in which treatments can have patent exclusivity before generic competition intensifies."

Delays negatively impact smaller biotech startups. These startups' futures typically rely on the success rate of trial outcomes. Any delay in these trials subsequently hurts the small biotech startup. But, even then, the pandemic still doesn't seem to be affecting these startups.

Investment blues

"The expectation is investors are going to hold back more funds than they projected for their portfolio companies. There could be less funding available for new investments," expressed Doelling. However, it is her belief that biotech companies are hot investments right now, and sees new investments on the horizon.

"Investors are cautious at the moment," said Marty Rosendale, the CEO of the Maryland Tech Council, to BioSpace. "They're going to analyze their own portfolio to make sure those companies are solid."

Rosendale, echoing Doelling's investment concerns, says investors want to be more careful right now. They are making it a point to invest less money, which makes it difficult for startups seeking funding.

Keep on keeping on

Many startups are continuing to operate because they've found their rhythm in the virtual workplace. "I have not come across any biotech startup that has closed its doors during the pandemic," Rosendale said. "Sure, some have faced delays and temporarily stopped operations, but overall, haven't heard of any closing for good."

There are a few forces at play when it comes to helping biotech startups stay afloat during the pandemic storm. Landlords are forgiving rent and government loans are helping companies pay employees. "I know of companies that have been out there fundraising since the beginning of the COVID crisis. And they're still out there doing it," Rosendale said. "But I still haven't heard of one company that was forced to end or even delay a round of funding, not one."

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.