Experts discuss the digital transformation of the oil and gas industry

Digital is becoming the way to go. Photo by Towfiqu Photography, Getty Images

With the disruptive challenges the energy industry faces on a daily basis, the need for digitization has never been more apparent. In "Bits, Bytes, and Barrels: The Digital Transformation of Oil and Gas," authors Geoffrey Cann, retired partner at Deloitte Canada, and Rachael Goydan, Deloitte Consulting LLP managing director, analyze the current landscape for digital technologies in the energy business.

In this Q&A, we will get an exclusive peek into some of the key themes that Cann and Goydan discuss throughout their book, touching on the barriers to digitization and all that it can offer to the energy industry.

Amy Chronis, Houston managing partner, Deloitte LLP: What exactly is digital, and is the definition changing over time?

Rachael Goydan: Simply put, digital is comprised of three elements: data, analytics, and connectivity. It could be anything from a smartphone, computer, or car to a refrigerator or doorbell. Digital objects have the ability to generate data and do analytics and computations. They also have to be connected with other devices to be considered a digital object.

We have been seeing exponential growth over the last 5-10 years in terms of what digital is capable of, and what that means to the energy industry. Digital is constantly evolving, and its impact may even be different tomorrow. In oil and gas, there are now more ubiquitous forms of unstructured data being used, such as sounds, vibrations, or photographs. It has become relatively inexpensive to have computing power on a device and the accessibility of programming languages has grown.

AC: Digital has disrupted other industries, but is disruption possible in oil and gas?

Geoffrey Cann: There are many digital concepts that can disrupt business in oil and gas. Much like the cloud car and designer fuel, which allows consumers to pick their fuel origin, the use of artificial intelligence to interpret streaming data from cameras could introduce truly robotic eyes on oil and gas assets 24/7. Historically, the oil and gas industry has been change-averse, so the timing and size of the impact is expected to vary by sector.

Our research has found that technology suppliers, service providers, and retailers may be affected the most by digital disruption. Explorers and producers may be affected less, as their business is often already driven by data. The midstream segment has heavy assets running 24/7 that are hard to take offline, and they cannot add new technologies easily. The impact they feel will likely be less than tech companies.

In resource value, digital has already begun to disrupt. For example, some companies are using high-definition photography to take pictures of drilling cuttings, which are then pieced together via cloud using artificial intelligence and machine learning. These drilling cuttings can have one million times better resolution than with seismic.

AC: I've heard you speak about digital in oil and gas in the past, and you frequently say that digital isn't about the technology but about how people work. Could you give some examples here?

RG: Leaving digital to chance doesn't work. Companies may benefit from having information technology professionals bring expertise, cybersecurity, corporate infrastructure and assets, a help desk, virus detection and remediation, and so on. Companies may also benefit from having operational technology people, who have knowledge of the facilities, contributing a solid understanding of the sources of change resistance and how to address them. These groups will work together with the business. Some companies even have a separate digital team that helps them with change management, using a clean sheet of paper approach.

Companies also may need to recognize that there are different ways of working. Agile methods are how digital gets done versus the waterfall method. They are almost opposite ways of doing work with different speeds. Digital requires some companies to change the way they do things. Changes are to happen on a monthly, weekly, and even daily basis.

AC: Is it true that digital in oil and gas has as much potential as in other industries?

GC: Companies in upstream oil and gas are now being valued more on cashflow than traditional reserves valuation. At its heart, digital is about efficiency, which is top of mind for a lot of clients as well. To give the best return to investors, oil and gas companies may need to consider focusing on efficiency and productivity rather than focusing on reserves growth.

Oil and gas has the opportunity to tap into a key feature of the digital world: an ecosystem of resources that includes incubators, university labs, accelerators, and startup groups. Our research has shown companies in oil and gas are much less tapped into this new community of digital innovation. Because digital changes so rapidly, the industry may benefit from plugging into the existing ecosystem to take advantage of the skillsets and capabilities that are out there.

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Building Houston

 
 

"There's something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it." Photo via Getty Images

Houston's seen a growth in startup and venture investment — even amid the pandemic — and a group of Houston innovators sat down for a virtual event to discuss what's lead to this evolution.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted an installment of its Houston Industry Series focused on Digital Tech on Thursday, September 24. The panel of experts, moderated by Krisha Tracy of Google Cloud, discussed how they've observed the paradigm shift that's occurred in Houston over the past few years — and why.

Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

“I think there really is an interest for venture capital here, both locally and also welcoming it from outside of Houston. … There’s something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it. I think that magical piece is a renewed interest in collaborating.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund. "I think a lot [of this progress] is due to the GHP, Houston Exponential, and the founding of the HX Venture Fund to bring those venture funds to Houston to say, 'what's happening here?'" Campbell adds, saying that this connectivity and collaboration that's happening in Houston VC is unique.

“I think there’s a misconception around all we do is oil and gas and life science in Houston, but when you think about what VC-backable companies look like, they’re tech, they’re B2B SaaS, they’re highly scalable, and they don’t tend to be capital-intensive types of things we see corporate venture backing.”

Campbell says, adding "the connectivity and the interest in VC is really taking off. It's an exciting time to be in Houston and Texas in general."

“Plug and Play’s ventures team is based in Silicon Valley and one thing they enjoy about meeting Houston-based founders is valuations tend to be more reasonable than in the Bay Area."

Payal Patel, director of Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston. "There are gems to be found," she adds.

“I don’t know what it is — if it’s something in the water or just Texans being very friendly, but the investors here share deal flow. It takes a village, and I think we all understand a rising tide lifts all boats."

Patel says on the collaborative nature of Houston. "It's really magical."

“What you’re witnessing is a city that has been waiting for industrial innovation to reach the point where it can be adopted at a really high scale, and that happened around 2017.”

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas in Houston. Nordby adds that MassChallenge in Houston hasn't been keen on consumer tech, or the "grilled cheese delivery apps," as he describes. "We like companies that are in love with problems, not so much in love with solutions. … We build really meaningful tech."

“Over the last year or two, we’ve seen that sleeping giant get awoken. Open and external innovation is newly adopted by more legacy industries where it wasn’t before — and that’s just created a mountain of opportunities for startups and investors alike.”

Nordby says on the shift toward this meaningful, problem-solving technology, which Houston is full of, as he observes.

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