Wherefore art thou, Expert?

I don't buy the notion that we should be competent at everything we do. Unless you have chosen to specialize, as a petrophysicist or geophysical analyst perhaps, you are a generalist. Perhaps you are the manager of an asset team, or a lone geophysicist in a field development project, or a junior geologist looking after a drilling program. You are certainly being handed tasks you have never done before, and being asked to think about problems you didn't even know existed this time last year. If you're anything like me, you are bewildered at least 50% of the time.


I don't know if things ever actually worked this way, but there's a general idea that oil companies used to do most things on their own. They had lots of petrophysicsts, processed seismic data, did their own training. And life was good, and oil was easy to find, so the story goes. I've written about this before. Then, starting about 15 years ago, connected no doubt with one of the many busts our industry enjoys, there was a boom in outsourcing. Experts in seismic acquisition, petrophysics, and other critical niches all but vanished: fired, retired, or gone off to work at a service company. 


There are still lots of petroleum geologists and geophysicists around, but it's not enough. They are stretched, and supported by fewer technologists than ever. Valuable specialists are as good as gone (if you have to wait more than a couple of days for help, they effectively don't exist); even if you can find one, the chances are good that they are inexperienced in unconventional resources. On top of this, society craves resources we don't have, requiring us to be more imaginitive than ever and leading us to bitumen, shale gas, hydrates... plays which barely existed 10 years ago.

The result

No wonder oil industry professionals are often left to figure things out on their own. Don't get me wrong: this is awesome. It's fun, empowering, and a fantastic opportunity. But it's hard too: you make mistakes, sometimes it's stressful, you feel things could be better with a little help. Jobs like planning a $20M seismic shoot, getting $200k of lab work done, writing a Request for Proposals for a $400k environmental impact assessment are hard when you don't know what to ask for, or not ask for. This is why, when you get a report back (some seismic data, say, or X-ray diffraction analyses), you see this:

  • You ask for digital data and get a PDF (ha!) or bizarrely formatted Excel file
  • There is no mention of precision or accuracy, and the lab can't answer basic questions about either
  • The reporting is incomplete, e.g. weight-percent is reported for XRD data, but never volume-percent
  • The samples were collected from 'near' where you wanted them (you may never find out where exactly)
  • All the core photos are upside down (this is normal in Alberta, don't get me started)
  • A crucial and routine processing step was missed 'because no-one asked for it'

Now, I happen to be interested in lab methods, but I don't want to have to seek out a specialist just to help me get what I need. I want to focus on interpreting data and making better decisions. So when I outsource lab work, just as I have outsourced dentistry and landscape gardening, I expect the hired professional to bring their judgment and experience to me. I don't know what kind of dental resin to use, or what kind of plants like poorly drained ground: that's the whole point of outsourcing.

What can we do about it?

Geoscientists can stop worrying about expertise and not having enough of it. Half the things you are trying to do have no expert; tomorrow, you will be the expert. Just keep learning, reading, getting involved in research opportunities, and talking about or publishing your ideas. Most importantly of all: ask the stupid questions no-one else will ask, and challenge the way things are done. Seek out opportunities to innovate. 

Specialists can think about how to build shallow tools that expose deep domain knowledge to non-specialists. You may need to seek help with this, because it looks like 'dumbing down'. By all means, build thick manuals, 5-day training courses, and 100-step workflows, but don't forget to layer checklists, cheatsheets, and simple heuristics on top of it, as Evan has been advocating. You could think of this as user experience design for knowledge. 

Service companies can step up to this challenge too. Talking about awesome customer service isn't enough: you have to actually do it. Think long-term, build trust, invest in customers not with hockey tickets but with science, be a partner not a vendor. Above all, refuse to let your sales team and management infect your technical people with quotas and growth targets. Read Maister's The Trusted Advisor. Read Seth Godin. Without them having to ask, help your customers. 

The expert is dead! Long live the bewildered generalist.