Stormy times brought out the risk-avoiders in the oil industry -- but now that demand for exploration is growing, will visionaries and visualists have their day in the sun?
Arthur R. Green, chief geoscientist for ExxonMobil Corp. in Houston, sees many kinds of creative individuals blending together in the company's work teams.
And, he noted, it takes all kinds to explore for oil and gas.
"In our teams, what we've noticed is that we all think so differently," Green said. "These left-brain people go so divergent on you and say things like, 'We've got to get a product out.' People who are right-brained tend to visualize things."
Researchers identify the left side of the brain with an analytic, sequential approach to reasoning, and the right side of the brain with a global or holistic approach. The left side of the brain has been called the home of language and logic, the right side the general-concept or "artistic" brain.
Left-brained people might prefer an assessment report on a basin. "Other people say, 'Draw me a cross section of the basin and that's how I'll understand it,'" Green explained.
The search for creative vision isn't a trivial problem: If current energy-demand estimates are correct, the industry will need to generate thousands of viable exploration prospects and spend up to $200 billion per year on fossil-fuel development.
The question may not be, Who can find the reservoirs?
Instead, it might be, Who can find the reservoir-finders?
Send In the Clones
Robert M. Sneider is president of Sneider Exploration Inc., a Houston exploration and consulting company. Earlier in his career, he spent more than 17 years working for Shell Oil and Shell Development.
While at Shell, Sneider said, he was assigned to an intriguing project: The company noticed that a relatively small number of explorers generated most of the top-quality exploration prospects, and it wanted to know why.
Why did they want to know why? Because Shell wanted to profile these prospect generators so it could hire new employees just like them, he said.
Sneider joined the hunt to develop a list of common traits.
Here's the result:
There were no universal traits common to the best explorers. Different people. Different personalities. Different approaches.
"It was surprising to me that among all these people who were great explorers, there were not unique characteristics," Sneider said. "You couldn't determine what kind of person to hire."
Sneider remains convinced that most good explorers share some similarities -- curiosity, for example, and a refusal to accept routine answers to problems. The best explorers want to understand the answers themselves.
"The people who are successful in exploration seem to me to share two characteristics," he said. "The first thing is, they have a backlog of analogs. They know what makes a play work.
"The second is, they can see a few data points and fill in the holes in the data sets."
Sneider called this "intuition plus experience." He also noted that many successful geologists spend quite a bit of time doodling -- a right-brained function.
He explained that, in petroleum geology, the technical term for doodling is "map-making."
Over the past decade, companies have developed exploration teams of in-house experts from different disciplines. Green said making these teams productive and successful is essential to exploration today.
He listed the use of "human technology" as a key challenge for the industry.
At ExxonMobil, according to Green, team members routinely use the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, a tool that helps identify personality types. It's "kind of fun" to work with a team of diverse individuals and to plot each person's type, he said.
Also, he observed, ExxonMobil teams often combine specialists from many countries.
"Superimposed on that right-brain/left-brain thing are all those cultural differences," Green said. "Making a (multicultural) team work has really been an experience here. Now, I'm not sure I could work with a team where everybody is from the same country."
More and more, those multicultural, multidisciplinary teams also are dual-gender. Green said it's been "a positive advancement to have a number of women on our teams sometimes."
Sneider has written extensively about teams and teamwork in the petroleum industry. He's the author of AAPG Continuing Education Course Note Series #37, "Multidisciplinary Teams: How and Why They Make You Money."
Creative people rarely have trouble in teams, Sneider noted.
"People who are creative are creative no matter where you put them," he said. "People who don't have creativity can be overwhelmed working with people who do have a lot of creativity."
In his course notes, Sneider quotes AAPG president Marlan W. Downey, then of Arco International: "Many of the most successful exploration teams flourish in entrepreneurial settings, and exploration staffs in successful companies are often seen to be 'mavericks' in conventional corporate culture."
"Sometimes people who are really creative come with things that are not 'normal,'" Sneider explained. "They may not see eye-to-eye with other people, including their bosses. But I don't call them mavericks. I just call them very creative people."
Every Day, A Little Breadth
At the AAPG 2000 annual meeting in New Orleans, Green presented the paper "Exploration in a World Without Walls," in which he outlined the problems facing explorers in the decade ahead.
"There's good news and bad news about the walls coming down," he said. "The good news is that we get to look at 35-40 percent more basins than we've ever seen before. The bad news is that we weren't used to the basin types we were seeing for the first time."
In his paper, Green listed the following major challenges to the oil and gas industry:
- Adjusting to globalization.
- Handling technology.
- Organizing data.
- Structuring the business.
- Managing "human technology."
He added to that list "understanding who we are as petroleum geologists" as a special problem.
Asked what experienced geologists need today, Green quickly answered, "Job security." He believes new geologists coming into the industry should have an extremely broad background and speak "at least three" languages.
ExxonMobil sees more and more geologist applicants with two master's degrees, with the second typically in reservoir engineering, according to Green.
"We try to get our new geologists into reservoir engineering school as soon as possible," he said. "And you sure don't want to have to beg an engineer to calibrate a tool for you."
Today, petroleum geologists are expected to be able to pick up a seismic line and work it, Green commented. "It's not just a matter of working one tool anymore," he said. "It's working all of the tools together."
Sneider also thinks geologists who use geophysics are on the cutting edge of exploration. And, naturally, he considers effective team skills essential.
Unfortunately, he added, education for a geologist rarely emphasizes those skills. For instance, only a few universities now give grades on the basis of student-group achievement, he observed.
Hi-Ho, the Clamorous Life
Teamwork doesn't always come naturally.
"People have a fear that their ideas will get captured by the group," Sneider said, "and they won't get credit for them."
That reluctance, coupled with the difficulty of combining different personalities and viewpoints, makes team-building a chore. Companies often settle for workgroups instead of teams, according to Sneider.
"There's nothing wrong with workgroups, but you don't get the kind of results you do with a team. One difference is that (a workgroup) doesn't have the possibility of leapfrogging to a conclusion," he said.
"A lot of companies are really trying to have teams. The problem is, there aren't enough managers who have grown up working in teams themselves."
Changing that reality is just a matter of time, Sneider noted. The next generation of managers will bring a new set of experiences to a much different industry. Green believes changes happening today are on the scale of those that transformed the world 100 years ago.
Now, as then, the rule of survival is adapt-or-disappear, he said: "I think there are a lot of similarities to the 1890s and 1900s. There was 10 or 15 years there when the world completely changed, and a lot of people didn't cope. They just couldn't handle it."