Commentary: Embracing digital labor in oil and gas

By Rachel Everaard

What do we mean when we talk about digital labor? Forget robots and androids. Digital labor refers to the use of sophisticated software to manage repetitive, high-volume tasks across an enterprise — a transformation that has the potential to add significant value in the oil and gas sector.

Rachel Everaard is a Principal in the People Advisory Services practice at EY. She is based in Houston. 

Leading oil and gas companies are already embracing a new future of work but the vast majority still have a long way to go. A recent EY survey reveals nearly two-thirds of executives in the sector believe new technology will require companies to retrain and redeploy existing employees. Fifty-three percent also believe digital labor will create opportunities and necessitate hiring new talent. These results may be encouraging on the surface, but too many executives continue to see digital labor as a thing of the future — not the present. Companies need to acknowledge that change is taking place now. After all, the benefits are too valuable to ignore.

Digital labor works with a company’s core systems and existing applications, handles transaction processing, data manipulation, communication and response triggering. Or, to be more specific:

• Accessing and gathering data from several different applications to complete their activities
• Moving data from one system to another
• Checking the consistency of data between multiple systems
• Updating the same information in multiple systems
• Waiting for alerts/events to initiate their activities
• Remediating data across several accounts

READ: Fewer jobs in oil patch as automation picks up

These tasks are currently manually carried out by staff. They are typically time consuming and don’t take advantage of an employee’s real skills or experience. Digitizing these tasks not only drives performance and effectively reduces the risks associated with human error, but also frees people to focus on value-added or customer-facing activities. It’s not about reducing headcount but, rather, giving existing employees more freedom to think and act strategically.

EY research shows that, if used effectively, each implemented robot can eliminate work for up to 2.5 employees. That’s significant savings of time that can be used differently in the organization.

Tapping in to these results is often easier than expected. Most companies begin their strategy with a targeted introduction that guarantees a quick win and rapid return on investment — seen as quickly as eight weeks in to a transition. This usually means digital labor is applied to a small, specific set of tasks. This measured approach allows companies to gain proof of concept — an important element in supporting a broader cultural shift in the organization. It gives leaders and employees the change to buy-in to a new workplace model when witnessing small-scale benefits. Once initial pilots are complete, companies can then easily expand digital labor to benefit other areas of the organization.

Digital labor isn’t a vision of the future. It’s here today and will quickly become a new standard across the industry to enhance competitiveness in a lower-for-longer price environment. So, is your company ready to take advantage of new technologies, or are you rooted in the past?