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How VR oils the training wheels for BP when remote is the new normal

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton August 26, 2020
Oil giant BP is using Virtual Reality to onboard and train its engineers in complex areas – from offshore oil rigs to workplace diversity.

oil rig
(BP )

Change is happening in the energy sector. Oil and gas giants need to be much better stewards of the planet they extract resources from – and show people they are meeting that challenge. Automation and robotics are booming in an industry that is expensive to run and difficult to maintain. Sustainability and the environment are paramount, and the search is on for alternative sources of energy, from nuclear fusion to maximising the potential of wind, waves, and solar power.

All of this is why training people to work in the sector can be a challenge in itself, even for some of the biggest companies on the planet. Values, attitudes, and workplaces are changing; engineering skills are at a premium; costs need to be controlled across multinational operations; and COVID-19 has forced people off oil platforms and onto cloud ones.

Simulate to stimulate

So, how does an organization train workers in everything from diversity through corporate values to the workings of installations that are miles out at sea? The answer is: simulate everything from an oil rig to an argument. Virtual Reality (VR) is gaining a foothold in industries where physical working environments are extreme, dangerous, complex, costly, or simply a long way away. 

Anthony Del Barto is Learning Technology Manager at oil giant BP. He explains that since March 2020 there has been a major change in how the company organises its training regime worldwide:

Until about five months ago, my focus was in the upstream segment of the organization. So the vast majority of our content focused on upstream operations – everything from appraisal websites and geologic analysis, through to production, drilling, and the extraction of hydrocarbons. That's where we were.

Since then, there has been a big change within BP: those segments are all going away. Our focus now is going to be right across the organization - upstream, midstream, downstream, and pretty much everything in between. Now we’ll be able to work with teams that are in the retail side of things, legal, and negotiations, as well as the technical operators we've been servicing in the field. This is a global operation.

The thinking behind such a massive transformation is straightforward:

Being able to train right across the organization, rather than focusing on specific segments, gives us the opportunity to learn in one area while leveraging that same experience in another.  The strategy is really around simplification, reducing silos, gaining efficiencies. It’s about knocking down the walls and allowing the organisation to move forward holistically. It’s about streamlining the organization.

This may suggest that BP believes its workers will need more transferrable skills in the future, that they may be required to take on different roles, flexibly, as automation spreads. Del Barto says that’s possible: 

BP has always up-skilled team members through a variety of different channels. It's possible that with the application of agile principles and practices, being more tactical could mean individuals throughout the organization building different skill sets, or multiple skill sets within teams, so they can support more than one part of the organization.

Modelling the future

So how does VR fit into the picture? Del Barto explains that BP is using the Immerse VR and simulation platform on laptops, iPads, and Oculus headsets right across its training needs – including in areas that are not often associated with virtual environments

One of those is very much focused on life-saving rules, on safety awareness training for operators…So one area is the technical side, but we’re also looking at how we can apply the technology to diversity and inclusion, or to the simulation of contract negotiations. We're very much trying to apply it right across the board. We are not just looking at technical skills, but also at leveraging simulations to train in soft skills as well.

Remote viewing

BP uses VR to create models of its offshore assets too, but again in support of internal processes, such as safety training or virtual onboarding in complex installations:

How do we train individuals that have never been to these assets, or are maybe traveling offshore for the first time? We use VR to make the transition to an offshore platform as easy as possible. For example, we give them an idea of where the mess hall is and where they will be sleeping. We give them a way to onboard at a facility without ever having set foot in there.

Time is money in the oil business and transporting workers to offshore platforms by boat or helicopter is particularly expensive. VR here is clearly a cost saver, but Del Barto stresses that the strategy is about more than keeping costs down:

The idea is not to replace face-to-face training, but to provide our operators and technicians with a safe place to practice their skills – and a safe place to fail – in order to increase their performance. Once they leave the classroom, they can continue using simulations themselves to hone those skills and keep sharp, rather than having to go away on a course for a week. They may not use a skill for six months, but when they do they're expected to just apply it. So this is a way for us to continue that education, even if they're in remote locations.

It’s all about the data

There are other benefits too in the form of reams of valuable data that help the company get smarter, he adds: 

What drove us to land on Immerse [as a platform] is its ability to deliver synchronous and asynchronous training. We can record each training session. That really provides us with an internal simulation ecosystem that we can use to measure user performance, track that performance, identify high performers, and then modify our training to increase the performance of all our other technicians to match.

Outside of Immerse, which is specifically a VR/simulation tool, BP is also using Augmented Reality (AR) via smartphones and iPads, both in technical training and to help geologists identify hydrocarbon deposits in rock faces, for example.

But a lot else has changed in 2020 for everyone and COVID has had its own impact on BP. That said, Del Barto says the company had already decided to use VR and AR where possible:

It's re-affirmed the technology’s value to us. We knew coming into this year that VR would definitely be a value-add. However, the outcome of folks having to work remotely has reinforced that value-add, along with the opportunity to deliver effective training globally and remotely, while being able to maintain social distancing. 

So the virus definitely hasn't delayed things, but it hasn't accelerated them much either. We simply want to make sure that what we deploy, we deploy right first time. The system itself is already fully implemented and our goal is to have a number of new VR simulation training programmes in place by the end of the year. It's definitely raised awareness of the criticality of having remotely accessible training. It's shone a light on the value that this kind of technology brings.

But there is a downside that affects a minority of users as not everyone is comfortable in a simulated world. Del Barto explains: 

Why not VR? That is the question. The answer is some individuals, quite frankly, get motion sick with the experience. Others aren't comfortable with having a device on their face. Some may have concerns over germs, or something along those lines.  But from what we've seen so far, that really only impacts on maybe 10 to 15% of our overall population; not a large portion. But by the same token, we want to make sure that the training we deliver is for everyone. The technology itself is improving substantially in a very short timescale.

Being able to run simulations on laptops and tablets as well as on headsets helps BP to exclude as few people as possible from the programme. After all, that’s one of the drivers for change.

My take

Anecdotally, from other conversations with technology leaders in large organizations, this 10 to 15 percent of the workforce is roughly the same proportion that has struggled with remote working from home. It is wise to remember that technology will always exclude some skilled, talented people as well as help teams to collaborate. Not everyone has the same mindset, the same physical abilities, or the same capacity to change. That said, whether you are drilling for oil or down into complex workplace relationships, VR has unexpected benefits in a world where remoteness has become the norm. 

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