Innovation Advances Digital Culture Throughout Company
A technology initiative is changing more than the digital landscape at Murphy Oil. Since its deployment in November 2018, Murphy Labs is changing the very culture of the corporation.
Murphy Labs, known as mLabs, is a centralized content-management portal through which users navigate content developed within Murphy Oil. It uses virtual project teams from around the globe, integrating the vertical and horizontal expertise of individual members with an aptitude for technology. The result is a growing bank of cross-discipline, cross-functional solutions organized by different business units. mLabs provides dashboards, apps, videos, and tutorials to everyone in the Murphy network. And everyone contributes.
Eric Hambly, executive vice president, onshore, for Murphy Oil, said mLabs has sparked a significant shift in the culture of the company. “People are no longer thinking about themselves as merely recipients of technology. They are actively involved in identifying problems and actually building things that their peers can use,” he said. “We’re seeing quick and elegant solutions from citizen app developers.”
The model began in 2017, when Hambly recognized an opportunity to welcome innovation in a different way. He kicked off the effort with an initiative that encouraged nearly 600 people to “innovate, develop, enhance, analyze, and share.” Groups of employees and contractors from across three countries and four Murphy offices—Gulf of Mexico, Houston, Calgary, and Malaysia—brainstormed, talked openly, and voted on ideas that could improve how they do business.
The response was staggering: More than 1,200 ideas were collected. The ideas ranged from small-scale to large-scale and included big data solutions (18.4%), artificial intelligence (15.9%), and proposed long-term technology innovations such as blockchain (6.5%). The majority of the ideas, however, 59.2% overall, were focused on short-term automation and rapid fixes that would empower employees to complete their work faster and better. Hambly diagnosed 250 unique ideas and then surveyed employees to determine the most-important ideas.
The pressing need for automation became even more evident when people were asked about existing data processes. Of the responders, 67.4% spent more than 2 hours on manual data entry daily. Nearly everyone was consuming data using CSV or Excel, the pivoting tool favored by 78%, compared with Spotfire at 15.1% and Power BI or Tableau at less than 7%.
The big understanding that emerged from the initiative was that the transformation of data would affect more than 98% of daily business operation. In addition, bringing together people, processes, and data would have a cumulative and accelerating effect on data development, access, and automation.
Armed with quantified feedback, Hambly tested the first few ideas in the onshore US business unit. One rollout was a software-platforms tool that improves the functionality of remote operating centers by allowing operators to prioritize tasks and track completion from a dashboard. The tool has reduced field staff by 32%, optimized driving routes, and identified and engineered out defects, all of which reduce downtime.
Another rollout was the Flowback app, which was developed for operators of newly drilled and completed onshore wells. It replaces time-consuming spreadsheets and emails with the ability to input data, make historical comparisons, and share thoughts in real time by everyone on the team. Particularly useful in the shale play, the Flowback app aligns expectations, reduces costs, and helps the team collectively drive outcomes.
The initial response was a tremendous success. “People were excited to see the quick implementation of ideas to pressing problems,” Hambly said. “We were leveraging our people and our existing IT [information technology] system to impact the bottom line in a big way.”
The initiative inspired a new corporate conversation at Murphy. The daily dialogue now involved technical presentations, town-hall initiatives, and ideas for project development. Along with the innovation surfaced a new need: a way to organize the ideas. Hambly turned to Sean Aslam, full stack developer at Murphy, to create a solution.
“The time came when we knew we needed a place to hold our ideas and content,” said Aslam, the architect behind mLabs. “But we also knew this wouldn’t be just any content-management portal. It would be a decentralized and crowd-sourced model to promote the collaboration and content development that had been sparked among us.”
The mLabs Movement
Employees quickly embraced the disruptive model of mLabs. In the first 2 months alone, people created 44 apps, 30 dashboards, and seven videos.
One reason for the early adoption is the practical way in which the products are developed. “The products are being developed by the actual end users and business units,” Aslam said. “People know exactly what they want, so they’re starting with the end in mind and working backward to create real solutions that work.”
Another reason for the fast growth is the cross-discipline approach to project teams. This approach is producing a growing number of advocates and product champions in various roles and business units.
“At first, I thought I was the least likely person to play a large role in this initiative,” said Laura Naaykens, administrative assistant in Murphy’s Canadian business unit. “But it is rewarding to receive appreciation and recognition for an idea that I develop and publish with the team. I’m using my personal experience to show people that, if I can do it, they can too.”
Naaykens is the developer of the Sandbox, a data-integration app on mLabs that transforms an hours-long Excel process into a digital process completed in minutes. Not only does it replace a redundant process, but the digital process also includes analysis that was not possible with flat Excel files. Naaykens also supported a business development team in Canada in the development of the Take or Pay app. Take or Pay handles robust third-party commitments by calculating and forecasting costs instantly on the basis of changing risk schedules, which helps issues be addressed immediately, avoiding unnecessary fees and keeping all team members in the loop.
Naaykens also attributes the early success of the model to the use of 2-minute tutorials about the portal and its apps. The videos are quickly building employees’ awareness of how they can improve work flow and broaden the scope of possibilities.
“It’s empowering,” she said. “The tutorials help eliminate the fear of change and are easily shareable. We are provided with the reins to make an idea go live very quickly, with minimal training time.”
Aslam said that another motivating factor is the fact that new initiatives are highlighted and power users and product developers are named in the portal. “There is equal recognition for contributions regardless of a developer’s position in Murphy,” he said.
As mLabs is being used to approach problems across Murphy globally, the buzz among users is that the environment created is reminiscent of the culture at Google. Field operators, developers, and executives alike are beginning to connect their data in organic and convenient ways.
“This model is bridging the gap between developers and users. We are sharing knowledge, reducing frustration, and building respect for each other’s contributions,” Naaykens said. “It’s getting minds churning. And, along the way, mLabs is building strong relationships.”
One of the more notable effects of the technology emerging from mLabs is work flow optimization, said Moksh Dani, a staff reservoir engineer. Dani manages the reserves for US onshore operations at Murphy and said he noticed “huge” efficiencies as soon as he developed the Type Curve app.
The Type Curve app creates unique type curves and forecasts from a multitude of user-defined parameters for undeveloped wells. As many as 5,000 unique type curves have been created and input into forecasting software. Whereas, in the past, Dani manually entered data into Excel spreadsheets, now his work on mLabs is no longer at risk of being lost, manipulated, or difficult to transfer to another person.
“This allows us to better understand our expectations for results and make adjustments on the fly,” Dani said. “A week of manual data entry has been eliminated from our process. And our work was recently audited and approved, too. The ability to accomplish this has allowed us to focus on analysis instead of data entry.”
In fact, Dani was so pleased with the results that he developed a second app, Live Lookback App (LLA). Like Type Curve, LLA replaces a labor-intensive task—in this case, updating a database with actuals—with an automated process that allows visibility for the entire management team.
“Everything and everyone is connected and open,” Dani said. “The numbers are available on demand for whoever is interested. We’re all up to speed.”
Another effect of mLabs technology is improved data accuracy and availability of historical data, an aspect that inspired Sahba Safafar, an artificial-lift (AL) engineer with Murphy’s US onshore operations, to create the AL Failure Database app. This internal development transformed a recording system of pump failures from a 12-parameter Excel spreadsheet to a 300-parameter database.
“I was able to transition my small reporting system from Excel onto mLabs and grow it into a product on a much larger scale,” Safafar said. “This has significantly improved the quantity and quality of historical data that is at the fingertips of operators and contractors. We now have the power to learn from previous failures and troubleshoot and prevent future failures.”
In addition, the highly interactive modules of the AL Failure Database app enable daily, real-time communication between supervisors, contractors, and vendors. It eliminates misinformation and missing information while in the field.
“By using the failure database and constant data analysis, we have been able to reduce our AL failure rate by 73% within the past 4 years,” Safafar said. “This has helped us keep the same number of failures while growing our portfolio and well count.”
mLabs is not just for onshore operations. Schylor Broussard, control room operator on the Medusa platform in Gulf of Mexico, emphasized the convenience of the technology for offshore operations, too.
“It’s much easier to navigate on mLabs than to juggle multiple reports in Excel,” he said. “I can create a flight request, print a manifest, and share information all in one place. It’s self-explanatory and user-friendly. We just wish there was more.”
The Future of mLabs
Murphy has more in store for mLabs. Broussard is one member of a growing chorus of people who are demanding more products. And, because the model is user-driven, Murphy employees are coming up with new ideas to fulfill the demand.
They are also building on the successes. Based on the response to the Type Curve app, Dani said he already has plans for a new phase.
“We are ready to apply our technology to competitors,” he said. “We want to automate a database of competitors’ areas and receive notifications any time one of their type curves is beating ours. There is a lot of power in that.”
Aslam said mLabs is just getting started. The architect has defined key performance indicators and is now using analytics to monitor the usage of all products in the portal. He is tracking how, when, and by whom apps are being used.
“We know whether a build is popular or not. We can modify underutilized content, highlight trending initiatives, and continue to move in the direction that people at Murphy want to go,” he said.
Because of its highly agile approach to product development, the mLabs model is expected to thrive in dynamic oil markets. The rapid development cycles, propagation, and learning bring stability to work flows even in continuous cycles of hiring and attrition.
“The potential is huge not just for Murphy,” said Molly Smith, Murphy’s general manager for onshore drilling and completions. “When it comes to the future, platforms like mLabs that integrate multidiscipline data to drive real-time analytics have the potential to change how the industry performs business.”
Sean Aslam, data engineer/full stack developer with Murphy Oil, is a member of the technology team and provides support for the data science team. He holds a bachelor’s degree from University of Houston. With more than 4 years of experience in the oil and gas industry and 9 years of experience in IT, Aslam has met IT and business needs in all areas of Gulf of Mexico operations, including daily operations, maintenance, production management, and forecasting.
Huzeifa Ismail, data scientist with Murphy Oil, has more than 10 years of experience addressing challenges for the oil and gas industry in the area of engineering and data science. Ismail holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brandeis University and a PhD degree in chemical physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has authored numerous technical articles and patents.
Eric Hambly, executive vice president for onshore with, Murphy Oil, joined Murphy in 2006 as corporate reserves manager and has earned roles with increasing responsibility, primarily focusing on eastern hemisphere operations. He was named senior vice president for US onshore in 2016 and promoted to his current role in 2018. Hambly holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering from Brigham Young University and has completed the General Management Program at Harvard Business School.
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