The Oil and Gas Industry is facing a problem – the “baby boomer” generation is retiring, and taking their skills and experience with them.
Jostling to replace them are the millennials – a generation with a very different outlook on life and work. For millennials, the average tenure in a job position is two years. In technical roles, where it can take from six months to a year to train up a new recruit on the systems and processes, this clearly can lead to a great deal of wasted time and effort.
Honeywell, the multinational engineering, industrial and aerospace conglomerate is betting on a new generation of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) training tools to close this gap. The plan is to drastically reduce the time it takes to bring new employees up to speed, as well as redefine expectations on training and working practice to more closely align with millennial values.
Honeywell Connected Plant programme director Youssef Mestari spoke to me about their ambitious plans, which he says has already led to customers reducing operational costs by up to 50 % in some areas.
Mestari told me “The problem is the leakage of knowledge. As people leave, they take their knowledge with them, and until now there hasn’t really been an effective way to keep that knowledge within the plant or the company.”
Traditionally, when leaving their posts, what happens is that retirees will be asked to put what they have learned during their working lives – often their entire careers - onto Powerpoint slides or Word documents, which then find their way into the classroom-like training spaces.
This leads to problems. For a start, the learning experience for the newcomer is entirely passive. And research has shown that when learned passively, retention of information after three months is only about 20-30 %.
“Millennials have a different way of learning,” Mestari says. “In an era of abundance of information, it isn’t the ‘what’ that’s important. It’s the ‘where’.
“So, when we’re trying to transfer the knowledge from boomers to millennials, on the one side you have the boomers giving them the ‘what’, and the millennials saying, I don’t need that – just tell me where it’s stored and give me the tools so I can access it at the right time, when I need it.”
Honeywell Connected Plant’s solution involves equipping both the departing and arriving workers with Windows Mixed Reality Headsets as well as Microsoft HoloLens technology. Firstly, this allows the retirees to record precisely what they are doing as they carry out the processes involved in their work.
Secondly, this data is made available to the recruits immediately as they start their new roles, as information overlaid onto what they are seeing, thanks to AR.
This active, on-the-job form of training improves skill retention levels to the point where up to 80 % of the information is retained after three months.
Mestari says that this achieves a quadruple-whammy – solving four difficult problems relating to the transfer of knowledge from arriving to departing workers. Firstly the “information leak” caused by staff departing, secondly transferring that knowledge in the most efficient way, thirdly the typically short, two-year tenure of millennials and fourthly, the drastic improvement in knowledge retention after three months.
“Millennials change jobs frequently, particularly when the job is not exciting enough – they expect work to reflect their lifestyle, which means a strong lean towards digital content, interactivity, social and collaborative work practices. If it doesn’t have those elements they’ve become used to – in their education, from playing Xbox and Playstation and using social media – it doesn’t work.
“Just trying to fit them into the old systems of industry – which is lots of sheets of paper and check boxes – they just don’t fit. If it takes us a year to train them to become fully operational and they leave after another year, then we’re wasting the company’s money, and we’re wasting the trainer’s time, and the millennial’s time, too.”
The training programme is built, using knowledge passed down from the old hands, to simulate every area of operational practice. This means developing scenarios which cover six specific job activities: Installation, configuration, inspection, maintenance, troubleshooting and replacement of working parts.
“It allows you to learn by doing,” says Mestari. “You’re completely immersed in a real environment situation, but you’re learning without putting the plant performance or yourself at risk.
“We can’t recreate the entire environment physically – buy a double of every compressor and every pipe – and build a whole plant purely for training purposes. It would take up too much money and space.
“But we can build an environment where they can experience the steam coming from a pipe that is leaking, and ask them how they would react to that. You won’t be able to see clearly, because of all the steam – we can simulate that – what are the right procedures? We can only recreate this with VR and AR.”
The programme has already reduced maintenance costs on offshore platforms by up to 50 %. In one use case, a procedure which formerly involved flying in three workers by helicopter to carry out maintenance – at a cost of around $10,000 - now requires only one.
“We had one guy wearing the gloves – the guy with the wrench working on the asset. Then there would be a guy with a sheet of paper noting the procedure and coaching step-by-step – auditing as it happened. Then there would be an expert on standby nearby, ready to jump in if someone got stuck.
“Now we’ve made that into one guy – we reduced the number of people on board which increases safety and reduces the cost of the deployment, and the others will be supporting from inland. With the headsets, everything is voice-activated and can be traced and tracked in real-time. Our customers tell us this has reduced maintenance costs by 50 %.”
VR and AR clearly have an important role to play in redefining training as well as working practices in the digital age. But can the skills and experience picked up over a lifetime in industry be reduced to data points, ready for a new generation to access through cutting edge technology? That’s clearly the plan, and according to Honeywell, initial results are promising. Blurring the boundary between learning and working has the potential to more quickly create an informed and capable workforce, a practice I am sure will become more widely adopted soon.
Bernard Marr is a world-renowned futurist, influencer and thought leader in the field of business and technology. He is the author of 18 best-selling books, writes a regular column for Forbes and advises and coaches many of the world’s best-known organisations. He has 2 million social media followers and was ranked by LinkedIn as one of the top 5 business influencers in the world and the No 1 influencer in the UK.