Benefit of Virtual Teams – the BP Experience (from mid-1990s)

In Knowing the Drill: Virtual Teamwork at BP, Don Cohen looks at the benefits that accrued to BP from virtual teaming approaches and technology in the 1990s.

My summary notes:
– The “wow” story is how drilling engineers in the North Sea in 1995 resolved a problem with faulty hardware in a couple of hours using a video link to Aberdeen. Without the link the ship would have had to return to port, losing BP a minimum of $150,000 per day (the cost to lease the ship). That’s powerful ROI!
– BP’s management authorized an 18-month, $13 million pilot project to test the concept of videoconferencing between multiple sites.
– The project was undertaken separately from the IT Department, so as to “emphasize that the objective was behavior and work pattern change, not technology.”
– The pilot project focused on five carefully selected groups.
– Results from the pilot project were objectively tracked and measured, using outside consultants.
– Deliberate coaching was used to get the benefits of virtual teaming. This was broken into two main parts: 20% on training people how to use the technology, and 80% on “challenging and helping them to exploit its capabilities to serve their business needs.” The team spent 50% of their project budget on coaching.
– One group was set up without coaching, and failed:

Due to budget constraints, one of the projects — the new network of geoscientists and engineers — was set up without coaching. The members of what was called the Virtual Petrotechnical Team were given VT equipment and essentially left alone to find uses for it. This project was the only one of the five that failed. The problem was not that the group couldn’t make the technology work — it was fairly simple to operate. What they lacked was an understanding of why they should bother. Remarks from the team (“I don’t see how this fits in with my work.” “The people I want to talk to are not on the network.”) were similar to those made initially by other teams. In part because there was no one to help the group explore the value of the system and overcome their skepticism, their VT network declined and eventually fell silent.” (emphasis added )

– Once the other groups experienced the benefits of the system, “enthusiasm and use increased.”
– Face-to-face meetings were significantly reduced, although not eliminated entirely. After meeting in-person first, videoconferencing “maintained a richness of communication and a sense of direct personal contact” that other tools couldn’t deliver.
– Commitments between people, made over video, were honored more consistently than commitments made by phone or email.
– “Virtual coffee breaks” over videoconferencing were encouraged between the sites, to stimulate knowledge sharing.

A couple of notes:
– Great case study, even though it is 15 years old.
– The importance of coaching and helping people “re-imagine” how they work is an important concept in my book, User Adoption Strategies. It’s the focus of Stage 3 of the User Adoption Four Stages model, called “Enlivening Applicability.”
– I haven’t looked yet, but I’d love an update on what BP have done since the mid-90s.

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