Friday 25 June 2010

Did KM fail at BP?

Given the high profile environmental disaster in the Gulf Region, BPs role in that disaster, and BP's reputation for KM, there are a lot of people questioning what went wrong. Comments seem to be along the lines of

"If BP are so good at KM, how come the Deepwater Horizon exploded"?

These are my personal thoughts.


Knowledge Management does not make you invincible, not does good KM make you immune from disasters.

BP has very good KM systems (in my view as an external consultant, still doing work for BP). They were good in the 90s, and they are good now. BP is IMO not the leader in oil-sector KM (that prize would go to ConocoPhillips) but they are not far behind the leaders. Their standing in the global MAKE awards is valid.

We do not yet know what caused the Deepwater Horizon accident. We don't know whether it was caused by a failure to manage existing knowledge, or a lack of knowledge, or was nothing to do with KM at all. We don't know the relative roles played by BP, by Transocean and Halliburton. There's a lot of blamestorming going on, a lot of media and political hype, but we do not yet know the root causes behind the well kick, and the failure of the Blow-out presenter. So it is far too early to say that BP Knowledge Management failed.

As Tony Hayward himself said in his testimony to Congress, "this is a complex accident, caused by an unprecedented combination of failures. A number of companies are involved, including BP, and it is simply too early to understand the cause. There is still extensive work to do".

There seem to have been up to 7 potential contributory factors to the accident, listed by Hayward as follows

1. The cement that seals the reservoir from the well;
2. The casing system, which seals the well bore;
3. The pressure tests to confirm the well is sealed;
4. The execution of procedures to detect and control hydrocarbons in the
well, including the use of the blowout preventer (BOP) and the maintenance of that BOP;
5. The BOP Emergency Disconnect System, which can be activated by pushing a button at multiple locations on the rig;
6. The automatic closure of the BOP after its connection is lost with the rig; and;
7. Features in the BOP to allow ROVs to close the BOP and thereby seal the well at the seabed after a blowout.

4,5,6 and 7 all represent the Failure of the Failsafe - the failure of the BOP, which was supposed to be failure-proof. At first sight, this looks like a Black Swan - an event that is outside current experience. Knowledge Management cannot deal with Black Swans.

I know Hayward has become a media target, but one of the more positive things you can see in his testimony is his commitment to Lessons Learned arising from this disaster.

Ultimately we are going to have to wait and find out what went wrong, before we know whether Knowledge Management failed for BP during the drilling of the MC252 well with the Deepwater Horizon. A goal for Knowledge Management will be to make sure that watever it was, it never ever happens again, to anyone, anywhere, and I am pleased to see in Haywards transcript that this is also BPs goal.


Michele Costanza said...

Nick: Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I learned so much from reading Collison and Parcell's (2004) Learning to Fly, based on their experiences with KM at BP. I've learned a lot from reading your blogs. The public perception is that BP stifled concerns about safety from workers in the field. That's incongruent with a culture of knowledge sharing. Without a trained knowledge facilitator to conduct AARS, peer assists, and retrospects, was it possible that KM didn't reach all levels of BP, or maybe BP in the U.S.?

Nick Milton said...

Hi Michele

That's certainly the public perception, but until the investigation is complete we don't know if that's the truth, or whether it was a contributory factor or not.

Also I don't know enough about this well to know whether the full KM suite was applied - I assume it would have been - but there is no lack of facilitators for Peer Assists and AARs in the Gulf coast. There are full-time KM staff based in the Houston office.

Sudha said...

hi Nick...a very apt post...i was having the very same discussion with a KM skeptic and friends, they picked up this aggressive conversation with me cos i was the only KM professional in the group :)..I dint see a point defending the need for KM, but yes i did my best.i guess i need to simply point them to this post

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