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Soft Skills

Deepwater Drilling:
Driven by Culture?
Asif Zafar, Amir Soltani, and the SoftSkills team

Deepwater drilling is a high-risk


operation. It involves going below water
depths of 500 ft to explore for oil and
gas. If there are any issues with the
subsurface equipment, divers cannot
intervene because human beings are
physically incapable of tolerating such
depths. But water pressure is not the
only thing a person working in deep
water needs to worry about. There
will also be significant challenges to
maintaining a work/life balance. The
extent of these challenges could depend
on ones culture and roots.
What, then, is culture? Culture is
based on the cumulated beliefs and
behaviors characteristic of a particular
group. Such a group could be as small
as a family or as large as a country.
Geert Hofstede, a Dutch sociologist,
conducted extensive surveys of
employees of different nationalities
working for multinational companies
and published his findings in a book
in 1980. He identified the following five
key dimensions of culture:
Uncertainty avoidance
Power distance
Masculinity
Individualism
Long-term orientation
He developed an index for each
of these dimensions. Lets see how
deepwater operations rank according
to these indices.

Uncertainty Avoidance
Index (UAI)
The UAI is a measure of how
comfortable a culture is in dealing
with uncertainty. Are the people in a
society comfortable with unstructured,
unpredictable, or ambiguous situations?
Are they flexible? Are they tolerant of
change? If people are flexible, they

listen to their inner voice and base


decisions on hunches, gut feelings,
or instinct. If they are not tolerant of
change, they try to control the future and
minimize uncertainty by planning and
implementing rules, regulations, and
standard operatingprocedures.
Cultures with high UAIs would
have low tolerance for something like
the deepwater business because of
the great technical and financial risks
involved. This has a great influence
on the level of preparation oil and
gas companies pursuing deepwater
prospects would need for entry into
a new country and their ability to
successfully recruit people from the
local country for high-risk jobs. Of
course, in countries whose culture
encourages adventure or risk-taking,
there would be few or no roadblocks.

Power Distance Index (PDI)


The PDI is a measure of how distant a
relationship a superior likes to have
with their subordinates, and vice
versa. In low-PDI cultures, everyone
expects to be listened to regardless
of status, rank, or background. People
do not blindly obey the orders of
their superiors. Leaders perceived as
autocratic or patronizing are shown
the door. Decision-making is not a topdown process. But, if the PDI is high,
people know their place. They show
off their status or class through dress
and behavior. Superiors talk down
to subordinates and make decisions
for them without consulting them. In
some families, parents decide for their
children with little consideration for
the childrens wishes and true debate
rarelyhappens.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book
Outliers: The Story of Success, referred

to the PDI. He talked about a correlation


between cultures with a high PDI
and plane crashes. He referred to the
analysis of black-box recordings of
crashes pertaining to two accidentprone airlines, one based in Korea,
the other in Colombia. He argued
that a power difference in the cockpit
between the pilot and the copilot
resulted in a fatal communication gap.
The copilot didnt want to embarrass
his pilot when the latter committed
errors. In one case, instead of directly
saying, The weather is really bad,
we should turn back immediately,
the copilot said, Sir, look how it is
rainingoutside.
Similar situations can arise on a
deepwater drilling rig: Someone sees
something hazardous but is afraid to
report it to the supervisor because
of deferral or fear of retribution.
Deepwater winners are those who not
only dare to apply new technology but
also communicate in a precise way
and pay attention to important details.
Effective, unbiased communication is
key to mitigating risks associated with
deepwater operations.

Masculinity (MAS)
The masculinity dimension represents
a preference for domination in a
culture. Are people always trying to
be the best or the first? Are people
very materialistic or very caring? Is
the society driven by superiority or
cooperation? In a culture with a high
MAS, people are willing to accept high
job stress to win (i.e., to achieve success
and acquire wealth). Gender roles are
clearly differentiated. The dominant
values in a low-MAS culture would be
relationships and quality of life. People
will care more outwardly for each other.
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Soft Skills

Also, in such a culture, men and women


have the same values.
In the competition for a million
barrels of oil and gas lying under
deep water, oil and gas companies
need people with expertise and
willingnessto do the job. Cultural
parameters such as low MAS may stand
in the way ofsuccess.

Individualism
This is a measure of whether a
cultureisindividualistic or grouporiented. In a highly individualistic
culture, one isessentially concerned
about the interest of oneself. On the
other hand,in a group-oriented or
collectivistic culture, the larger interests
of a group far outweigh the narrow
interests of an individual. The society
iscohesive.

Deepwater drilling operations


may put a premium on talent and
individual thinking. However, people
with different skills must work closely
together as a team to deliver safely and
successfully on promises.

Long-Term Orientation (LTO)


LTO is a measure of the time-horizon a
culture hasshort term or long term. If
the culture is short-term oriented, it will
be concerned with things in the near
future. Memories are short. Patience
wears thin. Quarter-end results are far
more significant than the ones achieved
over a 5-year period. However, a longterm oriented culture has a vision for the
further future.
Success in deepwater drilling is not
like instant coffee. It requires lots of
patience and perseverance. Cultures

with a high LTO index value are well


positioned to undertake the rigorous
tasks involved in deepwater operations.

One Size Does Not Fit All


Of course, one cannot make sweeping
generalizations. All individuals sharing
a given culture are not the same.
Just because a culture is shared, all
members wont have identical values.
There are always a few nonconformists
in every culture.
Nevertheless, deepwater
operations are high-risk, high-return
endeavors; it takes a very dedicated
and talented group of people to make
these operations run smoothly and
successfully. For the good of the oil
and gas industry, lets hope many more
people from all cultures develop all the
skills to pursue offshore work! TWA

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