Management Goes Mobile — Carl Stjernfeldt

MIT Sloan Sr. Lecturer Carl Stjernfeldt

It’s an old business rubric:  What gets measured, gets managed.

In the age of big data, the very basic set of measurements that managers used to rely on is expanding to a robust set of 24/7 sensor inputs from factory floors to off-shore petroleum platforms – all of it accessible across a wide variety of mobile devices to employees at many levels.

Management is now able to access data from varied locations, crunch it at headquarters and then return the enhanced data to managers out in the field, on the factory floor or on the oil fields. These new, more robust data sets will allow managers to make better decisions in a shorter amount of time than ever before. For companies in complex industries, such as Shell where I work, the potential for increased performance, efficiency and safety is enormous.

As an early example, Shell Canada conducted a trial where workers in the field, working on real wells, were provided tablets with some mobile solutions. The results were encouraging, with efficiency gains of five to 11 percent.

However, of greater importance perhaps, worker satisfaction also increased, as did compliance with reporting protocols. We found that when workers had a chance to use tools they liked and trusted – such as their normal mobile device or tablet instead of an arcane desktop-based application – satisfaction went up.

Similarly, when the data entered can be checked in real time and compared to the range of accepted values, compliance for data collection goes up. For companies active in areas where people are potentially in harm’s way, it also provides an early and effective pathway to increased safety – not only through a more effective way of reaching them, but also by proactively monitoring the environment around the workers and locating people who may be injured or lost.

Ironically, the fact that we have more data means that we can have less perfect data also. In the past, companies might have deployed the most expensive measurement equipment possible to measure incremental changes in temperature, pressure or other manufacturing variables. Now we can obtain and leverage a broad set of readings over a given time period, which means we can more closely understand our operations even when the basic underlying measurements appear to be less precise. But this requires new technology: endpoints (tablets) that can process and present data well; wireless networks that can transfer large amounts of data reliably; and data centers that can rapidly find the proverbial needle in the data haystack.

At Shell and across the industry, we are seeing an increased trend to use mobile solutions to unlock business value in ways we simply could not have imagined 10 years ago.

We can save money by not ordering the wrong parts. We can proactively monitor and schedule the replacement or maintenance of equipment instead of running them to failure. We can focus efforts on items that require our attention instead of performing work according to a fixed schedule. We can remotely perform work that is dangerous or hard to reach. We can adjust drilling operations in real time to maximize results. We can avoid duplication of efforts. And we can do all of this with greater job satisfaction.

That’s amazing when you consider that the technology was developed so that we could watch YouTube videos on our cell phones!

 Carl Stjernfeldt is a Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Senior Venture Principal, Shell Technology Ventures.

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