An Interview with Cory Bergh and Michele Taylor

Two guys recording a podcast interview

An Interview with Cory Bergh and Michele Taylor

This week’s article is the transcript from an interview with Cory Bergh, a leader of digital change at NAL Resources, and Michele Taylor, a champion for training in digital topics.

If you’d like to hear the interview, you can find it by searching for ‘Digital Oil and Gas’, on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and Google.

Geoffrey Cann:  Welcome to another episode of Digital Oil and Gas. My name is Geoffrey Cann, and I’m joined today by two friends and colleagues of mine, Michele Taylor, who is the founder of Digital Girl and CEO of IQ Management, and Cory Bergh, who is the VP for Financial and Information Services for NAL Resources, so welcome, Michelle and Cory.

Michelle:  Thanks for having us.

Cory:  Yeah, thanks for having us, Geoffrey.

Geoffrey: So what I wanted to talk about today was around the importance of digital training and awareness building for people who are working in the industry, in oil and gas, because as this wave of digital change approaches us, one of the first orders of business is to get smart on what digital actually is. And so Michele, you’re involved with putting on and organizing training courses, and you have a lengthy 20-year career in doing that across a wide range of industries, and Cory, you’re leading the digitization energies at your company, and therefore you have a firsthand perspective on the importance of getting people aware of digital issues and innovation and so forth. So that’s the reason, for today’s conversation is on those topics.

But Cory, let me begin with you if you don’t mind just a little bit about your background and your role at NAL and what you do there.

Cory:  All right, well, I’ve worked at NAL since 2007 in various roles, starting off in financial planning analysis and moving through the back office administration, supervisory over the past few years, and so right now I’m Vice President of Financial and Information Services, I have a bunch of departments that are reporting to me—production counting, joint venture accounting, financial accounting, financial systems, cash management, AP, procurement, IT and document management, so a fairly broad group of people that handle a lot of the activities that occur after a barrel of oil or a deck of gas is produced, and so, I spend a lot of time with those people and it’s actually a huge focus, in terms of efficiency, and it’s also a great opportunity for me to experiment with, how digital can impact the work that these people do.

Geoffrey:  Are you on the management team?

Cory:  On the executive level, I’m the executive sponsor for our efficiency strategy at NAL and our carbon footprint reduction strategy, so I’m involved in all aspects of change at NAL as it relates to trying to rebuild the company to compete in this lower for longer, lower forever price environment that we find ourselves in.

Geoffrey:  And do you have a CA , as part of your sort of training for this role?

Cory:  No, I have a CFA, which is my designation, right, I have BCom and MBA as well.

Geoffrey:  Oh right, and Michelle, what’s your background in context to Digital Girl and IQ management?

Michelle:  Yeah, so I mean, my background really is quite diverse, in that I grew up in IT out of hardware and software deployment and infrastructure, and I’ve had a lot of opportunity to work here in Alberta, and other markets as well, but specifically in oil and gas, I’ve probably been into every single office and those that have changed over the last 20 to 25 years, and specifically around enterprise architecture and advisory servicing the Office of the CIO, many of our clients have been the larger energy companies and also utility companies, municipal as well as government, account corporations, like the AER, for example. And so the work that we’ve done over the years has been around advisory, and in that, we’ve done a lot of boot camps, a lot of education, and a lot of purpose-built seminars that were to really elevate the community at large, and so some of them were fees to attend, others were just to actually build a community here in Calgary and other markets.

So, my background coming out of IBM with education, my main pillar and belief around change, and Cory touched on that is that you can’t really affect change unless you’re actually providing some insights and some leadership, and of course, education is part of that, and it can be on purpose or could be as part of a vendor experience, but right now, I’m really focused with Digital Girl and of course, working with yourself to bring the executive level digital knowledge and awareness into the community into the energy sector, and that’s really a very exciting thing for me right now because I think that the  common challenge around the price as Cory mentioned, we need to get better at it, and so this is a big commitment for me right now to support the community.

Geoffrey:  So Cory on the topic of the change journey that you’ve been on, how has training in the topics of digital and the terminology and the nomenclature, has that figured in your change journey? Have you invested time and energy on your own part, or with your teams to get people up to speed on what digital actually is?

Cory:  Oh absolutely, I think training is critical, but I think it’s the kind of training that you get when you’re making this change, I think it depends on the stage you’re at.  So, when NAL Executive decided to become more efficient in 2015, when they saw prices moving downward, and they didn’t really have a view that how quickly it would return, you start off by telling everybody that we’re going to change, and then you wait for something to happen, and in many cases, you know, people come to work and they don’t have any other tool kit than they had the day before, and so you find yourself wondering why something isn’t changing, so over a period of time, as a leader, in that context, you have to start educating yourself, so I remember the first time that we kind of started talking about digital as a solution for NAL, after I had actually come to see you speak, Geoffrey, at a conference here in Calgary and late 2017, and you made a huge impression on us that we weren’t considering all the options, and in that respect, we had to start educating ourselves really, really fast, and so I would break it out into a couple of different categories: there’s the training required to affect the cultural change in the organization, and then there’s the technical training to give people the skills that they need to do the thing you’re asking them to do.

So, a typical person comes to work says: “Well, you know, this is my job, these are my processes and, you know, that’s what I know how to do, and that’s what I’m supposed to do, and now you’re telling me I have to do something different”, but at the same time, you’re telling him “I don’t know what the difference is, we have to find it together.” So it takes a lot longer than people expect, but like I said I think that you start off with trying to change the culture to allow people to consider other alternatives in their set of solutions that they’ve got going on in their current job, and that is the way that you can get people that try new things, and to take those risks that would otherwise be perhaps, considered unnecessary for their business.

Geoffrey:  So it sounds the order, therefore, is create the context for where your digital tool training can be successful, which starts by getting the culture ready to embrace the changes that the tools might bring about.  So that it’s kind of a two-step model.

Cory:  Yeah exactly, and I’ll give you an example. When I had come back from that conference, and we decided to try the robotic process automation, we had no knowledge of it, we had no experience with it, we had no belief that it would be successful, and we thought that it was, well, I think the general consensus would have been it was fairly risky for someone to automate a process with robotic process automation.

Geoffrey:  Yep.

Cory:  And so in that respect, when we attempted to do it, it was really as in well, if we do a discovery process, and we, in that context, we’re actually training people to think about different options than they had thought before. We thought to ourselves if it fails, it’s okay because we’re not investing a lot of money, not a lot of time, we have—we know we have to do something different, and we have to try something that we haven’t tried before.

So we sort of become okay with the concept of failure become okay, with the idea that it might not be the solution that you’re looking for, and at the same time you are trying to change people’s attitudes.

So just having people exposed to it, experience it, see it in action, results in them expanding their view of what’s possible, and when you expand their view of what’s possible, they become interested in those types of solutions, and then they want to learn technically how to do it. So today, for example, we have several people being trained in how to program in robotic process automation, where we wouldn’t have had that several years ago.

Geoffrey:  Yeah, and in the case of adoption of digital changers, the driver to change, are there—have you discovered some areas where there needs to be more awareness building? Is it on the cultural side? Or I mean, technical tools, you obviously have to be constantly training on the tools, but are there some specific areas where you’re kind of shocked at, “hey, we really, really are too far behind in this area,” that sort of thing?

Cory:  Well, I think it was the Robotic Process Automation was the one that where we said: “Wow, we didn’t even consider this as an option,”  and huge numbers of industries seem to be very, very far ahead of where we were, and in general, perhaps where the industry was, although I think the industry was ready for a solution, because once we started to share our findings inside and outside the organization, I don’t know if you guys know, but we did a video a robot process—

Geoffrey:  Yeah, you told me about.

Cory:  —versus a human process.  And when we showed that inside and out the organization, it literally changed people’s minds on the spot, and yet to find out that some companies had 10s of thousands of robotic processes, and we had zero robotic processes, was a real eye-opener for us.

Geoffrey:  Yeah, it is a bit of a surprise.

Cory:  It really sparked a huge amount of interest and a lot of excitement around what was possible, and people really were putting their hands up all over the place, some people even stopping me in the halls saying, “When can I have my robot?” And with that level of demand, that’s fantastic, and when it came time to try to deliver on that and so then you  build the infrastructure internally to deliver on that, that’s when you have to start getting more technical skills in-house and them trained up to do that work.

So, we are right now standing up our center of excellence and digital with the number one leg being robotic process automation, and we have a robot controller, and he sort of played the role of both controller and programmer for now, and right now we’re going through an acceleration of an RPA process, where we’re bringing in more technical resources in order to get out all of the pent up demand for bots inside of our business.

Geoffrey:  Yeah, and the interesting thing about bots—

Michelle:  I do think, Geoffrey, that this concept of middle management in companies where they haven’t adopted anything digital though, you know, helping managers, they’re all faced with difficult decisions about where do I start? How do I take a risk? I don’t really know anything about this, or I don’t have a lot of understanding, how do those people start? How did they get their hands around creating a vision? I mean, I have my opinion—

Cory:  I can tell you how it’s worked well for us, in that sense that a person coming in with a responsibility to deliver a predictable result, is really in a difficult spot when they’re being asked to take on something they don’t understand, or they don’t necessarily agree with, in the context of what they’ve been asked to actually asked to do.

Geoffrey:  Yeah.

Cory:  So it’s much easier to say I can accomplish X task by the end of the quarter report to you, so you know, that as my supervisor that I have delivered a meaningful result for the company. As soon as you ask someone to take on a challenge that extends beyond that time, has a higher probability of requiring more of your time, has a higher probability of perhaps failing in that process, it’s harder for those people to say: “Yeah, I want to spend a significant amount of my time managing this process because I just don’t know what the outcome is going to be. So, I can’t actually commit to senior management that I’m going to deliver a result.” And the first thing that senior management asked for is, “How much is my result? And when will I have it?”

Geoffrey:  Exactly.

Cory:  And that puts people at a little bit of a disadvantage, because they’ve now being asked to do something that they weren’t committed to, to begin with.

Geoffrey:  Yeah, and the frustration that I see, as someone who looks across many industries, is, and I’ll just use Bot Technology just as an example, it’s 15 years old, it works everywhere else, it’s pretty low risk, really, it’s been de-risked, if you like. It’s so efficient, it’s actually banned on social media platforms. If you’re caught using a bot, on LinkedIn, for instance, your account is frozen. So other industries now view this stuff as so potent that they need to ban it. I think it should be the first thing to do and we should be all over because it’s just so efficient.

Cory:  Yeah, I can comment on that as well is that while people use it in their home life experience, and they have no issues with it whatsoever, they think it makes their life better, and they use it on their phone, they use it on their home computer, and they use it in their home networks and things like that. What you find at work is again, it’s around what did people commit to, to do for the company, and what are you now asking them to do? So you’ve changed their task and they don’t have the confidence that it will deliver the result that they’re being asked to deliver, and so that—there is sometimes a reluctance to do that and then, of course, there’s a lot of people that actually have very good explanations of why we need to be more careful with how we use this.

Assume you have a fully robotisized department or a particular series of tasks, and you no longer have the people that understand how those tasks are conducted, and then you have a failure in your in your robotic process, for example, how do you do your month-end at that particular time?

So there’s a lot of people that are forecasting those what-ifs, and they just need to have their what-ifs dealt with, and keep in mind that oil and gas companies as a rule, they might have IT departments but they don’t have dev ops, because that is not something that they’ve chosen to invest in typically, at least in the intermediate space where NAL plays, and so they don’t have the belief that if that bot fails, or we don’t have a process that if that bot fails at month-end, that we can make one phone call and it will be fixed in twenty minutes. Now, keep in mind, we use software, and we’ve used software in the oil and gas industry for decades, and there are processes around if Qbyte fails, or if Metrics fails, or if something is going wrong, they have a process to how to bring it back online, allow the month-end process to continue, and they understand how that works and they’re comfortable with that risk.

If a robot process fails at month-end, there isn’t a lot of confidence that we have made those right preparations. So those are really good comments that people make that we have to just address to ensure that they’re satisfied that we won’t be putting the company truly at risk by adopting something we don’t understand.

Geoffrey:  When you look across now, having been driving a digital shift now for almost four years, as you say, starting in 2015 to date, how would you characterize the general awareness of digital now? I mean, because you’re being asked by people well outside of your own company to provide them with a perspective, what is your sense around the awareness and understanding of digital innovation? And its importance, is it stronger in some areas, weaker in others? The reason I’m asking this is, who would benefit from getting it getting smarter?

Cory:  I think it’s stronger in almost all areas. It is gaining essentially a path of its own. So when we first started in 2015, there was really no digital solution that was considered as a primary activity, it was really just, okay, we’re going to get more efficient, and we’re going to tell the people, we’re going to get more efficient, and they’re going to get more efficient. But when that had run its course and it wasn’t quite enough to get us where we wanted to go, where you’re calculating all along, how much do I have to change in order to achieve my goals and it was clear that the traditional path was not going to be quite enough, company-wide, we started to look for other alternatives and digital ended up being where we spent a lot more of our time, and it—because it did appear that if we were to spend some time on them, and learn about these and implement them, that we had a chance of actually, again, filling up the bucket of our goals, using these technologies.

At the start, though I would say because I was really responsible for these people in my area, I was able to be both the sponsor at the executive level, and responsible for activities on a day to day basis. I had an advantage that I could show a few more things like how RPA was done in my area, blockchain was done in my area—

Geoffrey:  You can be the pioneer, yeah.

Cory:  And so we had a chance to show people and then we started to share that inside-out the company and over time, more and more layers of the organization beyond me, outside of my direct influence, more leaders started taking on those challenges and learning themselves, and you have people today also in GNG that are learning how to program in Python and you have those people exploring how do you use AI to read logs, and so, over time, more and more projects just spring up, and they’re just born of natural events, rather than me trying to bootstrap it up from one spot.

Geoffrey:  Yeah.

Michelle:  But did you think, I just have a quick question, Cory, did you think that that was as a result of some of the early learning that happened at your executive and your leadership and your vision? Was that part of it? You mentioned that earlier?

Cory:  Yes, in fact, it was, I would say, attributed to executive sponsorship from all of the executive team and then, in particular, you know, Keith Steeves, CFO, who is my direct boss, and Kevin Stashin our CEO, when they started to see the results and/or the potential, sometimes you’re coming asking for investment dollars, and you have to show that you’re going to deliver a result and a benefit that is meaningful to the organization.

As soon as they saw those were in that category, their public endorsements, and across the entire executive, helped people take away some of that risk. The other thing that they did was they responded to the comment that well, where do we get these investment dollars? So let’s say I wanted to invest some money in a PoC (proof of concept) for a particular type of technology? Do I do it out of my own budget, do I do it out of some other place, and so in their wisdom, they agreed to create a fund internally to fund these PoC activities where people were—the training was literally the PoC itself.

So you’re inviting a vendor in to spend time with you, you’re learning from them, you’re inviting cross-functional teams to come and experience the implementation of the PoC and through that, you get people that get a visualization of what’s possible, and then their attitudes change, and then their next-door neighbor’s attitudes start to change, and then it becomes a situation where more people want to participate all the time.

Geoffrey:  So it’s a snowball effect.

Cory:  That’s sort of how I would say. As much as we try to engineer it at NAL, it’s really evolved organically with gaining a broad knowledge of what’s possible and support from leadership and then support at the general staff level, in that order.

Geoffrey: Let me wrap up our podcast with just one final question for you, Cory, which is around what lessons you’ve taken away from the experience, I’m sure other people have asked you, if you had to give me the three things that you’ve taken away from all this experience, what would they be?

Cory:  Well, I mean, I think the thing that I would say is, that the number one thing is, that people are starting to acknowledge that data is the driver of value in the future, and it’s not to say that we didn’t have data, we have lots of data being generated by a tremendous number of software and systems in the organization. It just wasn’t used, or wasn’t seen as a driver of value, was seen as something to be used and disposed of, in the moment, and so the number one thing that we are thinking about is that our data is going to be a key element of our value as we move into the future, and we really put in this context that, in all the time I spent with some of the larger tech companies that are advising us on how to change and become more digital and get at that value is that, my belief is that they would run our company differently than we would run it, and I don’t mean that they will drill wells differently, what I mean is, they would operate the whole entire business of our oil and gas business differently, by emphasizing the value in the data and for them it would be a very easy task to go pull it all together, and start to create value that was not accessible before, and that’s where we’re trying to get to is essentially converting ourselves to becoming more of a technology company that operates oil and gas assets, rather than an oil and gas company trying to leverage technology where we may attempt to do so.

Geoffrey:  You’ve just created the prospect for the next generation oil company startup to reimagine the industry through a data lens, and so let’s leave that for another podcast.

Cory:  The second thing I would say, so to answer your question of the three things is, is that forward, progress can take a lot of time, so you really have a cultural shift that has to occur first.

Geoffrey:  Yep.

Cory:  And as I mentioned earlier, it’s that, people come to work, they have been given a specific tasks to conduct and they are concerned that the change associated with those tasks is going to cause their process and other connected processes to fail, and their best advice is, generally, don’t break anything right now, because it works the way it works. And so you have to convince people and change your culture a little bit to allow them the time to make those changes, so that you can protect the underlying processes that allow the company to operate day to day, while making the change to something more advantageous in the digital space.

Geoffrey:  Yeah.

Cory:  And then the third thing I would say is learn how to fail and pivot rather than fail and quit.  So I think when we first started out our view of the old term of “fail fast” was not well understood. Fail fast was interpreted as, figure out if it’s going to work real fast, and then don’t do it, if it doesn’t work. And then what we found was, that actually, because we weren’t really good at a lot of this stuff, just naturally, because it wasn’t a core part of our business.

What we actually encountered was a lot of failures along the way and we had to learn to say: “Hey, that failure was a good thing, what did we learn from it, and how can we pivot off of that for the next sprint, so we actually get what we’re after?”, and I leave you with this example, on just RPA, we worked really, really hard to figure out how to balance a large number of our batteries using a robot, this would be a task that would typically be done by human and it would take a significant amount of time per battery and we have over 1000 facilities and approximately 900 batteries.

Geoffrey:  Yeah, hours per month-end. It’s a huge, huge challenge in the industry.

Cory: Hours and hours and hours of human time and of course, repetitive human time. So we decided to do this, well the first couple of hundred batteries took quite a bit of time, and maybe even the first hundred batteries, it took quite a bit of time, just learning about how to construct a robot and so there was enough interest at that particular time to carry on because hey, we’re experimenting with this, we’re going to figure out if it really works or not.

Once we achieved that level, we moved to another series of batteries that had more complexity to it, and if it weren’t for the leaders, and the individuals inside of NAL that decided to persevere through all of the failures that they encountered, like run the bot, it fails, run the bot, it fails, run the bot, it fails, if we didn’t have the tenacity of those leaders, the buy-in of those leaders to spend that time on it, we wouldn’t have gotten to where we’re at today, where we’re currently balancing 520 of our batteries with a bot every month and  it saves literally whole human bodies, essentially, with respect to the amount of time we have to spend on that and we can reorganize around things that are let’s say more important.

Geoffrey:  More important and more valuable.

Cory:  At this time of the month.

Geoffrey: Quite right, absolutely right, and I think that’s a great description.

Cory:  The ask I have of them is how do you get from 522, and by the way, 520 is about 60% of our batteries and around 50% of our facilities. How do you get to 85% of our facilities being balanced by a bot? And so that success allows them to build on the next challenge that they’re having to take.

Geoffrey: Yeah, Cory thanks so much, it’s been great to hear the lessons and the insights from the experience and hopefully, those listening will take some inspiration from this around what it means to be a digital innovator. The perseverance that it takes, the work, but at the same time that there actually is a real and meaningful prize out there. And Michele, the importance of digital awareness training is really, really critical because I think [with] Cory’s first point, it starts with getting the cultural awareness of what change actually means. We’re trying to bring this training to the community to help get this cultural shift happening. Where is the training taking place?

Michele:  So we’re actually here in Calgary, this is our hometown and we’re heading up to Edmonton, for MacMurray and also Sarnia, and into Houston, San Francisco and Okay city by 2020. So right now, we’re really focused on getting it right in our hometown, I think that we’re very interested in having the community large come and visit us. I think these stories of people that have read your book, and, you know, there’s a great opportunity to contribute to what the energy industry needs. This is organic, and as Cory said, this is growing in the requirements, and I loved his comments on working with vendors, how do you actually leverage their knowledge, because the vendors here in the Calgary market, in particular, in Alberta in the oil patch are excellent, and they will do just about anything to support an organization that is looking to move forward. So getting, you know, those conversations going is pivotal, but starting off by leveraging some conversations and coming out to see what’s happening in the industry is great. So come and see us for sure.

Geoffrey:  All right, let me wrap up by thanking both of you for taking time out of the day to participate in the podcast. Cory, thanks so much, we’ll see you, I’m sure, at one of the many conferences that we’re involved with, in the upcoming days and weeks ahead and Michelle at the upcoming training courses. This brings to a close this episode of Digital Oil and Gas. Thanks so much.


If you’d like to hear the interview, you can find it by searching for ‘Digital Oil and Gas’, on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and Google.


Check out my new book, ‘Bits, Bytes, and Barrels: The Digital Transformation of Oil and Gas’, available on Amazon and other on-line bookshops.

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