BP's story is well documented in Chris Collinson excellent book Learning to Fly. Beyond learning much from the book, it was a thrill for us to have direct contact with Ed Guthrie who played such a key role in the first steps of the transformation that Lord Browne is pulling off at BP.
Understanding what BP, a 100,000 strong organization of mainly male engineers many of whom are Scots, is doing gives us some hope that a traditional bureaucracy can transform. We do not believe that all traditional organizations can transform. Look at the airlines' response to discounters or Kmart's response to Wal*Mart. We are saying that with the right leadership, transformation may be possible.
So what was Lord Browne's context for change? He and his team recognized that they were in the "End Game" for oil. All the easy oil had been found. All the oil in cheap geological structures, in easy political environments, in easy environmental areas has been found. Only the tough oil was left. He and the team recognized that it would take all of BP's energy and intellectual capital to stay in the game and to be close to winning it. What a daunting challenge! But then someone pointed out "What if we win the end game for oil and miss the point - that the future may be hydrogen, wind or something that we don't see '
Well they thought they had a problem but now they had a crisis. How were they going to do their day job in oil and be competitive in the alternative game? The alternative game was a real game. the stakes were survival. BP had to become a leader in the alternative game while still be a contender in the End game for Oil. Who could teach them all these new skills? How could they crank out enough earnings in the oil game to pay for the early days in the new game?
The only answer that they could come up with was that they were going to have to rely only on themselves. There was no one out there that could help. How could they learn enough quickly enough? All the jargon about being a learning Organization now made sense. being a learning organization had nothing to do with credentials, it was all about reacting appropriately to changes in the environment. Being a Learning (OODA)?Organization is a an evolutionary concept. Observe, learn and adapt or perish. (OODA) BP had two strikes against them. They had an exceptionally male engineering culture where not knowing something was not acceptable and asking for help an impossibility. How can you learn if you cannot accept that you don't know? How can you learn if you cannot ask for help? They also were organized by departments and by geography. They were a silo-based organization where crossing departmental or geographic boundaries was in effect impossible. How could you learn if you could not access the full knowledge embedded in the global organization?
They overcame all these barriers and then some. BP did three things well. Browne helped everyone understand what the context was for their future. He had mainly got the job as CEO because if his demonstrated skills as a communicator.as a division leader. A shared context is the opening move in playing the evolutionary game well. Secondly he brought in a world class teacher, Ed Guthrie to work on the culture with the introduction of the AAR. Ed's job was to make it OK to ask for help and to capture the learning. Browne recognized that he had to break down the barriers for conversation before he invested in any technology that may broaden the conversation beyond face to face and hence to tap into the full distributed intelligence of all of BP. Thirdly BP created a new sub organization - the Community of Practice. BP still has the organization that we all recognize in org charts. But BP has a second organization that it is intensely stable. That is global and which even lasts after retirement. It is based on the reality that shared interests are more stable that conventional structures. If you are a driller, drilling is your real organization. being located in the North Sea or in South east Asia does not matter if you are connected to all the drillers. if you are retired you are still a driller and you may know stuff that the younger drillers may find valuable. You are still a player. The mundane gas station COI saved $700 million in 3 years by applying all their learning repeatedly to each new station construction.
The key to effective COI's? A FACILITATOR!. BP found that groups need to be brokered to ensure that the right type of conversation takes place. To work well COI's have to have the right type of conversation. Again voice emerges as a key. Underlying voice is the human relationship that voice establishes. A conversation is essentially human. being human it is attractive and it drives enquiry, challenge and response. It gives the speaker a place in the tribe and status that no official organization can give. The authoritarian voice dos not allow conversation. It is essentially a one way deal. it shuts down the receiver. It closes down the child. It impoverishes the organization
So what does all of this mean? Is there a silver bullet? Is there a Red Pill that we can take that will reveal the Matrix. No but there are perhaps a few principles which any organization could use to transform itself.