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The Limits of Technology

The Limits of 'Management'

Science & Technology

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Tony Hayward of BP

The recent BP oil spill points out the limits of technology in the modern world.

BP as a company and the oil industry as a whole have failed with horrific results.  No amount of PR will overcome the images coming from 24/7 pictures of an environmental disaster.

How did it happen?  It's a combination of the way industry works and how our management structure has evolved.

Certainly the oil industry has been at the top of the profits food chain for a long time.  They have achieved profits in good and bad times.  In boom times and in embargo times when the middle east has played with a barrel of crude's price, they have held the high hand.  Their chip pile never shrinks.

They have a tremendous advantage.  Of course they spend money on exploration and refineries, but as an industry they are not people intensive and their markets are so large and so hungry for product that they don't have to compete either technologically or for market share.  They in fact are a giant cartel that works together to milk profits from a ever more thirsty public.  In many ways they control war and peace

The crucial flaw, however, is not greed, but the way people are promoted in the industry.  The old oil tycoon is a thing of the past.  The old guys knew the industry from their wildcat days.  They grew up in it and understood the technology.  Would they have taken the risk?  Who knows?  One thing is for sure, however, they would have understood the risk.

The new breed does not understand the technology.  You can see it on their faces in their awkward news conferences.  They are financial types.  Drilling miles down does not concern them.  What they find important is finding ways around the regulations and influencing them.  They control the source and set the prices.

We know they are sorry.  They say  "I want my life back".   Tony Hayward said that.  He made over $6,000,000 US last year and the company profits went down, while his compensation  more than doubled.  Yup, he's got a PhD in geology, but he's been immersed in the BP way as a fair haired boy rising to the top too quickly to learn the relationship of technology to risk

These guys want to stay out of the spotlight and count their money. They had not foreseen the limits of technology because they don't understand the technology.  Does Hayward look like you'd want him next to you in an emergency?

There will be blue ribbon commissions formed and US Congressional investigations.   Canada and other countries will take a look.  They will try to assess blame.  There will be plenty of that to go around.  Those doing the questioning will not know the technology.  Few of those questioned will know it either.

The limits of technology have been tested in the Gulf and they have been found wanting.  This is not a Space Shuttle launch or producing a way to access the Internet in a new way.  This is where our present limits of science and technology live.  Can it be pushed further safely?  It does not seem that it can at present.  Lots of study and testing will be required.

How do you test these things?  What is the best fail-safe procedure.  For sure BP does not know.  The BP executives are ignorant of the technology and therefore the risk.  It's a problem with all of industry.  The big boss does not understand because he or she was trained in  a financial track and not in a up from the shop floor manner.


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Saturday, June 05, 2010