Mobility on the Move

The promise of a mobility strategy lies in its power to connect a workforce spread across locales, but its implementation is easier said than done. Marathon Oil’s Bob Newton explains how a new iOS platform is giving field workers unprecedented access to information.

If ever there was an industry destined to benefit from mobile communication technology, it is oil and gas. With a heavy reliance on employees in the field keeping operations running across widespread locations, mobile devices have become a key technology for communication and information delivery.

BNewton_MarathonOil
Bob Newton, IT Director of Enterprise Services, Marathon Oil

At Marathon Oil, a process began in 2012 with a push to replace its existing Blackberry environment. Led by Bob Newton, the company’s IT director of enterprise services, the drafting of a new mobility strategy culminated in the launch of an application strategy for a mobility platform in 2014. “There have been big changes in the past year—an aggressive approach to developing our own internal applications and information flows on mobile devices,” Newton says. “It’s been a game changer from an IT point of view around what we can deliver to Marathon Oil’s employees from a mobility platform.”

Marathon Oil chose to draft a company-owned iOS device strategy, with a standard mobile-device-management system and a development platform to develop and deploy applications. These applications work within the company’s standard workflow application suite to display relevant and actionable information to its workforce, both at the office and in field environments.

“It will be the entrepreneurial mind-set of the mobile workforce that will drive innovation and creativity. The ideas will come a lot faster than we can probably handle them.”

To access this information, field workers are equipped with iPhones and iPads. For these mobile workers, who spend most days driving between Marathon Oil’s operations, the results have been significant. They can now access information—no matter how rural the region—via the company’s integrated mobile technology. “The device itself, with network carriers expanding their footprint with regards to coverage, has really gained us the capability to be connected better than we were in the past,” Newton says. “Our employees working in our field locations can leverage more timely information on what their wells are doing, production updates, or the need to approve something. We’ve got a platform where we can develop the applications and workflows that will connect them immediately to that kind of information.”

3,400

iOS devices deployed by Marathon Oil

1,700

Devices in the hands of field workers who spend their days moving between locations

4

Apps developed internally for Marathon Oil’s proprietary iOS platform

But deploying the technology itself was only the first step of the process. The real challenge was to develop a strategy to change the focus from “How do we leverage this technology?” to “How do we make the most of it for those who need it the most?” According to Newton, that need was facilitated by the addition of Marathon Oil CIO Bruce McCullough in 2013. McCullough appreciated the value of what the IT department was trying to do and, consequently, brought a whole new emphasis on development for the mobile platform—which underscored its importance to the rest of the company. “It shifted the emphasis from an e-mail or calendar platform to an information platform, with applications being geared towards our mobile workforce,” Newton says.

This is not to say the platform implementation has been smooth sailing. Newton, who describes his role as one of “nuts and bolts, infrastructure networks, and end-user support,” enjoys incorporating all the connectivity and management platforms for the Marathon Oil’s iOS devices. “With mobility, it’s an interesting dynamic, because you’re dealing more with touch screens and different size limitations, which challenges your application interface to be quick to inform and generate action,” he says. “You’ve really got to have quality workflows and processes with a mobile app.”

There’s been a surge in applications developed with the corporate environment in mind; consequently, Newton says, many application providers now offer mobile versions that Marathon Oil’s IT department has incorporated into its platform, while developing internal apps for any gaps that develop. Newton sees the mobility aspect of the IT industry as transformative. “Consumers [have] always had better tech in their offices than in their homes, but that has flipped in the past five years,” he says. “We need to keep up with what people already have, instead of the other way around.”

The result is a different mind-set, a different model, and an entirely different set of challenges. “In a way, we lose some control, and we have to evolve so that we match up to that pull on the technology from a consumer point of view,” Newton says. “But if you can do it right, it’s a win.”

It might be too early to officially classify Marathon Oil’s platform implementation as a win, if only because there’s more to be done with it. The results of enhanced workflow and quicker decision making among mobile workers will, presumably, make themselves known in due time. “From a base infrastructure, capability, and development perspective, I think we’re all there,” Newton says. “To transform the way employees work—that’s the next phase. And we’re just getting started.”

The options available with such a transformation unfold regularly and need to be addressed accordingly; a decision on whether workers should carry two devices—one for corporate business, one for personal needs—must be weighed as carefully as a decision about which touch screens are the easiest for the majority of the employees to manipulate. As the capabilities become clearer to all involved, Newton anticipates a new sort of problem solving “fun” to follow. “It will be the entrepreneurial mind-set of the mobile workforce, now that they have the technology, that will drive innovation and creativity,” he says. “How do they see it applying to their tasks, improving workflows, and so on? How can they be enhanced? The ideas will come a lot faster than we can probably handle them.”