Collecting Data from the Field? Follow this Formula for Success!

A drill operator at an oil rig is looking tired and “out of it.” He’s yawning, his movements are slow, and he doesn’t appear to be paying much attention to detail.

Immediately, the supervisor relieves the drill operator of his duties and reassigns the task. He quickly enters the work observation in his iPad. His device has an offline mode that will sync up with his safety management system as soon as he has internet access again.

Back at the office, the safety manager’s dashboard updates in real time.

Sounds like a pipe dream? The technology exists now – the only barrier is getting end users to adopt it. The key to adoption is simplicity.

“If you want people to use it, you have to make it simple. As simple as possible,” a senior oil and gas safety VP said to me recently. With over 30 years in the industry, this executive has seen systems mature from paper to software. Before the arrival of web-based solutions, data collection and analysis existed on just one person’s desktop. Now, data collection is taking place on laptops or desktops—and any other device that can access the internet.

The business case for mass collection of data in the field is a compelling one. Whether or not you collect that data and analyze it, those events are still occurring. By capturing as much information as you can, you’re able to develop a greater understanding of those events. Unfortunately, these systems are being designed like paper. That is, people are trying to capture as much information on the page as possible.

Surprise: Software is Different than Paper

Often we see the paper form being replaced by a software form that looks just like the original. The thought is that familiarity will result in user adoption. However, that thinking doesn’t account for the ways that software is different from paper. Let’s think about it: the paper form was designed 15 years ago in an afternoon to be able to fit on one page. This design doesn’t take into account the need to quickly enter information on a screen. With software, data should be captured in check boxes, radio buttons, and drop downs to produce bar graphs and pie charts. Great, the thought is, let’s get as much of this as possible!

Safety professionals are seeking data that will help take safety management to the next level. They’re asking questions like: What else can I collect information on? What else do I need to know? How many ways can I slice and dice this data?

Unfortunately, what’s happening is that too much is being asked of the people in the field. A supervisor who wants to enter a simple work observation has to classify, categorize, and capture a dozen or more data points. It results in a feeling of pencil pushing.

“Too much isn’t good either,” an energy safety manager told me, referring to the data that their field team would have to enter into the system. “You have to think, these guys out there have never had to use a computer before. Now we’re asking them to not only type on a small screen, but to enter a lot and spend a lot of time doing it.” The safety manager was wrestling with a challenge: his people had to enter information into nearly 75 form fields in the first report of injury. It was too much, and it wasn’t going to work. His decision to take a step back and to limit the required fields to “who,” “what” and “where” completely changed the way that users viewed the system.

The Winning Formula: Gather Now, Classify Later

“Just get my team the data from the field,” the oil & gas safety director said, “and we’ll figure out the rest. I would rather have someone from my team classify the record than someone from the field.” The design was simple: get only the bare minimum information and let his safety professionals enter the rest during their investigation.

The director paused, and added “It’s going to change anyways once we investigate. So why not enter it once, correctly?”

With this decision, the company simplified their forms considerably and removed a huge barrier to user adoption. In fact, their end users picked the software up faster than anyone had expected, and the company was able to quickly realize the benefits of increased availability of field data.

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