CONNECTING KAZAKHSTAN

Digital transformation is a fundamental piece in the growth plans of many Central Asian countries, including Kazakhstan. The team at North Caspian Operating Company, the largest offshore oil and gas producer in the country, takes Digital Bulletin behind the scenes of its new innovative initiatives

Author Beatriz Valero de Urquía

The past two years have forced the world to adapt, and Kazakhstan has been no exception. Faced with the national lockdown and historically low oil prices that came with the COVID-19 pandemic, the country set its sights on digital transformation as the way forward, a process that will bring more than $30 trillion in revenue to the global economy in the next decade.

Three years before COVID began, Kazakhstan had already launched its first major digital initiative. The Digital Kazakhstan programme is focused on accelerating the development pace of the country through the implementation of digital technologies in key sectors of its economy with the goal of becoming one of the top 30 global economies by 2050.

The programme has a clear protagonist: North Caspian Operating Company (NCOC), the operating company for the North Caspian Sea Production Sharing Agreement and the largest offshore oil and gas producer in the country.

Change is a key part of NCOC’s DNA. Born originally as a consortium of seven companies (including Royal Dutch Shell, China National Petroleum Corporation and Inpex) that came together to exploit the fields of Kashagan, Kairan and Aktoty, in 2009 NCOC merged its operations to become a single company. The transition to virtual work provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic was just another step in the company’s transformative journey.

“A company’s ability to transform and change is becoming more and more important,” says Adam Lowmass, who was NCOC’s Transformation Manager when COVID-19 begun and therefore became the man tasked with the responsibility of overseeing the company’s digital transition. “NCOC's ability to transform and its history of successfully going through these transformations gives it a competitive advantage over other companies,” he says. Before the spring of 2020, the majority of the NCOC staff relied on office desktops and in-person meetings to access and share information. Overnight, that disappeared. Projects that the company had had in the pipeline for months had to be implemented in a matter of weeks. “It showed that a digital transformation can be very quick,” Lowmass says. “It doesn't have to take years or months to put something in place. Previously, a lot of people were sceptical that it could be done, but COVID really showed the durability of the digital strategy.”

In less than 15 days, NCOC completely transformed its operations and transitioned to online work. In an era when oil prices often fluctuate, NCOC’s digital transformation strategy has been designed to ensure that the company can extract maximum value from its business by improving its efficiency, processes and output quality. “There are opportunities to introduce new digital IT technologies to get better insights, to extract more value, and to enable new ways of working,” says Roelant Kas, the company’s Technical IT Manager. “The automation of the processes has really helped to increase efficiency, reduce costs and to make life easier for our people.” As part of this commitment to transformation and digitalisation, NCOC created for the first time the role of Head of Digital, a position now held by Natalya Taylor. She explains how the pandemic provided NCOC with the final push to implement a series of projects that had been a long time coming, such as automating internal and external reports and developing data visualisation tools for the production management and emission monitoring systems. “NCOC today is different from NCOC two years ago,” Taylor says. “We are growing and developing and realising what’s most important for our business.”

Over the years, NCOC has established a solid IT digital infrastructure through its data centres, striking the right balance between on-premise and cloud computing and providing secure operations for field telecoms and professional information data analytics and platform services to support specific business process automation projects. This transformation has allowed the company to create real-time dashboards and analytics platforms that will help NCOC better understand its business, and how to improve it to future-proof the organisation. “Data is at the heart of digital,” Kas says. “Access to quality-assured data, and building analytics capabilities is key to enabling any digital transformation. “With the digital foundation that we have in place, a fair amount of our NCOC business processes are digitised and automated. This has tremendously increased the efficiency of our employees and reduced our costs. For example, we recently introduced our HR end-to-end platform and we have also introduced mobile solutions for field operations to make life easier for them.”

NCOC’s ability to transform and its history of successfully going through these transformations gives it a competitive advantage over other companies”

Adam Lowmass

These new capabilities are completely transforming NCOC’s operations. However, in order to ensure that NCOC could implement them effectively and leverage its full capabilities, the company relied on its trusted partnership ecosystem, rooted in deep and collaborative partnerships with suppliers and vendors. When the world ground to a halt, these partnerships prove to be crucial.

Over the last year, Cisco has provided the backbone of all IT network infrastructure and connectivity for NCOC. As one of the leading technology companies, Cisco is committed to realising the vision of Digital Kazakhstan and has been part of many initiatives to help its businesses flourish in the new digital era, including NCOC. The company’s expertise and technology know-how have powered NCOC’s transition and helped the company adapt to new ways of working. “Cisco brought its vast experience to NCOC and helped make the company's transformation and journey successful,” Lowmass says. “I’m looking forward to that continuing in the future.”

But the transition to remote work could not have been successfully implemented without one key player: Microsoft. As a long-term partner of NCOC, Microsoft has been fundamental to NCOC’s digitalisation journey. Similarly to many businesses around the world, NCOC relied fully on Microsoft Teams as its main platform for virtual collaboration during Kazakhstan’s lockdown and leveraged Azure Virtual Desktop to successfully transition to remote work. In addition, NCOC implemented an Enterprise Data Platform based on Microsoft Azure and Power BI, to better leverage data analytics. The company used Agile to grow the platform and ensured that it contained clean datasets for specific use cases

“Power BI is really powerful and provides a lot of flexibility and opportunities to visualise the data and make it more readable and understandable,” Taylor says.

Partnerships have been key to NCOC’s transition. But, at the end of the day, the true heart of the company lies within its people.

Our key to success is definitely people: their attitude, their commitment, their focus, and the fact that we just love our company and love our country”

Natalya Taylor

For NCOC, all its employees are part of one family, from its directors to its contractors. During the pandemic, the company has been working tirelessly to care for the mental health of all its employees and ensure their health and safety. “Our key to success is definitely people, their attitude, their commitment, their focus, and the fact that we just love our company and love our country and we want to keep producing to support the economy of Kazakhstan,” Taylor says. “That's the main key to success, not only in this pandemic but in general, in any kind of crisis.” On March 13th 2020, Mansur Nazarov, NCOC’s Communications Manager was preparing to leave the country. He was getting everything ready for his trip when he received a call from the company informing him that all business trips had been banned and that he would have to begin working from home.

Nazarov was frustrated when he heard the news, but now he’s glad he was able to stay with his family and is thankful for the support that the company has provided through the crisis, not only through financial means but by providing personal support. For people like Nazarov, more than the salary rises and the broadband provisions, it is NCOC’s preoccupation with employees’ families that he is most thankful for. “My family is also part of NCOC,” Nazarov says. “That’s how we work. The allowances, the extra rates and additional payments are, of course, good. But there's something that you cannot buy, and it's how my company treats my family.” Given the fundamental role that people play in any company’s success, one of NCOC’s key priorities was ensuring that its employees received the support they needed to reach their full potential. This was one of the drivers behind the HR transformation project, which looked to create a single HR platform where data was meaningful and easily accessible.

“NCOC needed an integrated system to manage all HR applications to maintain data integrity and financial exposure, in order to study the company’s HR needs,” says Assel Nakhimova, IT Project Lead at NCOC. To achieve this, Nakhimova’s team combined the power of cloud-based solution Success Factors and the company’s on-premise system to create one single HR platform. Although it is still early to gauge the success of the project, NCOC has already been able to reduce its siloed systems, increase process efficiency and transparency, promoting data integrity across the company. “Success Factor allows employees to manage their own personal data and take responsibility for their own development,” Nakhimova says. “They can track and manage their career path in a more efficient way, and the solution gives a lot of opportunity from the transparency perspective, interaction with the employees, and to optimise most of the HR processes.” It is because of NCOC’s commitment to people that, when it came to choosing a partner to support NCOC’s HR transformation project, the company immediately turned to TerraLink. The international IT and business consulting company has a very strong presence in Kazakhstan - it has the largest SAP team in the region - as well as an approach that focuses on developing local talent, that perfectly aligns with NCOC’s mission.

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TerraLink was present throughout NCOC’s transformation from a consortium into a single company in 2013, when it helped it merge the IT system of all its subsidiaries and address the issues that came with duplicated data and information systems. Since then, TerraLink has provided NCOC with support in the areas of SAP consultancy, support, maintenance, development and enhancement services, but also in relation to information management, consultancy and service provision, becoming a key partner in NCOC’s entry into the digital era. “TerraLink has been a fantastic partner for NCOC for a number of years,” Lowmass says. “They’ve been supporting us primarily through the IT function, and more recently, getting involved in the digital transformation side of things. Without them, I don't think we could have transitioned to remote working and kept business continuity going the way that we did during the pandemic. Their experience and expertise were essential in protecting the value created by NCOC.”

In addition to HR transformation and the transition to remote work, another area where digitalisation directly impacts people’s lives is related to safety., Taylor’s vision is to use digital tools to track every step of the supply chain, and utilise drones to conduct specialised monitoring of pipelines, thereby reducing the technician’s exposure to toxic fluids or ultra-high pressures. “Hardware and software tools can protect the environment, people and company assets,” Taylor says. “The digital space gives us plenty of opportunities worldwide, you know, to simplify, to stay safe, and to grow.” This concern for employee safety was present before the pandemic. Until February 2021, the company was a couple of days short of reaching its goal of going one full year without a single injury recorded on its sites, which Nazarov considers “a great achievement.”

Data is at the heart of digital. Access to quality-assured data, and building analytics capabilities is key to enabling any digital transformation.”

Roelant Kas

Kas adds: “It’s all about people: how they adapt, continue to learn and improve. In NCOC we have great teams working together in an ecosystem of industry partners, suppliers, and government stakeholders.”With its digital transformation projects, NCOC wants to be an example for Kazakhstan, and it aims to support the country’s goal of becoming more digitally advanced. Moreover, the company is passionate about training its country’s youth, to ensure that the new generation of Kazakhs has the necessary skills to drive the country forward into the digital era. “NCOC definitely leads that agenda and very much drives it, in combination with a couple of the other international operators in western Kazakhstan,” Lowmass says. “That collaboration with the Ministry of Energy, the Ministry of Digital and other parts of the government have really helped make sure that NCOC's strategy is aligned to that of the government. “Kazakhstan is a very dynamic developing country with lots of young talent, particularly interested in digital. So it's a very bright future, not only for NCOC but also for Kazakhstan as a whole.”