Digital Decisions

Landmark Graphics CEO Bob Peebler and his colleagues use cutting-edge technology to help executives in one of the world’s most basic industries make smarter decisions.

The search is under way. Deep underground, a team of eight or so topflight geoscientists and engineers has assembled, hoping to find what everyone in the petroleum industry is seeking: vast new reserves of oil. How deep is the descent? Five miles down, where the temperature is more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Having set their sights on a promising oil field in the Gulf of Mexico — a field as large as Houston’s downtown metropolitan area — the team members now face a daunting series of scientific, technical, and economic questions:


Is there oil down here? If so, how much? How can we get to it, and how much can we recover? Bottom line: How much will the whole shooting match cost? How much might it earn?

Of course, these petroleum treasure hunters don’t actually conduct business more than 26,000 feet below the earth’s surface. But they might as well, considering what they can see. Surrounded by a concave screen that stretches from floor to ceiling, they gaze into a rich digital image of the mysterious subsurface, an image that may look purely fantastic but is grounded in hard data — millions upon millions of pages of data.

Welcome to the workplace of the future, in one of the world’s most basic industries. It is an intriguing environment that its creator, Landmark Graphics Corp., calls a “Decisionarium.” Part conference room, part laboratory, part theater, the Decisionarium is an oil company’s dream. Equipped with 3-D goggles, geoscientists, engineers, and business managers surround themselves in state-of-the-art computer images, evaluating prospective reservoirs and drilling strategies like never before. They can analyze a model of Earth from every angle imaginable, simulating various geologic environments and well bores. After the real drilling begins, engineers conduct tests on the subsurface, and the images are updated with new data. The oil field looks like two colorful sheets of paper intersecting in deep, dark space; it could be origami from the Museum of Modern Art or the setting of the latest sci-fi thriller. The planes represent faults, or breaks, in the rocks where oil and water flow. The various bright spots suggest the presence of natural gas and petroleum (or, in the industry’s pragmatic vernacular, “pay”).

“If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a 3-D picture is worth a million,” says Jeff Coffman, 40, a senior application geophysicist at Landmark who conducts these digital underground journeys for customers. A million words? Millions of dollars is more like it.

Landmark is a high-powered, fast-growing software company that is changing the pace of a lumbering, slow-growth industry. A wholly owned Houston-based subsidiary of Halliburton Co., Landmark estimates that more than 90% of the industry’s major companies use its applications. Its products help geologists create a model of the oil basin and quickly target reservoirs. They help drilling engineers chart the most productive and cost-effective path for wells that twist and turn for miles underground. And they enable reservoir engineers to simulate the flow of subsurface oil and water, and to predict a well’s daily barrel production.

But Landmark’s mission extends beyond writing elegant code and translating mountains of complex data into detailed 3-D pictures. “This is not about handing our customers really cool tools and sending them off to play,” says coo John Gibson, 42. “It’s about teaching them how to make better decisions, faster. We are trying to reinvent our industry.”


Hence, the ever-more-prominent role of the Decisionarium. Its real value: changing the way that geoscientists and engineers do their jobs. The big-screen visualization greases the skids of collaboration and innovation in an industry famous for hierarchy and tradition, allowing teams to look past their professional differences and to work as a unified group. “We’ve created an immersive environment for collaborative decisions,” says Doug Wille, 38, solution-development director at Landmark. “It’s the glue that pulls everything — the applications, the data, and the people — together.”

Decisions, decisions. One of the defining realities of the new world of work is that more people who are lower in the organization have to make decisions faster than ever — and those decisions have greater consequences than ever. If you believe that it’s the people on the front lines who drive the bottom line, then you can’t require frontline people to go through layers of reviews and approvals before they make decisions — about where to invest, or whether to incorporate a new feature into a product, or how to solve a customer problem. These days, the only enduring source of competitive advantage is for everyone in the organization to make decisions better and faster than the competition does.

That’s certainly true in the oil-and-gas business — a high-risk industry where multimillion-dollar decisions are a daily reality. Consider the Gulf of Mexico, where large reservoirs of oil are tucked several miles below the ocean floor. After spending millions to reach those depths, companies discover hydrocarbons (oil and gas) just 25% of the time. Even then, geologic conditions may prohibit them from recovering more than half of that oil. Landmark believes it can help its customers double their success rate and cut their costs by 25% in the next five-year period.

“This industry has more technological demands than most people realize,” says Landmark President and CEO Bob Peebler, 52. “This isn’t ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’ where you fire a shotgun, and oil starts bubbling out. It’s a combination of geophysics, geology, petrophysics, and engineering.”

The main challenge, of course, is that scientists can’t see or visit the earth’s subsurface. To overcome this obstacle, exploration companies gather as much meaningful data as possible. “Basically, we do what doctors do — sort of a cat scan of the earth,” says Gibson. “But believe me, it’s easier to get an image of the brain than it is to get one of the earth four miles underground.”

Getting that initial image requires teamwork, because when viewed individually, the specialists’ snapshots don’t provide enough information for scientists to fully envision the area. But together, these narrow glimpses form a more complete picture — not a sharply focused picture, by any means, but a clearer picture. It’s like detective work, with much of the evidence missing. Despite recent technological advancements, Peebler says, “there are still more unknowns than knowns. At the end of the day, those barrels exist only in digital form until you’ve actually produced them.”


The geophysicists base their interpretation on voluminous seismic data. They look for telling shapes: faults, hills, valleys, stream channels — anything that could indicate the presence of reservoir sands. Meanwhile, geologists are looking at the same field, the same rocks, from another perspective, poring over log data from dozens, even hundreds, of other wells in the area. It’s not unusual for the geophysicists and geologists to reach significantly different conclusions about the field, like art critics who disagree about the same painting’s meaning. “Everybody’s got a different way of looking at what they can’t see and predicting what it is,” says Ted Rozsa, 52, a vice president of strategic relations at Landmark. “So you have barriers between the different domains.”

There’s another reason for those barriers: The exploration and production process is often segmented, broken down by discipline. It’s as though by using different data and terminology, the geoscientists and engineers don’t — or won’t — speak the same language. “The work is done serially, and at any given handoff, you can lose valuable information,” Wille says. “It’s a little like assembling a car, and you don’t find out until it’s too late that the door doesn’t fit the frame.”

Landmark has streamlined this drawn-out, hierarchical process by changing where decisions are made, how data is assessed, and who’s involved. The main concept behind the Decisionarium is that better decisions spring from integration — integrated data, integrated workflows, integrated teams.

The concept appeals to BP Amoco PLC, a Landmark neighbor in Houston that prides itself on its own innovation-driven, team-oriented approach. In mid-1998, the oil giant sent a subsurface team down Memorial Drive to try this technology at Landmark. It didn’t take long to make good use of it. After reviewing the drilling plans, the team agreed to reduce the number of wells it would dig. BP Amoco won’t divulge how much the move saved the company, but “it’s significant when you consider that a mile of pipeline can easily cost a million dollars,” says Morag Watson, 32, business information manager.

However many millions it was, the experience was enough to convince BP Amoco to build a visualization facility of its own, which it named the hive (Houston Immersive Visualization Environment). Earlier this year, while addressing industry analysts, Amoco’s much-celebrated CEO, Sir John Brown, cited the facility as one of the company’s more productive ways of working. In fact, it’s now building visualization environments at its other major locations.

In the initial session, the pilot team discovered the facility’s enormous potential by making the sort of decision that ordinarily would take weeks because team members are distributed among several offices. “You’re not passing around a piece of paper with some data written on it,” Watson says. “You’re looking at the subsurface, and there is little scope for misinterpretation. The big difference was having everybody in the same room, looking at the same picture.”


The Integration Decision

Nobody is as smart as everybody. It is a cardinal rule of good decision making: A roomful of smart people will reach a better decision than a lone executive will — as long as those smart people are reaching their decision based on the same parameters. That’s why Landmark’s first rule of integration is sharing the data within a team. This is no small challenge. A single seismic file can be as large as a terabyte — the equivalent of 500 two-GB PCs. And that’s just the information for one domain. There are also tons of log readings from a 20-year-old oil field with hundreds or thousands of older wells, along with the data necessary to create a multimillion-cell fluid-flow model of a reservoir that’s 800 feet by 6,000 feet. “We’re talking huge, huge, huge amounts of data,” Wille says, shaking his head. “Billions of pages.” And yet, because a single well costs millions of dollars, all of this information still seems like it’s not quite enough.

Landmark developed software that performs everything from subsurface modeling to reservoir management, and its OpenWorks application provides the integrated framework for all that information. It combines the various project data into a single database and a shared earth model, so that the exploration geophysicist and the production geologist can access separate data simultaneously. Even so, the software failed to integrate the experts. “The team members used the shared database at their individual terminals,” says Gibson. “We were supplying teamware that ran on personal technology, so instead of teamwork, you still had individual work. How many people can fit around one terminal? Not many. We realized that we needed a screen big enough for the whole group.”

That’s where the Decisionarium comes in. Those who see the facility as nothing more than a data-management tool, a fancy visual aid, or a catchy name don’t get it, Wille argues. Still, during their first exposure to the facility, most scientists and engineers do enjoy the giddy thrill of data immersion — an experience similar to the rush that filmmakers get upon seeing their work on the big screen for the first time. “You switch off the lights, and they start hitting each other and going, ‘Oh, look at that! And that!’ ” says Watson of BP Amoco.

The screen, which measures 9.5 feet high and 19 feet wide (that’s 3,000 by 1,200 pixels), allows participants to “walk into the data,” says Wille. This includes not just their own data, but that of their colleagues. The seismic and well-log analyses appear simultaneously in a shared earth model. Instead of processing disconnected measurements from outside their domain, participants look at 3-D images. Instead of drowning in paperwork, they’re seeing the data in its richest form. Since characteristics like porosity or velocity are indicated by different colors, geologists can easily explain why they’re convinced that this is a hydrocarbon reservoir. Then other team members can offer their own analyses. They don’t hand off information or toss it blindly over barriers. Instead, they share knowledge and expertise.


“Visualization,” says Peebler, “is a key integrator.” In a sense, the screen gives team members a common language — without stifling their specific vocabularies. “Someone may be talking about amplitudes, but he’s pointing to this orange thing, saying ‘See? That’s where the oil is,’ ” says Wille. In time, “it becomes a badge of honor to use each other’s terms.” With little prompting, the geoscientists and engineers are busy collaborating, trying to reconcile their interpretations and agree on one vision of the earth model.

“You have a climate of creativity but also trust in each other,” says Adolfo Henriquez, 50, a manager at Statoil, an oil company in Stavanger, Norway that adopted the Decisionarium early on. “Last week, I watched one of those discussions, and I have to say, it warmed my heart. In Norwegian culture, consensus is highly valued.” Landmark practices what it preaches. Its leaders realize that it takes a well-integrated company to design technologies and processes to help other companies make more-integrated decisions. “It gives you instant credibility with customers,” Peebler says. “You can empathize with their struggles because you’ve experienced them.”

That’s why integration and innovation have been part of Landmark’s culture from the beginning. In 1984, the company shipped its initial product, a computer workstation dedicated to 3-D seismic interpretation — an industry first. Up until then, geoscientists relied primarily on 2-D images. By studying countless readings, they identified patterns and irregularities in the squiggly sound waves. Interpretation was more of an art, really, limited to the select few who could visualize a 3-D cube of earth from 2-D data. Once the interpretation was complete, they painstakingly plotted well paths by hand. The process was arduous and time consuming.

The four men who founded Landmark were also its first multidisciplinary team: Andy Hildebrand and John Mouton had started their own geophysical consulting company; Bob Limbaugh was head of a computing-systems division at Digicom; and Roice Nelson had left Mobil and was running the seismic-acoustics lab at the University of Houston. Peebler likes to tell a story of an early skeptic who insisted that the company’s 3-D focus didn’t make sense because 98% of the data being collected was two dimensional. But the foursome proved to be right, and 3-D interpretation became the norm. Today, Landmark is pushing “4-D” — 3-D images viewed over time to chronicle changes. “We like to play at the front of the technology curve, because that’s where the value is actually created,” Peebler says.

Over the years, Landmark has expanded its operation by acquiring technology leaders in other areas, such as engineering and reservoir modeling. Since 1992, the company has grown from 100 employees and $42 million in revenue to 1,500 employees and $300 million in revenue. The challenge has been blending those acquisitions into a single organization. “Each one was a stand-alone company, so boy, did each one have walls,” says Rozsa. “Of course, this reflected exactly how the industry worked. But we couldn’t perpetuate that if we were going to improve anything. So we merged the scientific domains, the diverse cultures, the work flows, and the technologies into one unified company.”

The evidence of teamwork and integration is everywhere. It’s in the distributed, multidisciplinary project teams, like the integrated products group that Tim White, director of strategic earth-modeling initiative, put together earlier this year. In just two months, seven developers in Houston, Austin, and Denver built a cutting-edge modeling application, integrating various data from the ground up, not after the fact. It’s in the way that the “four-digit IQs,” as Gibson refers to the top scientists, and Landmark’s other developers convene at an annual conference to demo their work, to brainstorm on future products, and to socialize. They hand out “Top Gun” performance awards and other offbeat prizes, like the Custer’s Last Stand Award for the team that persevered despite an impossible goal. It’s in the temporary third-floor office that Gibson put together earlier this year, which consisted of vice presidents who had never worked side-by-side but were asked to share a cluster of cubicles. By brainstorming over the cappuccino machine or problem solving in the adjacent ultramodern conference room, they set an example for interdepartmental communication and collaboration. It’s also in the good-natured but intense volleyball rivalry between the Austin and Denver offices, in the simultaneous release of the company’s latest versions of its integrated applications, and, of course, in the Decisionarium, which was created by yet another cross-functional team. As White says, “This company is no place for lone wolves.”


Inside the Decisionarium

For Landmark’s customers, the role of the Decisionarium is to help a collection of lone wolves become a well-orchestrated pack. Being in the same room with the same data helps the group to reconcile differences. “Everything becomes very, very obvious on the big screen,” says BP Amoco’s Watson. The Decisionarium also short-circuits the logistics of teamwork. There’s no need to schedule a series of meetings or play phone-tag. “We’ve seen a team go through six weeks of work in six hours,” Wille says. And if someone is stuck on a rig, Landmark transmits the 3-D data to that person’s desktop so that he or she can still don goggles and participate.

Some customers are wary that the Decisionarium will help them make more mistakes faster. But one reason that the facility has increased customers’ exploration success rate is because the image is interactive. Teams can look at multiple hypotheses. What if the fault is over here instead of there? What if this well could hit three targets instead of one? What if we hit water instead of oil?

Landmark leases the Houston Decisionarium so that customers can discover the value for themselves. One test-drive usually does it. By lunchtime, customers who arrived skeptical that morning are ordering takeout to avoid interrupting the team’s momentum. One enthusiastic customer inquired about leasing the facility for a few months but decided against it; as it turns out, buying one was cheaper. The typical Decisionarium package sells for around $500,000, but if you go “whole hog” — on a theater-size facility and 40-foot screen — Wille says you could spend as much as $2 million. Statoil didn’t splurge for that package, but it did buy two standard packages, which it considers a relative bargain. “It creates millions of dollars of value,” says Henriquez. “So the investment is peanuts.”

Ultimately, the lasting value of a facility like the Decisionarium isn’t limited to the bottom line. Once the tough decisions have been made, the spirit of collaboration and of trust that went into those decisions grows within that team and spreads to others. But even the most productive Decisionarium won’t replace the office. It’s not supposed to. Would you want to work in the Decisionarium all day, every day? “Probably not,” Wille says. “People need to go back to their terminals and do their own thing.” But they also want to share what they’ve found out with the group.


“People don’t want to sit in an office and have zero contact with other people,” Wille says. “They want to contribute and feel valued. And not just in the Decisionarium. The need to collaborate doesn’t stop when you leave the room.”

Chuck Salter ( is a Fast Company senior writer who is based in Baltimore. You can reach Doug Wille by email (, or visit Landmark Graphics on the Web (

Sidebar: The Human Side of Digital Decisions

Most decisions have become team-based ones. The trouble is, most teams are teams in name only — which means they don’t get much value from powerful digital tools of the sort that Landmark provides. That’s why Doug Wille, solution-development director at Landmark Graphics Corp., spends so much time thinking about the human side of digital decisions. “Encouraging collaboration is like growing an African violet,” he says. “It’s so easy to kill because people, like violets, are delicate.” Wille offers these decision guidelines, based on his experience with the Decisionarium:

The environment should reflect the work. Before a session, Wille finds out the group’s work style. Do team members need a phone for conference calls? Do they need different-colored laser pointers so several people can interact at once? Do they prefer chairs in a semicircle or in rows?


The environment should feel psychologically safe. People should be able to speak up and disagree with one another without fear of reprisal later on. Wille finds out ahead of time whether any managers plan to attend a session, along with what role they’ll play — leader, observer, or team member (which he recommends).

Let the data speak. In a small-group setting, the strongest personality tends to take over. Strong-personality types are deadly to collaboration. Landmark uses a facilitator, someone with know-how but nothing at stake. Says coo John Gibson: “We’ve got an environment in which you make the right decision regardless of personalities.”

Deciding means learning. The best decisions are the ones from which you learn the most. A Landmark application called OpenJournal records the group’s deliberation, so that today’s Decisionarium session can benefit future decision makers. Throughout the session, the facilitator performs screen captures of key models, simulations, and algorithms. That person also takes notes on the group’s debate, the heated exchanges, the important what-ifs. Chronicling bad decisions is just as valuable, if not more so, than chronicling good ones, Wille says.

Sidebar: Decisions Are Child’s Play

At first, Darcy Cuthill simply wanted children to understand her industry. Now she wants them to experience it: to negotiate with a landowner for drilling rights; to appease a community wary of having a well in its area; to decide whether or not to drill. In other words, to play “The Oil Game.” That’s what Cuthill, an account executive at Landmark Graphics in Calgary, Alberta calls her creation. High-school students take on the different roles of those involved in drilling a well — geologist, geophysicist, land negotiator, economist, and drilling engineer — and learn what each discipline contributes. After overcoming various obstacles, the students roll the dice — literally — to see how successful their well is. “It’s a Decisionarium for kids,” Cuthill says. “The game teaches them how to be leaders in their disciplines and to work as a team. That’s a subtle skill to teach. But it’s what we’re always talking about at Landmark — collaboration.”


Cuthill came up with the idea five years ago, while working as a geophysicist for BP Amoco PLC in Houston. She noticed that the company’s annual bring-your-kids-to-work day didn’t include any activities that explained to the 500 or so children what their parents actually did. So she taught them. At first, Cuthill and coinventor Paul Myers, along with two other colleagues, played the different roles themselves. Dressed in costumes and carrying rock samples, they invited the kids to participate in a treasure hunt for petroleum and, at the end, to drill for oil with straws in a dish of sand.

A couple of years after moving to Canada, Cuthill decided to revamp the game into a self-directed class project. She spent two years signing up corporate sponsors, including Landmark, for whom she began working in 1997, and developed and tested her prototype with a few hundred students and teachers. The project appealed to the oil companies and educators because high-school juniors and seniors could learn about careers in oil and gas, as well as real-world applications of geology and economics. Eventually, Cuthill believes, the game could be incorporated into Landmark’s orientation for employees who are new to the petroleum industry. But her real satisfaction comes from watching students play the game. “I remember one girl saying she wanted to become an engineer, and a boy saying he wanted to become a land man,” Cuthill says. “That’s when it hits home: You’re inspiring kids to have a career in the industry.”


About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug