Dr. Carolyn Boiarsky on Email and the BP Oil Spill

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. I’m Ryan Weber coming from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Today I’m pleased to welcome Carolyn Boiarsky from Purdue University, Calumet, she’s a Professor of English there. She’s going to tell us about her research into the emails that preceded the 2010 Oil Spill on BP’s Deep-Water Horizon Oil Rig. If you’re interested in the research, you can actually download her proceedings from the recent STC Summit, available on the STC website, and I’ll link to it from our show page as well, at uahtechcomm.com.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome to the podcast Carolyn Boiarsky. We really appreciate you joining us today to talk about the BP oil spill. To get started, if you could just give listeners a really quick synopsis of what happened? I think we all saw it on the news but we may not be familiar with the particular details.

[Carolyn Boiarsky] Ryan, it’s my pleasure to be on here, love talking about the topic. What happened is, I think we have to start with a little engineering. There are two phases to actually getting oil out of a deep-sea oil well. The first one, which is the one that we’re talking about is the one that actually digs the well to create a hole that the actual drill then can get down to get the oil out. But it has to hold back the ground around it, the sand around it, and the water from the beginning it has a lot of problems. One of the problems was the fact that they decided instead of whipping up a new batch of cement, they would use an old cement from someplace else, which wasn’t exactly up to par with what they needed. A second was that they needed something called centralizers, these hold out the area around where the cement is being placed. Turns out they only had six and they were supposed to have twenty-one.

[Weber] Uh-oh.

[Boiarsky] And the final problem was they were at this point ready to cap off the well and let the next rig come in that could begin getting the oil. In order to actually finally cap it off and leave for the next well, they have to do two tests, they’re called a positive and negative test. The positive test came back positive, everything was fine. The second test when they did it did not come out correct. They decided, “Well there’s something wrong with the test. We’ll try it again.” They did the second test and again it didn’t come out right, one of the engineers on the rig came up with the rationalization for why this was happening, but he said, “Let’s go ahead and do the third test just to make sure.” Third test came up the same way, that engineer said, “Oh I’m sure this is the reason, let’s go ahead and do it,” another engineer said, “Let’s do a fourth test.” Well they did the fourth test at the same time that they actually closed off the cap, several hours later, the explosion occurred.

[Weber] Okay.

[Boiarsky] And this relates directly to the communications because all of those decisions had to be made between the engineers on the rig and the managers on land. The communication for all these decisions was not done well, it was not effective, mainly because this was done by email. Email is information poor. Email is not really spontaneous or instantaneous. In fact, the research shows that it’s about twenty-six hours between the message is sent and there’s a response.

[Weber] Wow, I didn’t realize there was that big of a lag. I know we all have experienced that with putting emails off, but you always assume that it’s going to be a quick back and forth.

[Boiarsky] And so that’s part of the problem. We assume that it’s like a telephone. We’re talking back and forth, but it’s not. Because as you and I are talking right now, we’re interacting immediately. This is not what happens in email.

[Weber] So there’s that lag time in the emails, and if we can take just a step back before we get into all the problems in depth, can you tell us just a little bit about how you went about doing the research?

[Boiarsky] First of all I’ve come to recognize that as soon as there’s a problem in engineer, technology, there’s always a memorandum that goes out beforehand that is warning people about this. So as soon as I heard about this, I’m quickly trying to find out who’s got what. One of the news articles talked about a memo that had gone out, I contacted the journalist who wrote the article and said, “How did I get ahold of that memo?” He was willing to send me a copy of it.

[Weber] Wow.

[Boiarsky] That’s basically how I did it and then of course I filed a FOIA, Freedom oflnformation Act, to the federal government for a number of the emails that had gone out that I couldn’t get ahold of. Sometimes FOIA puts them out immediately, sometimes they hold on to them. Because this was such a huge litigious affair-.

[Weber] Right.

[Boiarsky] -they held onto a lot. It took two and a half years before they finally sent me everything that they could. They informed me at one-at theendthat the remaining ones belonged to BP and they could not send them out. BP was holding onto them and BP is still in several suits.

[Weber] Good for you for filing the FOIA, that’s great.

[Boiarsky] It’s really not very difficult. Tell them what you want and they get back to you one way or another eventually.

[Weber] Great. So, you got all these emails. What kinds of problems did you find? Well how did the emails contribute to this disaster?

[Boiarsky] They’re information poor. Someone might ask for three different things and what happens is a response would come with only the first information request, then that person has to go back and say, “Well I need this.” Another thing is that when you ask for a question, and this is the problem that-of us having the ability to get answers so quickly, we don’t reflect, we don’t revise, we don’t reread. So, someone would ask for information, but omit some information themselves on exactly what they needed, so the information would come back without all the information they needed. Then you go back and forth until someone figures out exactly what’s needed. You also have the problem of what we do with social media creeping in, for example, rather than just provide an answer to a question in a technological or business fashion, what people do is they begin to move into the social medias. So, we have one guy who’s being asked what to do about a problem, this is two days before the blow up, and he says, “Well I don’t time to answer right now. I’m going dancing this evening, I’ll get back to you tomorrow.” And when you read these kinds of things in the emails, something goes off in your head, “This isn’t right,” and you begin to see a pattern of problems that occur in email. And these problems often reflect problems that are found in other emails, that I found in the emails from the Columbia Shuttle Accident. So, you begin to analyze where you’ve got different problems that seemed to be coming up problem after problem.

[Weber] You referenced the smoking gun memo that always goes with these engineering disasters but it also sounds like this a systematic problem and not just you know, “Here’s the one document where communication was poor,” it was a long pattern of poor communication. Is that right?

[Boiarsky] Absolutely and again you find this and the Challenger, the very first smoking gun memo, occurred seven years before the Challenger Accident. You can-the same with Columbia, you can spot a memo that begins a whole chain of memos suggesting that problems are occurring before the final blow-up.

[Weber] The dancing example is really compelling, you know someone kind of giving personal information that’s not really pertinent in an email. Can you give us a few other examples of notable communication problems that you noticed in the emails?

[Boiarsky] The one that occurs at the end about the testing, the timing was off again. Someone emails and says, “This is a problem,” and the response does not come back until after the order has been given to go ahead and the response would have stopped the order from going ahead and the blast would not have occurred. And again this happens with Columbia, it happens with the General Motors problem, BP you get emails saying, “This is one hell of a well,” and in General Motors, you get someone saying, “This was one hell of a switch.”

[Weber] Uh-huh.

[Boiarsky] So you, you get this kind of response where people are venting in their emails, which they probably would never have done in the old days, when we used a typewriter and the secretary had to type it up. The secretary would have eliminated those statements.

[Weber] Is that kind of venting ever productive? I’m just curious because you’re right about sort of with email you don’t need to be economical necessarily because it’s so easy to type more and more. Is there ever a sense in which that additional information is helpful?

[Boiarsky] Emails tend to either be information poor or they tend to as you’re saying, to include too much. It’s a ramble. And this was very detrimental in the one Columbia memo where they’re working twenty-four seven to try and figure out exactly what the problem is and how big the hole was and what they can do about it and one engineer sends an email totally blurbing about what he’s doing, and where he is, and how sometimes he’s not right. If you’re working twenty-four seven, you’re not going to read that. Some of the engineers claimed in the mission report that they had read his memo and it was the one memo that did suggest what really did happen. The commission actually did not believe that they had read it.

[Weber] Right, right. Well a lot of times you find that that stuff is buried you know within the rambling that you’re talking about. The question is what kinds of lessons can we learn? I mean email is not going away obviously it serves some valuable function, so how can-what can the BP disaster tell us about sending better emails?

[Boiarsky] Well we have to go back and think things through the same way we did when we used a typewriter. We need to re-read, we need to reflect on what we’ve written, we need to be business-like, and separate whether we’re writing for business or whether we’re in the middle of our social media. We need to be able to be sure that we think about, “Have we included all of the information that’s needed both in our requests and in our responses?” We need to recognize if we need information ASAP, that we provide that.

[Weber] Well hopefully we can all learn a little bit from BP’s misfortune and send better emails with clear, more concise information. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate you talking with us today.

[Boiarsky] My pleasure.

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Episode 14