The UK’s biggest company, oil giant BP, operates in a number of business segments, from exploration and production to petrochemicals and renewables, covering activities as diverse as oil and natural gas exploration and energy source transportation. It makes most of its money from so-called ‘upstream’ work – finding and digging the oil, not selling it as petrol. The company employs some 103,000 staff globally and its roots go back as far as 1909 when the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was created.

BP likes to style itself as a global energy company whose employees need to react quickly to ever-changing global business environments and deal competently with a huge range of issues from ethics to compliance. Information systems are a major tool and have always been a priority investment area for the company.

"Although BP still lags behind its rival Royal Dutch Shell’s ‘£1.5 million an hour’ profits, that is still a convincing performance from the one of the few British companies with unquestionable global importance"

BP has undeniably benefited, and hugely, from rising oil prices, with its profits up 25 per cent for its financial 2005 year to £11 billion. But as fiscal 2006 began, there were a number of challenges as Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the Gulf Coast refining infrastructure began to seep through. First quarter sales were down four per cent and the company predicts it will eventually be hit to the tune of £1bn by the disaster.

Although BP still lags behind its rival Royal Dutch Shell’s ‘£1.5 million an hour’ profits, that is still a convincing performance from the one of the few British companies with unquestionable global importance – and by some measures BP is actually ahead. Thus its voice is taken very seriously with IT being just one area of influence. Indeed, it is spearheading Achilles, a major project to plug security holes in the engineering systems that control large parts of the UK’s critical national infrastructure. It is also a big backer of the government’s plan for an IT security professional body, the Institute for Information Security Professionals, due to be set up this year.

In early 2006, the company raised eyebrows in the IT community with the announcement that it will take 18,000 of its 85,000 laptops off its LAN, claiming it will make the business more secure as it feels a firewall gives organisations a false sense of security. BP is now a member, along with ICI and Rolls-Royce, of a user group in the security area called the Jericho Forum, a body that is convinced security can only be achieved through more so-called ‘deperimeterisation’ and open standards.

The depth of BP’s commitment to staff development goes beyond just its IT members, of course, but does also involve technology. Some 27,000 of its employees in 74 countries have used a massive internal e-learning application called WebLearn, co-developed with e-learning provider SkillSoft. This has also helped the firm’s bottom line significantly. If a typical instructor’s cost works out to some £200 to £250 per day, in its first nine months of deployment WebLearn is thought to have pared over £2m from the company’s training budget alone, without factoring in delegates’ savings on their own time, travel and expenses.

The company’s digital academy is complemented by such corporate training resources as an internal ‘sales and marketing university’, as well as a BP-customised ‘financial academy’ to foster and advance financial skills within the company and, naturally enough, a special health and safety ‘college’ that also looks at environmental impact training.

IT professionals working inside BP must feel secure to the extent that the company has a well regarded career path for technologists. Last year, all IT staff at BP were reported to have been given a five-year career plan and the opportunity to consult the digital academy to check for career opportunities, where different parts of the business are contacted to help identify career paths and positions.

Unusually, IT staff are encouraged to follow either a technical career path or a managerial one and are expected to take up to 10 days’ relevant training a year. Knowledge sharing and networking across the group is also given a priority, with resources, including some 4,500 courses and 6,000 books and manuals available online.

The company also backs IT-focused research, being one of the last few European companies to support IT R&D schemes.