October 2018

AusIMM Thought Leadership Series report

  • By AusIMM

The AusIMM 125 Year Thought Leadership Series was an opportunity for delegates to share their insights and expertise. This summary article distils key ideas from the Series, and the full report is available from 125.ausimm.com


The key theme ‘how will professionals shape the future of the resources sector?’ provoked insightful discussions between stakeholders and professionals alike. Our industry is a technical one, and this technical expertise is of immense importance if Australia is to remain competitive in the global arena. The focus of the Series built on this expertise, to explore high level direction of resources, the softer skills associated with workplace leadership, and what the role of professionals looks like now and into the future.

Each event delved into the changes occurring in the industry, harnessing the valuable insight of panel experts while providing practical and insightful advice on the responsibility and opportunities for professionals in a new age of mining.

Leadership perspectives

The Series reflected on the role of every resources professional to empower those around them. This concept of empowerment comes with challenges that are somewhat unique to the mining industry. There was concern among panellists that the industry has been altogether too focused on regulation rather than empowerment, which should free up individuals and teams to become leaders in innovation. Undergoing such an enormous shift in culture and focus, while maintaining standards, is a project requiring further attention from industry.

The importance of workplace culture as a measurable benchmark for leadership was drilled home by Megan Clark, former resources professional and now Head of the Australian Space Agency. She acknowledges that a lot will change and there is a lot you cannot change, ‘but what doesn’t change is the values that you bring to work’.

This must be coupled with a discussion about what leadership is not, to dispel common misconceptions around the topic. One of the barriers to professionals developing leadership skills and building on their capacity and role within the sector is a mistaken idea that their role does not require or cater for leadership potential. Melanie McCarthy (Mandalay Resources) detailed this notion, emphasising that ‘leadership does not come from the role that you play … what makes you a leader is creating the enthusiasm in an organisation that you’re all in it for the good of the cause’.

This broad definition of leadership poses its own challenges to professionals in the sector. How does an industry cater for a diverse workforce? Sabina Shugg (CRC ORE) said it is essential that leadership is acknowledged as a broad definition, with many ways to showcase skills. ‘Not everyone is a great people leader, they might be a great technical leader … one is not better than the other.’ Once the pool of potential leadership is widened we can start examining the diversity of skills and the potential that arises with it.

Gavin Yeates, Stephen Durkin, Owen Hegarty, Prof Elizabeth Croft, Peter Wheeler, Dr Megan Clark AC, Leigh Clifford and Chris Dodd at the Melbourne Thought Leadership Series event.
Gavin Yeates, Stephen Durkin, Owen Hegarty, Prof Elizabeth Croft, Peter Wheeler, Dr Megan Clark AC, Leigh Clifford and Chris Dodd at the Melbourne Thought Leadership Series event.

Australia’s industry in a global context

When discussing the place and capability of the Australian resources industry, Peter Wheeler (PwC) noted that it was important to assess the sector considering mega trends across all industries in the world, rather than simply in isolation with regional or local trends in mining. There are many threats facing the industry, but not all of these are specific to the Australian mining sector. For instance, global instability and geopolitical risks become heightened to various degrees and can impact the relationship between industries and markets between nations.

The erosion of trust has been a pitfall for the industry and the sector needs to maintain its focus on trust as an essential part of operations, from communities through to customers, if it is to avoid the similar crisis currently facing the banking industry.

This comes with unique opportunities for the future. Markets will open up for ethical mineral concentrates where there is transparency around the source and operation of a company. Similar to the diamond industry in Africa, individuals will develop an expectation that their products have been obtained and supplied without ethical grey areas and this is an opportunity for the sector to be on the front foot. This concept was explored particularly at the Melbourne event where there were questions over whether the industry as a whole had truly understood what ‘social licence to operate’ really meant, how important it was, and whether it was being fully realised by professionals and companies.

Attraction and retention of talent is also a key challenge for the sector. Changing roles, the nature of work and expected capabilities have put the industry in direct competition with large tech companies. During the Series it was noted that over 50 per cent of mining  CEOs were concerned about attracting and retaining talent in an industry that struggles with community perceptions, and a changing workforce. At the Bendigo event the contribution that a mobile workforce can make and the ability of international migrants to fill these roles was noted. This was naturally prefaced by the importance of migrants and international workers having a strong understanding of Australian codes, standards and an equivalent recognised level of education. Prof Elizabeth Croft (Monash University) noted that Australian universities were some of the best in the world and that the country was ‘punching well above its weight’, which supports the capability of Australian educational facilities to educate not just Australians for the future resources workforce, but people from all over the world.

Innovation, automation and the transformation of the workforce

Innovation in the industry was a topic met with excitement at every event in the Series, as panellists discussed the immense possibilities of the future. It seems that the industry is undergoing a massive transformation that may result in automated, digitised mines being run from remote operating centres. This new technology will dramatically change the way resources professionals work.

Change and disruption were approached as positive, exciting elements of the industry at the event in Adelaide. All too often, innovation and automation are viewed as something to consider for the future; however, this is a current and continuous process with one panellist remarking, ‘It’s not the future, it’s now’.

With this in mind, a topic of much discussion was how industry can best encourage innovation and transformation. Creating a workplace environment where individuals have the time and energy to be innovative is important. Flexibility within the workplace would free up individuals to manage their own contribution to mining and create the ‘freedom to think’. Creating the right culture for innovation is the role of management within companies; it is the future workforce who will realise these opportunities. Mark Thomson (PwC) stipulated, ’we can create the space, but the digital kids of the future will drive that’.

‘Often it is two steps forward, one step back’, Gabrielle Iwanow (Rio Tinto) admitted, but the important element was that automation had the capability to keep the industry moving forward. Often roles that are more dangerous, or come with greater health and safety risks, are being conducted by robots, freeing up professionals to become innovative in the workplace, but also resulting in a safer experience for professionals.

It was acknowledged at the Melbourne event that Australia plays a strong role in the progression towards a more innovative and automated industry. The industry has the capacity to become more innovative by drawing on expertise and research from other industries, such as agriculture, manufacturing and defence. The Bendigo event considered how Australian mining can draw on breakthroughs in the aerospace industry, a notion that was supported by Megan Clark at the Melbourne event. By teaming up with other industries and other companies, the mining sector could progress towards greater automation.

However, this perspective comes with its own challenges. Intellectual property rights attached to automotive discoveries and developments by individual companies means that intelligence is not always shared. There needs to be a greater commitment to collaboration within Australian industries. Amanda Weir (BHP) noted that competition along with collaboration was an important driver in productivity. ‘Competition in itself drives higher productivity.’

There are also some concerns that technological advancements in automation will decrease job opportunities within the sector and this provoked some thoughtful discussions. Sam Spearing (WA School of Mines) fundamentally rejected the idea that automation posed a threat to the workforce. ‘This whole thing about people losing their jobs through technology isn’t true. People need to be retrained.’ Automation and technological advancement could lead to a very different workforce in to the future, but it would not replace the workforce as long as robots and machinery require remote operation by humans.

Future workforce and the role of professionals

Given the growing focus on innovation and automation in the industry, the makeup of the workforce will continue to drastically change. This poses significant challenges for the industry in defining the necessary skills for a future workforce and determining how the industry should attract and retain individuals who possess these skills. How can the industry create a workforce that is changing for the better?

This was a primary focus for panellists throughout the Series. For Gerard Rheinberger (Rio Tinto), this was summarised as ‘data, data, data. It’s absolutely clear the deluge of data is going to keep coming at us … the analysis of that data is absolutely key.’ As the industry automates, this becomes increasingly important. This is not limited to merely the interpretation of data collated by machinery, but also how data is translated and communicated to a broader audience. These hard skills will also need to be accompanied by individuals in possession of softer skills, such as an entrepreneurial spirit, and a desire to learn on the job in an ever-changing environment. These skills cannot be replaced by robots. ‘Empathy, resilience – machines are never going to be able to do that,’ Mark Thomson commented.

Another focal point of the Series was the importance of expanding the pool of interested professionals by fostering a diverse and inclusive industry. Unconscious bias was noted as a challenge with the understanding that ‘like recruits like’, and mining executive management needs to have a renewed focus on widening the recruitment field. Although there was hesitation and disagreement over the topic of targets, and their effectiveness, there was general agreement between panellists and attendees alike that to attract the best talent, the industry needed to work on being more inclusive.

A full report of the Thought Leadership Series is available at 125.ausimm.com.


Feature image: GaudiLab/Shutterstock.com.

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