Mining companies should leverage technology to spur employee development, aiding in the upskilling of staff while enhancing employee and resource management, says information technology services company Wipro Limited South Africa.
While mines have incrementally implemented technology in their operations, the focus has been on mechanisation, automation of mineral processes and using sensors, electronic equipment and the Internet of Things to manage and monitor earthmoving, drilling or processing equipment, explains Wipro Southern Africa energy and natural resources director Louise Steenekamp.
She notes that the benefits of using increased connectivity, mobility tools and other operational technologies to assist in skills development and foster efficient labour and communication have been largely ignored.
Steenekamp stresses that mining companies have not necessarily made a conscious decision to prioritise investment in automation and mechanisation ahead of investment in improving the workforce – instead, the benefits of the former have been explored for decades, whereas the possibilities of technological innovation aimed at “human capital” are only beginning to be explored.
Additionally, she stresses that, while this workforce-focused approach is not mainstream, there are “pockets” where mines have actively sought to use technology to the benefit of their employees.
One of the ways in which mines can benefit from innovative technology application is in capturing and systemising knowledge to ensure that critical processes are maintained.
“In the old days, mine employees would progress through the ranks, learning and building on years . . . of experience. Nowadays, employees have the academic know-how, although not necessarily the experience.” She adds that they also lack the institutional knowledge of how a mine or a plant functions.
Steenekamp suggests that this could be addressed using digital technology to establish a mentoring programme for employees. She says mines could live-stream educational sessions hosted by retirees – who, could, in turn, use the mentoring programme to supplement their income.
Additionally, there is training technology available that can blueprint and capture knowledge “so that the younger crop of engineers can learn from the ‘old hands’.” Moreover, augmented reality and virtual reality programmes can add an extra dimension to training modules developed for employees.
She notes that companies can use performance management software to map out deliverables and introduce bigger-picture strategies, thereby ensuring that managers are “crystal clear” on their priorities.
Likewise, companies could leverage ever-improving connectivity and the subsequent ease of communication to “outsource geological and geotechnical analysis to teams of consultants or crowdsourced partners, or perhaps collaborate with one’s peers in funding the development of new automation tools and mining equipment; or, a mining major may look to set up accelerators and incubators to partner with innovating mining tech startups”.
Steenekamp notes that there are few, if any, demands that technology and innovation cannot meet. “Whatever the requirements, an organisation’s borders must become more ‘porous’, as information streams into and out of a firm, in new open-collaboration and -innovation models. New digital platforms, portals, extranets, virtual private networks, collaboration software and other tools have the potential to change the way mining companies engage with external partners, and add to its pool of intellectual capital.”
She adds that, while there may be pushback from employees, this is to be expected with any change and can be mitigated through effective collaboration and communication.