Data is a mining company's greatest asset

Mark O'Brien, Manager of Digital Transformation at CITIC Pacific Mining Management believes that the mining industry is starting to turn a corner when it comes to making the most of data and automation.

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Sep 16, 2019
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Mark O'Brien, Manager for Digital Transformation CITIC

Mark O'Brien is Manager – Digital Transformation at CITIC Pacific Mining Management - Sino Iron Project. Before we hear from him at IMARC, taking place 29-31 October, and Mines and Technology London, taking place 25-27 November, I sat down with him to dig deeper into his attitudes around technology and automation in the mining industry.

What is your outlook for the mining sector in the next 12 months? 

In the Australian space, there’s been a noticeable uptick in the mining sector, and although everyone is still very conscious of costs and not getting too crazy with spending up, there’s a lot of investment going on and we’re already seeing the usual cyclical issues with finding good talent becoming an issue in mining-focused cities like Perth.

You are speaking at Mines and Technology. In terms of innovation in mining technology where does the biggest opportunity lie and why? 

It finally feels like mining companies have realised that data really is one of their greatest assets, and many companies are starting to see some serious value out of exploiting the data they’ve been sitting on for years. Analytics, the application of data science and AI are all starting to show some huge potential to provide insights and support critical decision-making in ways that have not been possible to date. Some of this stuff will turn out to be “shiny object” stuff, but there’s definitely some very pragmatic initiatives out there that are showing very real benefits.  I also think that a lot of mining companies have realised that taking technology seriously can enable some significant reshaping of the way they do business through greater automation, more integration of data and insights across their supply chain, and being able to operate leaner and more cost-effectively with real-time operational data at their finger-tips.

In terms of innovation in mining technology what is the major challenge facing the industry right now and why? 

Obviously some of the classic obstacles to innovation relate to mindset and culture, but I think we’re seeing change on that front. And, of course, truly innovative companies require strong and capable leadership, and that’s just not as prevalent as you’d like.  I’m not so concerned about lack of funding because in many ways I’m a firm believer that scarcity and constraint fuel innovation and creativity. One of the areas that I think is needing greater focus is in the area of interoperability because this will drive innovation by diminishing the dominance of proprietary solutions and open up the playing field for others to enter and compete. We’ve had to accept what certain vendors have dished up, but I think that’s now changing and mining customers are starting to work together to get better outcomes for the industry as a whole.

What are the cultural challenges of introducing technological change in a mining company? How do you win ‘hearts and minds?’ 

It’s not rocket science. It all comes back to taking the time to build relationships, trust and credibility through meeting expectations and getting things done. In our context, nobody enjoys what we call “Projects from Perth” and we’ve found it hugely beneficial on lots of fronts to spend a lot of time at site meeting with our operational users in their context, really getting to understand their jobs and their challenges, and then trying to solve real problems in a collaborative way. You just can’t do this stuff remotely. It takes time and commitment, and sometimes having to forge your way through legacy perceptions of IT or technology being a waste of time or “irrelevant”.



How is your company responding to events such as Brumadinho and the need to rethink tailings and water management solutions? 

I think most companies have revisited their tailings strategies and facilities to double-check and ensure that the risks have been properly understood and mitigated. In Australia, we’re fairly fortunately that many of our mines are in very remote locations where the threat to human life is not the main issue, but certainly the damage to the environment and impact on reputation and social licence to operate weighs heavily on mining companies following the tragic Brazilian catastrophes.

What is the biggest bottom-line benefit that innovating in technology has bought to your company?

It’s pretty hard to pick out any one item!  We’ve seen great outcomes in everything from IOT experiments to fleet management systems, private LTE communications, and a host of initiatives large and small.  Our technology group is one that operates in a fairly lean way, and we’ve proudly been able to kick some excellent goals with the business, largely by solving the right problems!

Can you tell us a little bit about what you will be speaking at Mines and Technology?  

One of the big themes that we’ve grappled with directly in our own business has been the interaction between IT and OT, and over the past few years I’ve developed some thoughts around some ideas that I think need to be embraced by the mining sector if we’re to get the very best bang for buck out of our technology spend. It started out as a bit of a cheeky poke at IT, but turned out to strongly resonate with others I’ve shared this with.  Is it time to kill IT?  

What is your rationale for attending Mines and Technology London? 

I’m always keen to meet new people in the mining industry, especially those who are operating and leading in very different contexts to my own. I’ve actually never attended a mining conference in the UK, so I’m very keen to see who will be there, what the hot issues are, and have some interesting conversations along the way. I always try to pay attention, learn a little, and take home something to apply in my own patch. And, in general terms, anything which combines mining and technology is immediately attractive to me, so I’m looking forward to the experience and the program.

What are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life? 

1. “Good to Great” by Jim Collins…  it’s an oldie but a goodie, and really changed the way I thought about leadership and culture. As a leader, I’m acutely concerned with developing the right culture within my domain because it makes our group not only way more effective at their jobs, but it also makes it a fun place to work. 

2. “Getting Things Done” by David Allen… helped me manage my world of responsibilities and actions so much more effectively with a simple system and set of principles that have soaked into the way I tackle almost everything. It’s a book I often give others.

3. “A Class with Drucker” by William Cohen…  loved it because Drucker was smart and remains relevant. I wish I’d been able to have a class with him!  4. “Atomic Habits” by James Clear…  fantastic book on making change happen in your life, and I wish I’d been able to read this earlier in my life. But, it’s a great book with some tremendous principles, and definitely has application into life and business far beyond just personal habits. It really provides a paradigm for understanding behaviour.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure” of yours? 

Without going into too much detail, I once entered into a role with huge reservations about the person I was going to be working for as my direct manager, but I thought I could offset that with other things. After going through a very tough year and eventually exiting that organisation, it really reinforced to me the importance of culture and having respect and good relationship with the person you are working for and with. It’s one of the big lessons I pass on to those I mentor, which is something I try to do because I benefitted hugely from people who took the time to proactively mentor me.   The old adage is that people don’t leave companies, they leave bosses.  I learned that one the hard way and I try to be the kind of boss that is a “keeper”.

What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore? 

I tell them to go and read (another book!) “So Great” by Cal Newport, to forget about pursuing their passion, but rather go try stuff and figure out what they’re good at. Once you’ve figured out what you’re good at and where you bring the most to the table, you suddenly find that you might have stumbled on your passion. Most lives are a bit serendipitous, but unfortunately many young people what to get to the end a little too quickly.

What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise? 

Not sure if it’s a recommendation, but it’s definitely a “thing” out there in technology land. Too often we spend too much time telling people what they can’t do, becoming gatekeepers and blockers on innovation and progress, largely because we can’t control it. I tend to take the view that we shouldn’t be saying “no” unless we have a decent alternative to offer up. I’m a firm believer in making quick decisions and keep on moving, rather than slow decisions that cause you to get bogged down.  Even if you make wrong decision, if you’re moving at speed you can quickly correct and redirect. Getting bogged and losing momentum is death.

Mark O'Brien, Manager – Digital Transformation, CITIC Pacific Mining Management - Sino Iron Project, will be delivering a presentation at Mines and Technology London, taking place in Melbourne 25-27 November 2019, titled Is it Time to Kill IT?

Mark will also take part in an artificial intelligence Q&A at the International Mining and Resources Conference + EXPO (IMARC), taking place  29-31 October, where he will explore  How artificial intelligence is changing the way we explore, mine and operate at CITIC Pacific Mining and the industry as a whole?

Go to the profile of Andrew Thake

Andrew Thake

Head of Content, Mines and Money

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