Create transformative innovation

Challenge to opportunity: Technology and cultural change in the resources sector

  • Telstra's head of Telstra Mining Services, Jeannette McGill, fell into the industry 20 years ago, and has since blazed a trail for women in the resources sector
  • McGill works with operational systems and mining technology platforms to develop 'pit-to-port' visibility
  • A relatively late adopter of technology, the mining industry knows the value of leadership of tech integration, rather than the products themselves
  • Mining needs more knowledge workers and people with STEM skills
  • McGill is a thought leader who sees opportunities, not problems

Jeannette McGill turned her life-long love of the outdoors into a career in mining.

Here we profile a woman who's seen great cultural change in the sector and the emergence of a modern, agile and inclusive resources industry.

With a PHD in Economic Geology from the prestigious Colorado School of Mines, and track record that includes leading research projects in automation, robotics and in-mine communications, Jeannette McGill has experienced just about every aspect of mines and mining.

What began with a degree in geology and an underground blasting certificate, eventually carried her into highly strategic roles with some of the world's largest and most prestigious resources companies.

Man pushing trolley through mining tunnel

Most recently she left the role of head of technology and innovation for Anglo American Platinum to join Telstra as the head of Telstra Mining Services, bringing with her 20 years of experience leading technological and cultural change within the sector.

"On the very first day I started working on the mines, the crew was not informed I was a woman and the challenge from an African-centric cultural environment is that it' actually believed to be bad luck for women to enter workplaces," McGill says. "When I got to the front end of the working place, everybody had left. I had effectively initiated industrial action on the first day of my career."

Two decades on, McGill says the confined and potentially dangerous working conditions in mining create a rare camaraderie that ultimately included her.

"I've been able to contribute, to lead and show what is possible in the mining industry," McGill says. "I've been the first technical woman on all the mines I've worked on and change is always hard for people." Having witnessed 20 years of cultural evolution in the industry, McGill says there are now far more roles occupied by women in mining but, more importantly, it is about giving anyone who has an interest in adding value to the industry the opportunity to do so. It's a 'critical mass' that the industry has now reached.

Pace of change picks up

With Telstra transforming from a telco to a techco, McGill believes the company is well placed to service the mining industry as both are part of the fabric of Australia.

McGill is working on industry-transforming technology projects in which mining communications are being extended from the mine gate to the mine pit to facilitate improved operations.

"The rest of the work we are focused on is about our growth into the mining technology stack," she says. "Recently we rolled out our Telstra Resources Network Management tool, which provides industrial network management applications. That was a big project as well."

Mining is a unique, conservative industry that, in McGill's experience, can be fairly slow to adapt to change and adopt new technologies. With long lead times and capital-intensive projects, mining is inclined to adopt technology that ages before the mine's cycle is complete.

Recalling how new extraction processes helped North America's copper production in the 1960s and '70s, McGill says today's fleet and network technologies can lead to similar efficiency gains.

"What I've always believed is you can have the tools, but you need a system integrator and, because of where this technology is going, the best system integrator is going to be communication," she says.

"We are the first global telco to have a focus in the resources sector to this extent and we can use the integrated capacity to allow mines to incorporate technology, thereby driving the sector forward."

Two miners speaking to driver of construction vehicle

Communication is critical

Communication is the lifeblood of mining. An industry long plagued by a culture of bravado over safety, better communication technology can help saves lives and improve the entire spectrum of operations, from digging to distribution.

McGill has always been a strong proponent of communications technology for mining, which today is a crucial way to improve safety and working conditions.

"Every single mining company has a 'zero harm' safety imperative in its values as well as in every one of its presentations," she says. "A lot of that comes down to communication and allowing work teams to understand where they are and what is happening, the visibility that is enabled through communications."

With the mining industry a relatively late adopter of technology, McGill says more thought leadership, rather than products, is what the industry can teach others.

"There's a lot of work in terms of multi-sector collaboration and innovation platforms where mining industry problems are being shown to people in other sectors," she says. "They're looking at the mining problems differently and bringing solutions from other sectors that the mining sector can adopt, and a lot faster."

Like other industries, mining struggles with siloed operations and lack of cooperation between specialised divisions. McGill is excited by the potential that integrating information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) brings to the sector and sees a future where successful miners use their 'pain points' to their advantage.

This will mean a fair amount of reorganisation wherever there is overlap between IT and the OT world.

From challenge to opportunity

During her early days working underground, her immediate boss experienced an unfortunate back injury and she had to manage 25 drill rigs, the foreman who came with those drill rigs and the drilling program.

"At first, that could be a challenge and seem to be overwhelming," McGill says. "I turned it into a growth and educational experience by telling the general manager on the site I wanted to spend a Saturday drilling underground, so I did."

Her co-workers thought she was mad, but McGill used the experience to learn how the drill rigs work.

"I discovered what the critical pain points were for the drillers so they could no longer pull the wool over my eyes and I could then manage that program better," she says.

Process, skills and the industry's future

With mining requiring a broad range of skill sets, from underground drillers to data scientists, minerals extraction of the future will depend more on process engineering, not adopting technology for the sake of it.

Throughout her career, McGill has seen mines take on all different types of technology, often without a concerted approach to applying it, and believes better process management is vital to successful change and making use of necessary skill sets.

McGill says mining will require more STEM skills, science, technology, engineering and mathematics. However, as mines are often in remote locations, it is not always easy to employ the necessary knowledge workers.

As mining makes the transition into a more technology-intensive industry, the skill sets needed will also transform. And as the industry integrates more technology, mining companies will need a far broader skills base, including people who may not necessarily have initially foreseen how their skills could be applied in the mining sector.

Adopting STEM skills in mining is a central way the sector can drive change, pursue ground breaking research and provide new opportunities.

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